Near as Breath, Yet Untouchable: Reflections on Fogelberg Weekend

“Sometimes in the night I feel it,
Near as my next breath and yet untouchable.
Silently, the past comes stealing,
Like the taste of some forbidden sweet.”


A week ago right now, we were rehearsing for that night’s Dan Fogelberg Tribute Show. It feels like just yesterday. It’s taken me a week to come down from the high enough to clearly write my thoughts. (That, and the fact that’s it’s been a busy week in the real world too…)

As I noted from the stage last Saturday night, you could argue that all sorts of incredible things started with the Dan Fogelberg song, “Old Tennessee.”

It was on a night many years ago, as I played that song for the first time with Rusty King, that something dawned on me.

We were at a clergy retreat, and I had never met Rusty. I knew we were both Methodist ministers. He, Paul Escamilla, and John Fleming brought their guitars up to my room to play music, while other friends just played games and talked the night away.

We started out playing songs we all knew, but that quickly drifted into Dan-songs. Then, into obscure Dan songs. Songs you’d only know if you had a copy of this. One of those songs was “Old Tennessee,” and Rusty not only played it note-for-note, he also matched the harmonies.

And I thought, “Who is this guy? He knows as many Dan songs as I do.”

That night of “Old Tennessee”-like songs, eventually led to a crazy “what if” from Rusty:

“What if we did a Fogelberg “tribute show” to raise money for mission?”

I thought it was a crazy idea. Who would come?
But Dan was my favorite singer songwriter of all-time. Do you think I was gonna turn down the chance to sing his music, backed by a 20-piece band?
Not a chance.

So we did the show. And what I assumed was pure self-indulgence on my part became two hundred and fifty people who belted-out the closing chorus of “Gambler” at the top of their lungs, and donated over $2,500 dollars to missions.

After a few days to allow the adrenaline to work itself out, we said, “Hey. Maybe we’re on to something…”

What we were “on” to was Connections. The clergy members who founded Connections(1) were soon meeting to dream of a future, and asking…

“What if we kept the band going, did 70s Shows, and raised money for mission?”

That question, and the ability to dream increasingly larger “what ifs,” has kept this wild and crazy band going now for seven years now. We’ve played over 40 shows for tens of thousand of people and we’ve raised $240,000 for some really fine causes.

“Down the ancient corridors,
And through the gates of time,
Run the ghosts of days that we left behind.”

We weren’t the only folks dreaming “what ifs.” Over in Peoria, Illinois, the family and friends of Dan Fogelberg were asking…

“What if we create a memorial to honor Dan, and invite fans/musicians from around the nation to come for the dedication?”

There’d never been a public memorial service after Dan’s death. And as time passed, it seemed more and more like something needed to be done to publicly honor him. So, a group that has now morphed into the Fogelberg Foundation of Peoria was formed. Some really fine folks like Hugh Higgins, Eric Mills and Deb Jelinek worked to create a powerful weekend, where a memorial would be dedicated, and “DanFans”  and musicians from around the nation could come and participate.

Deb asked me if we could come. Rusty, Mike Sheehan and me were all a part of that initial year. It was incredible. We played for 300 passionate DanFans from around the nation, for his Mom, wife, and family. It was electric.

So our little tribute band had led to being part of the very first “Fogelberg Weekend,”  and new “connection” with souls around the country who keep the “legacy” alive.

Time passed. We kept doing shows. Mostly non-Dan shows, truthfully. (I think we’ve done the Fogelberg show five times?) Rusty got a new job in Allen, where he not only works for the church, but also with the Allen Symphony Chorus.

Ever the dreamer, Rusty asked his craziest question yet…

“What if we did a Fogelberg show, with a twenty-five piece orchestra, the Allen Symphony Chorus, and our band? And what if we invited DanFans around the country and had a “Welcome Party” like Peoria?”

The result of that craziest “what if” yet was last Saturday night at the Allen Performing Arts Center.

I added my one of my own “what ifs,” when I learned that he just lived down the road in Lago Vista…

“What if we invited Glen Spreen (Seven-time Gold/Platinum Record recipient for his work with Dan. Orchestra composer on almost all his most-known work)  to come direct our orchestra?”

And so, the Fogelberg Weekend in Allen came together.

Days after our very first Dan Fogelberg Show in March of 2006, I wrote a blog called “A Magical Night.”

So, what do we call last Saturday?

Beyond words?

What do you call a Tribute Show to Dan Fogelberg with Connections, a 25-piece orchestra, a 50-voice chorus, a thousand people listening, DanFam and musicians from around the nation, AND Glen Spreen?

“All of the above?”

We’re still pinching ourselves.

Here’s a pretty fine video of Nether Lands from the show. The balance may seem a bit off in parts…but all-in-all, it’s wonderful…

On behalf of our little band, let me offer some “Thank Yous”  we said that night and elsewhere, but that we cannot repeat enough…

First, thanks to Connections and our core members.
When Rusty pitched the Fogelberg Weekend, I think that even many bandmembers didn’t realize just how cool the whole thing would be. So, thanks to Connections, and its core members, for being willing to to continue to dream these big “what ifs.”

Thanks to the DanFam members who spent their own money/time to drive/fly to Dallas to be with us.
It meant a great deal to have you here, and we’re really pleased you got to be a part of it all and see what we do. The “connections” are now even stronger! Special thanks to Diane Panasci, who helped host a whompin’ load ‘of these folks.

Thanks to the Tribute Musicians from around the nation.
Thanks to Donnie Mills, Jay Hennesey, Steve Rodman, Bob Ritter and Mary Bomar, Tim Pastor, and Lee Giardina-Foran. Thanks for spending your own money and time to fly/drive here, and share your talents with all the folks in Dallas. It meant a lot, especially to me, Rusty, and Mike to have you with us.

Thanks to our own members, Mike Sheehan and Paul Simonson for doing yeoman’s work all through the Friday night show and the Saturday one. Jesse Plymale sat in on keyboards during all of the Tribute Show too.

Special thanks to Sheldon Felich.
Sheldon organized Friday’s show, and brought all the tribute artists together, played with us Saturday, and behind the scenes has done so much to continue the work of keeping Dan’s musical legacy alive, including our show. Y’all should check out his great tribute band too.

Here is Sheldon and our own Wendy Curran, doing “Only The Heart May Know”

Thanks to Deb Jelinek for all her continued support.
Thanks for singing with us, and for being a part of the Fogelberg Foundation of Peoria. Thanks, from afar, to good folks like Hugh and Eric Mills. We love you guys.

Thanks to the Allen Symphony Chorus and members of the Allen Philharmonic Orchestra for also being a part of this big dream.
Thanks especially to all the behind-the-scenes work of Kathy Litinas, and other chorus members who worked hard to staff the Welcome Party.
Thanks to Caryn Fecht who directed the chorus during the show.
After the show, more than one chorus member said to me, “We should do this again.”
(That’s how the big-crazy “what ifs” start!)

Thanks to Glen Spreen.

You can’t imagine what a thrill it was for you to be with us, and to have you conduct our orchestra. You are a kind and wonderful spirit, and we’re so pleased you seemed to enjoy the night as much as we did. We’re pleased the crowd gave you that well-deserved standing-O.

Thanks to James Miller, who wrote a whole ton of charts for this show.
It was all wonderful, and the music wouldn’t have been there without your work.

Thanks to First United Methodist Church of Allen.
They deserve copious and overflowing thanks. FUMC Allen put thousands of dollars into this production. They contributed the resources of several of staff members. They did publicity, provided dozens of volunteers for meals, set-up, refreshments, and many other behind the scenes tasks. All of you deserve much of the credit for this success.
Thanks to our friend, Todd Harris, and to bandmates Brian McPherson, Rusty, and all the rest of the staff there.

Thanks to Rusty.
Keep throwing out those crazy, “what ifs” my friend.

Finally, all thanks to God.
Thanks to God for allowing us to continue this incredible work. With this show, we raised $12,000 for United Methodist Committee on Relief, and work they are doing to alleviate the suffering of Hurricane Sandy. We’re grateful that God keeps opening these doors for our band. We’ll try to keep walking through.

And thanks to Dan.
Thanks to Jean Fogelberg for being a gracious human being. We miss Dan a lot. Those of us who are “DanFans” miss him in a way that tugs at the gut.

Those of us who are privileged to play his music –across the nation, as solo acts or in large bands– we find ourselves with the feeling that we’ve been given a “legacy” to maintain. It’s a calling to make sure that others keep hearing the incredible music of this incredible artist and soul.

In fact, probably 90 percent of the audience Saturday night hadn’t heard a lot of this music. Most came knowing  just “the hits.”

I’m so warmed by messages I got –one while we were still tearing down just after the show– from audience members who’ve said, “I just downloaded some of the songs I’d never heard.” They were downloading Dan’s music to their phone on the way home from the show!

That makes me smile. I’d hope it would make Dan smile too.

“Death is there to keep us honest,
And constantly remind us we are free.”

I know I speak for me, and probably for everybody else on stage during Saturday’s show, but we knew in the moment that it was a one-of-a-kind night.

Many of you have mentioned our version of Ghosts last Saturday. Some have said it was a highlight of the show. (btw, it’s one of the songs folks have told me they’ve now downloaded for the first time!!!)

When Rusty first pitched the idea of a show with orchestra/chorus, I told him I only had two real “musts”:
a) We have to do “Ghosts;” and
b) I want to sing it.

Here’s a video. It’s never gonna capture the moment as it was, but it gives you an idea…

I used to listen to The Innocent Age on my record player while falling asleep my senior year in high school. I’d been a DanFan for several years(2), but that seminal record came out during that seminal year of my life. Many times, I’d put on “Side Four,” and allow myself to drift off to “Ghosts.” So, it’s always been a personal favorite. (In fact, I just noticed that I cited it in a previous blog, written just after Dan’s death…)

Without drifting too far away from the general point of this blog, let me opine that “The Innocent Age” was perhaps the last record of its kind.

Very few records would ever again be “double albums.” Very few records by singer-songwriters would ever again have that impressive a combination of chart-topping hits and richly artistic numbers.

In fact, I have made the case before that Dan Fogelberg was the last of the great chart-topping “singer-songwriters,” and that unbeknownst to all of us at the time, “The Innocent Age,” was the last great popular “singer-songwriter” album. Ever. (3)

“Ghosts” is an amazing song. The past, the present, the future, all morph into one in that song. And, I’d like to believe, all three came together on that stage, in that moment, last Saturday.

The morning of the show, I hurriedly penned a two-page journal entry. Knowing that nerves might well be a problem that night, I prayed: “Let me just be in the moment…”

During the whole show, but especially during “Ghosts,” I really felt like that happened. Like we were all aware of just how special this was, and what an honor for each of us to play our parts.

It felt like we left it all on the stage.

For me? In that moment, I recalled all those nights, listening this song in the dark of my high school room. I thought of all the beautiful souls who love Dan’s music, gathered into that hall for one evening.

I even imagined Dan himself, having stepped into life beyond life, singing back to us: “Death is there to keep us honest, and constantly remind us we are free.”

Now and then, past, present, future all do come together in one Kairos moment.

For all of you who were a part of this special weekend….
Thank you….thank you….thank you.

(BTW…check  back, as I will add video clips to this blog as I can work them in….EF)

(1)Rusty King, Me, Frank Rahm, Paul Escamilla, John Fleming, Ann Willett

(2) First, through the “FM” soundtrack, and “Gambler.” That led to buying “Souvenirs,” to hear the original context. Then, I went back to “Home Free” and worked my way forward in time.

(3) This is not to say that Dan did not have success after this. He did. Nor is it to say that others have not had it since. They have. But in the early 1980s, pop music was just about to change drastically. The era of the singer-songwriter dominating the airwaves of pop radio…which you can trace all the way back to folks like Dylan, and then through folks like James Taylor, Carole King, Cat Stevens, Harry Chapin, Jackson Browne, Stephen Bishop…even bands like Eagles…that era was drawing to a close.

Dan, being among the youngest of this generation, produced IMHO, the last, great opus of that era: “The Innocent Age.”

Again, all these artists continue to produce excellent work to this day. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is, the combination of their artisanship being rewarded with hits on the pop charts…that era was drawing to a close. Dan, I have argued many times, was the last of the great American singer-songwriters on pop radio, and “The Innocent Age” was the last great singer-songwriter record. It’s a tour-de-force, and a fitting end to that era. He didn’t intend for it to be this, but with 20-20 hindsight, we can say this now.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He is Senior Pastor of Kessler Park UMC United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. Previously, he was pastor at Northaven UMC in Dallas for seventeen years. Eric loves to write on topics of spirituality, social justice, music/art and politics. The entries on this blog reflect that diversity of interests. His passion for social justice goes beyond mere words. He’s been arrested at the White House, defending immigrants and “The Dreamers,” and he’s officiated at same sex weddings in his churches, in defiance of what some believe is Methodist teaching. Eric is an avid blogger and published author, and 2017 recipient of the prestigeous Kuchling Humanitarian Award from Dallas’ Black Tie Dinner. (Human Rights Campaign) Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He’s a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named “best judge” by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County, and is currently the longest service district judge in that district. She was re-elected for a fourth term in 2018. They have the world’s best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. Find links to Eric’s music-related websites, at the top of this site’s navigation menu.

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