By Michelle Trauring
By December 31, 2016, Americans everywhere had had enough.
The last 365 days had been unnaturally cruel, they said, taking to social media to commiserate. They griped, groaned, some even cried. They called it a savage year. The worst year ever.
These weren’t reactions to the presidential election. They were in a state of mourning for another reason.
For them, it was the year the music died—or, rather, the talent behind it.
While the number of celebrity deaths in 2016 was no higher than in 2015, they somehow felt more severe for some, at least in the music world. To cope, fans memorialized their favorite artists—offering words of remembrance, listening to their favorite songs and honoring their legacies in their own way.
Carlos Lama has taken that to an entirely new level.
For one night only at John Drew Theater in East Hampton, Mr. Lama and his new band, The Departed— consisting of bass guitarist Kevin Foran, lead guitarist Jack Marshall, pianist and guitarist Christopher Walsh, and drummer Sean Rafferty—will perform songs by a dozen notable musicians who died last year, including Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Leon Russell, and Sharon Jones, just to name a few.
But what started as music about mortality, time and self-reflection quickly shifted into a concert with more of an impact, Mr. Lama explained during a recent telephone interview.
“The events of the last month made it immediately apparent that we had to take a more activist direction. It just felt like everything that I do now, or for at least the next possible four years, has much more meaning and purpose,” he said. “I started picking songs that were more about dissent, but also with a sense of hope and having fun. And there’s still a heck of a lot of material to choose from.”
Of more than 200 cultural icons who died last year, The Departed selected 12 musicians to cover, all of whom have songs with a message—some more obvious than others, such as David Bowie’s “1984” and “Heroes,” which references the Berlin Wall.
It was, by far, the loss of Bowie that the lead singer said he felt the most.
“Oh absolutely, without a doubt. He was, and probably still is, the most influential musician for me because I started listening to him at a very crucial time in my life,” he said. “I was 17 and I had an older girlfriend who introduced me to a ton of Bowie. His chameleon-like career, every album was different, every persona was different. He was unafraid of taking risks and going from a more folk song to a glam-rock sound to an experimental German rock sound, all the way up to new wave and electronic and beyond. That really hit me the most. He was such a multi-faceted artist.”
He paused, and said, “And Prince! Oh my God. Prince. His music may have been written off as being silly or lustful or party music, but he was a proficient musician. He played everything. He could outplay, out-sing anyone. Just after he died, I started watching lots of YouTube videos and performances of him and every one of them was jaw dropping. That was such a shock to everyone.”
The sheer magnitude of these artists is enough to make any performer nervous about covering them, and doing them justice, Mr. Lama said. But what’s worse are the nerves he feels when he thinks about the future of the United States.
“I’m scared shitless,” he said. “We are seeing things being done that are unprecedented. The current administration is eroding the very foundations upon which this country was built, things we have all taken for granted. All you have to do is read the book ‘1984’ and it’s all there. Blame the other, control the media, don’t take responsibility or don’t apologize for any ‘mistake.’ It’s all there. It’s the blueprint.
“Less and less people are saying, ‘Let’s wait and see.’ We don’t have time to wait and see. My kids don’t have time to wait and see. This country and this planet doesn’t have time to wait and see. As Americans, it’s our right, it’s our privilege and it’s our duty to call out injustice when we see it, to be a voice to the voiceless and to actively engage in changing what we think needs to be changed,” he continued. “Artists, musicians, actors have a platform from which to speak to many people and I think that, as artists, it is our duty to say something. So this is one way that I can get a message across.”
“Brave Songs for the Departed” will stage on Tuesday, February 28, from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. at the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall in East Hampton, as part of the JDT Lab. Admission is free, but reservations are required. For more information, call (631) 324-0806, or visit guildhall.org.