Sing One for Schepers
“For every Jeff Tweedy or Kelly Hogan,” Bloodshot Records founder Rob Miller says, “there are two or three people behind them who you don’t see. They’re the ones helping this community to survive.”
Miller was explaining the importance of sound engineer and musician Gary Schepers. An essential member of the Chicago scene’s supporting cast for the last two decades, Schepers has regularly run sound at such venues as Lounge Ax, the Empty Bottle and Schubas, and toured with the likes of Eleventh Dream Day and Material Issue. For more than five years, he drove the van and mixed live sound for Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt. He even invited readers of this magazine into his home: The photo of Son Volt on the cover ND #1 was shot in Schepers’ living room.
Schepers did all that, and played tuba in the Bloodshot band Devil In A Woodpile, without much notice from the broader public. His work was heard “a million times,” Jeff Tweedy mused, by fans who “probably didn’t even know it.”
But not anymore. Today, thousands of folks know Schepers in Chicago, precisely because — for the time being, at least — he’s not there. He’s been flat on his back since one night in December when he went to an emergency room with excruciating swelling in his foot. He was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and told the foot pain was a related infection gone out of control; amputation was possible and surgery a must.
To make matters worse, Schepers — like 45 million other Americans — had no health insurance. As the procedures and medications mounted and the hospital stay stretched to weeks, the bills piled up. Needless to say, he wasn’t working, either. “I came to the hospital on December 10,” Schepers says, “and I haven’t seen the sunlight since.”
So the local music community brought some measure of sunshine to him. Rallying to his side with a series of benefit concerts were the clubs that have long employed him and the musicians he’s made a career of making sound good.
Miller and his Bloodshot partner Nan Warshaw acted as a central point of contact for everyone who wanted to get involved. “This organic wellspring just burst forth,” Miller says.
In short order, a week’s worth of shows got scheduled, including Robbie Fulks and Dolly Varden at FitzGerald’s; Califone, Edith Frost and Chris Mills at the Hideout; Jeff Tweedy and Devil In A Woodpile at the Abbey Pub; even a kids’ show that starred Jon Langford and Sally Timms as the Wee Hairy Beasties. Out-of-towners from the Uncle Tupelo orbit came in to play, with Jay Farrar joining the Fulks bill, the Bottle Rockets headlining at Schubas, and three-fourths of the original Son Volt lineup regrouping when Dave Boquist, Jim Boquist and Mike Heidorn played at Martyrs.
The shows brought out a playful side in many performers, no doubt inspired by Schepers, a man with a dour exterior but a fun-loving spirit and a generous heart. Kelly Hogan and her band did “Gimme Three Steps” because Schepers used to run sound for a Japanese Skynyrd tribute act. Jeff Tweedy played a song he wrote for Solomon Burke but had never performed; two nights later he joined the Bottle Rockets to sing old Wilco staples “Passenger Side” and “Casino Queen”. The Boquists did a sort of back-porch jam on choice cuts from the songbooks of Dylan, Gene Clark, the Faces and more.
Fans were similarly moved. The members of a Wilco-themed guitar class at the Old Town School of Folk Music pooled their funds and presented Miller with a check for $2,500. A music professor who taught Schepers on the tuba more than 25 years ago caught wind of it and looked Gary up. A man sent a check for $250, saying Schepers had once recorded his band for nothing. The bartenders at FitzGerald’s scraped together their tips and put them in the pot.
In all, the first wave of shows raised some $50,000 for Schepers. “It’s more than a drop in the bucket,” Miller says, but as Schepers is quick to quip, “it’s a pretty big bucket.”
More important is the progress Schepers has made toward recovery. At press time, no date was set for his release from long-term care, but he hopes to go home sometime in February. And though he’ll need to undergo significant physical therapy to regain strength in the foot before he can walk again, Schepers is upbeat. “I still have five warm, pink toes on my foot,” he says, “and for me, that’s the bottom line.”