Sunday afternoon, mere moments before an outdoor concert honoring the late Morphine singer-songwriter Mark Sandman was to begin, the skies above Cambridge, Mass.'s crowded Brookline Street grew ominous.| Within minutes, a ferocious thunderstorm was soaking Sandman's adopted hometown. Eventually, after a ninety-minute delay, a bright sun cut through the gray, and the concert was able to proceed. Given the turbulent and unpredictable nature of Morphine's music, the storm seemed fitting.
The forty-six-year-old Sandman, who collapsed on stage during a Morphine concert in Italy on July 3 and died of a heart attack, was a fixture on the Cambridge music scene, and, on Sunday, July 25, thousands of fans and fellow musicians gathered to pay him tribute. In one sense, the First Annual Mark Sandman Memorial Concert was intended to herald the new Mark Sandman Music Education Fund, a resource intended to benefit music education in the Cambridge public school. In another, the tribute was intended to bring a sense of closure to the grieving local music community that had been stunned by the tragedy.
The assortment of college kids, thirty-something couples with toddlers in tow and aging rockers illustrated the cross-generational appeal of Morphine's atmospheric, noir-ish "low rock" or "implied grunge" (both Sandman's terms). And by day's end, the blank pages of the scrap-book albums that had been set on tables were filled with personal notes and reminiscences: "Mark, you sang some of my thoughts, feelings, and experiences. How'd you do that?" read one. "Treat Him Right Lord," read another, referring to Sandman's pre-Morphine outfit, Treat Her Right.
"Treat Her Right used to be one of my favorite bands," Mighty Mighty Bosstones singer Dicky Barrett said from the stage as the surviving members of Treat Her Right (which included Morphine drummer Billy Conway, harp player Jim Fitting, and guitarist David Champagne) took up their old positions. "This is a classic song," Barrett continued, "and it's kind of sacrilegious that I'm singing it." With that, the band slunk into the smoky, elastic groove of Treat Her Right's "I Think She Likes Me." When Barrett glanced at his crib notes for the verses but still blew the lyrics midway, the crowd erupted into laughter. "Thank you very much Mark Sandman," Barrett said at the tune's conclusion, thrusting a fist toward the heavens. "Sorry about the second verse." Such moments brought comic relief to the proceedings, transforming the somewhat disorganized three-hour affair into a spontaneous celebration.
Another bit of levity came courtesy of local New Orleans-style brass band Mickey Bones and the Hot Tamales, who marched through the nearby Middle East club blaring a joyous rendition of "When the Saints Come Marching In." The mood in an upstairs room at the Middle East was a bit more somber, however. A shrine of candles, sunflowers, Morphine posters and memorabilia had been arranged at the foot of one of the club's stages where Sandman had often performed. And clusters of people sat quietly on the floor watching as a movie screen projected non-stop documentary, video, and concert footage of the band performing for adoring crowds in far-flung corners of the globe. "Why do you use only two strings on your bass?" a television interviewer queried in one piece of footage. "Well," Sandman said, his smile shining through the film, "I started with only one string. I had to work my way up to two." At that moment inside the Middle East, amid the flickering candles, those people too laughed. And outside, despite a stubborn sun shining down on the stage, it again started to rain.
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