Turning It Up To 11

After a COVID shutdown, scores of area musicians are primed for an epic jam session benefitting a good cause at the 10th Shine A Light concert

After a one-year COVID-induced hiatus, the annual Shine A Light fundraising concert returns to The Queen on Saturday, March 5.

The concert has always been a feel-good, rockin’ good time for the audience and perhaps even more so for the musicians, and this year’s event promises to turn it up to 11. The social-distancing nightmare of the past two years has left the performers gig-starved and primed for an epic 10th anniversary show. And, as always, it will be a gathering of a mutual admiration fraternity mixed with a bit of hero worship and marked by peer pressure that results in everyone bringing their A game.

It’s a challenging format. More than 60 area musicians collaborate in a mix-and-match arrangement in which they are teamed with members of other bands, each group jumping on and off stage, often after just one number, with changeovers of less than 30 seconds. The result is a rollicking, one-of-a-kind, over-the-top, high-wire act that takes careful planning and hours of rehearsal.

Perhaps the key to what has been called “the best party in town” is the spirit of cooperation that pervades those rehearsals and the show itself.

“The mantra is ‘leave your ego at the door,’” says Tony Cappella, bass player for many area bands, including Vinyl Shockley and Howl Train, and now in his third year as the showrunner. “And everyone is good about that. We’re all there for each other.”

And never far from anyone’s mind is the fundraising mission of Shine A Light. When it started, in 2011, the goal was to raise money for the Light Up The Queen Foundation and the restoration of The Queen. But the focus soon shifted to supporting local music education efforts that benefit Wilmington’s youth.

An Annual Sellout

The concert has sold out every year. It raised $95,000 in 2020 — the last show — and its nine-year total, according to Margot Williams, a member of the of foundation’s Community Investment Committee, is $630,000. All of the profits go into the community. None of the musicians make a dime. 

“The mission has a lot to do with everyone’s enthusiasm,” says Kevin Walsh, guitarist with Stone Shakers, Vinyl Shockley, and The Snap, who has been on stage for the last seven Shine A Light concerts. “What we’re trying to do is give young kids that really don’t have access or the means to get access to become musicians themselves. All of us probably had supportive parents or things like that, but sometimes that’s not the case. And we feel like we’re playing a role in helping out young kids who, you never know, could be the next star out there someday.”

“Most of us onstage know how important music has been to our lives,” says Jim Miller, keyboardist for the party band Special Delivery and original rock band Region. “So it feels so rewarding and life-affirming to be able to help offer the gift of music education to kids who otherwise might not have those opportunities. We say it all the time, ‘Hopefully some of the kids who we are helping will be playing this show one day.’ We’re helping to build our musical community.”

Among the kids being helped is Marley Saunders, a 14-year-old student at St. Mark’s High School who this year was one of three recipients of $1,000 from the Christian Salcedo Music Scholarship Fund. Marley, who has been taking music lessons at the Christina Cultural Arts Center for three years, says the money will cover her next session of lessons and help pay for guitar equipment.

She has made a recording with a friend and says she hopes to “eventually” make a career of music. Noting that, like almost everyone else, she has found that last two years stressful, Marley says, “Right now, music is a way to calm down and just be in your own little world, have fun and enjoy yourself.”

Major Mission Changes

While the Light Up the Queen Foundation will continue to support the Salcedo scholarship, Williams reports that the pandemic brought about some major changes in the mission and makeup of the nonprofit.

“It gave us the opportunity to do a serious review of our mission and our effectiveness over the years,” she says. “Like a lot of organizations, we were essentially shut down for all programs from March 2020 on. We kept our staff in place for as long as we could, which took us to the end of 2020. 

“In a normal year, Shine A Light represents approximately 75 percent of our budget. Without it, there is no way we could start back up with our traditional programming before the fall of 2022. So we looked realistically at how much programming we could effectively offer using in-house resources, given the size of our annual budget. It became clear that our money would be better spent if we could give it to organizations with established, qualified programs that fit our mission.”

Prior to the pandemic, the foundation supported several programs, including: Smart Arts, in which groups of elementary-age children were brought into The Queen for an introduction to music and musicians; Boysie Lowery Jazz Residency, a two-week residency in jazz composition for selected students; and, in conjunction with Warner School, the School Arts Program, which brought musicians into the school to meet and work with students.

“All of these are worthy programs,” Williams says, “and we believe they can be maintained by other organizations, and we will be happy to assist in making that happen.”

2022 is ‘The Best Of . . .’

This year’s concert — with the theme “The Best Of . . .” — is a kind of summing up of the first nine. “It will showcase the best songs of the prior years, although not strictly songs played in those shows,” says Walsh, who is in charge of the closely-guarded playlist (which, Cappella reveals, comprises 42 songs). 

Nearly every genre of popular music has been represented during the concerts, especially after the first three years, which exhausted the Rolling Stones’ catalog. Following that, Rob Grant, who, along with Chip Porter and Ben LeRoy, can take credit for initiating the concerts, suggested playing 30-plus songs from a given year. The first year chosen was 1975, and that began a tradition of picking one year in rock ‘n’ roll history to highlight at each concert.

Says Cappella: “The music evolved, and we got into more complex songs, like Steely Dan or even Abba songs, where the arrangements are a lot more complicated than a Rolling Stones or Grateful Dead.”

By now, says Walsh, “We’re pretty aware of each player’s strength, and we try to put everyone where they shine.”

Adds Grant: “One thing that was consistent throughout the years was a willingness of the musicians to take every song seriously and do their absolute best to make it perfect. This was as true of Muskrat Love as it was for Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Participants count it an honor to be part of the show. Some seem almost star-struck. Randy Waters, a bass player “for five or six bands,” has been playing professionally for three decades, and he’s been performing in Shine A Light since its second year — 2012. “Looking at the lineup, I was shocked I got in,” says Waters. “At the first meeting, I was blown away. I get to play with Delaware legends. It’s been an honor and a privilege.”

Jill Knapp and Matt Casarino of the duo Hot Breakfast! got their first invitation just three years ago. A vocal coach and music teacher, Knapp is in charge of background singers for this year’s concert. “It was lovely to be invited and getting to meet some of these people that I had only heard about in Delaware mythical stories, and put faces to the names and stories,” she says.

As a music teacher, Knapp says, the mission of providing students with access to musical instruments and lessons “is huge. It’s a major draw for me.” 

LeRoy, who has been there since the beginning, calls the concert “a wild ride.”

“Backstage,” he says, “there’s a nervous energy that’s palpable. And the first band is always solid, always sets a high bar. Then everyone else shoots for that.”

Says Waters: “It’s the one show I look forward to every year.”

“It’s our people and our night,” adds Miller. “It’s a celebration of our area. That’s something I think the audience really responds to because they see the spirit of cooperation and collaboration onstage and, hopefully, they feel part of it.”

— If you’d like to be a part of the audience for the 10th Shine A Light concert, go to lightupthequeen.org/shinealight