This One’s for Dan
It’s hard to say when I met Dan Bentele; surely it was in the mid-’90s, at Twangfest I or II in St. Louis, or perhaps it was before that after all. We might have met at that first Wilco show in Cicero’s basement (when they played as “Black Shampoo”) or at South By Southwest before corporate sprawl set in. “Casual” is the word I should use to describe our friendship, but it misses the point. At a recent show, his younger brother Doug said Dan looked up to me and admired my writing — and that’s exactly the kind of generous thing Dan was known to say.
In the early hours of March 2, 2005, at the age of 40, Dan Bentele died of complications from epilepsy, a disease that struck him in the last years of his adult life. He was born and raised in the somewhat provincial and suburban world of St. Louis County, but he came to make his home in the city, about which he was passionate and knowledgeable. He tried his hand at banking only to follow his heart and become a teacher of English as a Second Language and a volunteer with immigrant communities in the St. Louis area.
In the early years of No Depression, he occasionally submitted reviews, written with the same peculiar mix of dry wit and innocent excitement he brought to conversations in nightclubs and on internet discussion boards. On any given weekend, I would descend the stairs to Frederick’s Music Lounge — the only St. Louis bar that has preserved the Cicero’s spirit — and there would be Dan, in the far corner of the junk-cluttered room. He was tall and considerate to a fault, always standing in back, with one arm draped across the jukebox and the other raised in a quick idiosyncratic salute. He’d greet me with a slap on the back or a vigorous handshake, and a request, no, more of a demand to know what I had been listening to, what I was writing about. He was ferociously curious, and as good a listener as he was a talker.
In other words, you have known someone like Dan — one of those someones through whom you discovered and shared this music, with whom you tossed back a beer and bobbed your head to good grooves, from whom you received a mix tape or CD, and about whom you perhaps didn’t know enough. You felt the kinship all the same.
The culture of alternative country (if you’ll permit the phrase; you know what it means because you’ve lived it too) turns around such feelings, such individuals. Bands that survive by word of mouth need mouths like Dan’s: smart, unpretentious, enthusiastic, friendly. They need spaces like Schubas, the Continental Club, the Station Inn, the Duck Room: big enough for stretching out, but small enough for recognizing familiar faces, for bonding without losing individual connections and private excitements — the kind that initially inspire every kid with a guitar, every fan with a 45 or an mp3.
They need, sentimental as it sounds, friendship.
Dan Bentele was an ardent advocate and friend of Twangfest, a four-day music festival now in its ninth year in St. Louis. Newcomers, many of whom discovered the event through its discussion-board satellites (Postcards 1 & 2 and the ND folder, where Dan was a frequent contributor), were always made to feel welcome by Dan, bought more beers than his income warranted.
He wasn’t alone in that generosity. Twangfest would have died long ago were it not for lasting friendships, casual or otherwise, the way folks who first met there have widened their musical and social circles. On June 8-11, many of Dan’s closest friends — from high school and college and cyberspace, the ones he first introduced to the Mekons, Son Volt, and Neko Case — will gather from across the country to remember Dan at Twangfest 9, to revel in the sounds and the people he enjoyed most.
They’ll be joined by hundreds more bringing their own stories, their own friends. And they’ll all share in something they really can’t live without.
Twangfest has blossomed far beyond its scraggly internet roots. But unlike any festival of its size and ambition, it’s still fueled by fellowship and for-the-hell-of-it initiative (performers get paid but the organizers don’t). The bands and crowds thrive on intimacy, ritually spilling into post-show, back-at-the-hotel gatherings till dawn. The festival may describe itself as a roots music big-top (sheltering bluegrass, neo-soul, honky-tonk and indie rock), but in the end it’s still a small, warm, welcoming tent. And some kind of party.
It’s a place where no one is a stranger, where the soul of the music we all love never dies.