Man behind music learns to receive, and everyone benefits
- Barbara Mitchell
- Portland Tribune - Features
John Vecchiarelli might be the most popular local musician you've never heard of.
It's not for lack of talent. In fact, Vecchiarelli (who started his career in music as an accomplished drummer before stepping into a singer-songwriter role) has released two beautiful solo albums, 'Tiny Rooms' and 'Songs From Whoville,' that are as understated and full of quiet grace as their creator.
The problem, Vecchiarelli's friends explain, is that helping other musicians has always been a much greater priority to him than promoting himself.
Host of a long-running weekly songwriter's showcase-open mike night at the White Eagle and tireless supporter of the local scene, Vecchiarelli has been instrumental in guiding and counseling countless fledgling musicians since he moved to Portland in the mid-'90s, as well as booking some of them their first real shows.
Vecchiarelli recently underwent surgery to remove a benign mass from his sinus cavity and while his insurance covers the expense, it doesn't provide for the hospital stay or the lack of income he faces while he recuperates over the next few months - and it isn't likely to cover the reconstructive surgery necessary to rebuild the orbital floor of his eye to eliminate the double vision the mass created.
While Vecchiarelli's bank account might be empty, his karma account is overflowing. All the years of supporting everyone else are (quite literally) paying off.
Despite initial protests from Vecchiarelli, a handful of folks he'd helped out insisted on returning the favor.
'It was a challenge just to get him to let us do it,' says Rachel Taylor Brown, a musician and one of the core members behind the effort to raise money on Vecchiarelli's behalf.
'He was overwhelmed with gratitude that so many people wanted to help out, but he's one of those people who - despite living by this ethic of giving, persistently and quietly - has a much harder time receiving.'
The reaction from the local musical community was more like an avalanche than an outpouring. Sunday's benefit show, which features longtime Portland mainstays like Pete Krebs alongside up-and-comers like Horse Feathers, John Weinland and Laura Gibson, includes about 20 performers. There wasn't enough space on the benefit CD (available only at the show) for all the artists who offered tracks.
One of those tracks is a long-lost side to a Pete Krebs/Elliott Smith single that Krebs contributed to the cause, and features Smith on piano and drums.
'I picked it because John is such a huge Elliott Smith fan,' says Krebs, who toured the West Coast with Vecchiarelli.
'Plus, and this is presumptuous to say,' Krebs says, 'but Elliott would've - I think - been one of those people who would've gone out of his way to help John out under the circumstances.'
In typical Vecchiarelli fashion, at the end of the day this benefit will do more to help others than it will him.
'John's deal with me was that we would later do a benefit for a cause that was 'really deserving' after he's all healed up,' Taylor Brown says. 'Also, at John's insistence, Adam Shearer from the band John Weinland set up a Web site with (fellow musician) Chris Robley where donations can be made to uninsured musicians.'
'John really wants to give back to the community once he's well,' says Shearer, another core member of the benefit team. The most immediate result is going to be www.musicianhealth.org - a Web site with a blog moderated by Vecchiarelli that will enable musicians to share information about what insurers they use and what they think of their services, in addition to getting the word out about other benefits.
Beyond that, Vecchiarelli still has managed to turn the tables on the people who are trying to help him.
'Interestingly, I have not played out in the last two years since the birth of my daughter, Samantha,' says Alan Kanning, a musician Vecchiarelli helped early on who's playing the Doug Fir benefit this weekend. 'I heard of John's benefit through Dustin Hamman and that John insisted that I play because he wanted this to be an opportunity for other people to hear my songs … very typical John.'
'John said that part of what he wanted out of this is for people in the music community to get to know each other,' says Hamman, the third core member of the benefit team and the songwriter behind Run on Sentence, an outfit with which Vecchiarelli has played drums.
'We're trying to do something for him, and it's just in his nature that he turns it around and makes it for everyone else,' Hamman says.