Concerts to raise money for medical research are nothing new. Beginning in the late 1990s Highland Park’s Bob Benjamin, afflicted with Parkinson’s Disease, and a small army of volunteers — I am one — enlisted the help of Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nile, David Bromberg, Peter Ecklund, and hundreds of other talented musicians to raise nearly $2 million for his Light of Day Foundation.
But what about concerts on a smaller scale, intimate house concerts, with “name” musicians like Jeffrey Gaines, John Wesley Harding, Francis Dunnery, the Young Dubliners, and Meg Hutchinson?
This is what Pennington project planner Eric Miller has been doing since this spring to honor the memory of his late wife, Carolina. At Miller’s house in Pennington, the musician sets up near the fireplace, where the mantelpiece is adorned with candles and photographs of Carolina. The show is also streamed live over the Internet.
The next concert is Thursday, July 12, with Dan Reed, a pop-rock singer songwriter who has sold more than 2 million records with the Dan Reed Network and has toured with David Bowie, Bon Jovi, and Run DMC, among others. Reed has also played on the Rolling Stones’ European and U.S. tours and along his path became friends with Miller and his wife. The concert series is named after Reed’s song, “Candlelight,” with lyrics that in Miller’s mind mirror the struggles experienced by those with epilepsy and their caregivers.
Throw away all of your fears
Oceans calling for your tears
You’re not in this fight alone
Miller met the Brazilian born Carolina in 2006 while she was visiting family in the United States. “We quickly became close during that far-too-short visit and enjoyed our time together immensely. It was during that initial visit that Carolina proclaimed ‘you will marry me one day!’ Usually an offputting statement in the early stages of dating for sure, but I kind of knew. Plus she was rarely one to be wrong,” Miller says.
The couple kept in touch with visits back and forth and with daily use of Skype, IM, and social networking. After she earned a law degree and he flew to Sao Paolo for her graduation ceremonies (“I was honored to have the second dance,” he says, “the first reserved for her father of course,”) they began planning their marriage, which took place in Brazil in 2009.
Then, at age 25, Carolina died suddenly on August 22, 2011, from SUDEP. The acronym stands for Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy, and Miller reflects on his experience at his home after a brilliant Saturday evening performance by Englishman John Wesley Harding, who tells jokes and funny stories in between songs in his set of mostly original material.
“In the process of me taking her back to Brazil, where she now rests, I started thinking about what I could do to honor her memory while raising funds for the cause,” says Miller. “I had done some music bookings, so that led to a benefit concert at KatManDu in Trenton in March,” he explains.
Dan Reed, Marshall Crenshaw, Jeffrey Gaines, and others played that initial concert in the spring, and, encouraged by the response, Miller started Candlelight Concerts for Epilepsy Awareness in May. He has hosted house concerts by Gaines, Jann Klose, Harding, and Francis Dunnery.
Other upcoming performers include singer-songwriter Ari Hest on Sunday, July 22, Sharon Little on August 11, Meg Hutchinson on August 18, the Young Dubliners on September 23, and Carsie Blanton on September 29.
Admission donations vary from $15 to $50. The cost of food and beverages is mostly borne by Miller and his mother, who helps him with set-up and clean-up for the concerts.
“Out of that initial concert, I thought about what else I could do, and nowadays, house concerts are popular, and so I pay for the food here, and it doesn’t cost me anything to host these performers,” he said, “because tickets pay the artists’ fees, and the web stream pays for the charities. It’s pretty much like a normal house concert model, except the artists are not donating their time,” he says.
Miller explains that epilepsy is more prevalent in the world’s population than Parkinson’s disease and affects one in 20 children. One in 10 people have a seizure in their lifetime, and one in 26 develop epilepsy. Some people, like ex-football players and boxers, develop epilepsy because of severe head and brain trauma, Miller notes.
“There are 40 different types of epilepsy,” Miller says, “and there’s a whole spectrum of disorders associated with it.” Carolina’s symptoms were not severe, so she was able to drive, attend law school, and lead a mostly normal life with daily medication to control symptoms. (That was similar to the case of this writer’s cousin, Paul McAllister, who died from SUDEP at his home in Washington, D.C., in 1998 at age 39.)
“Some people have terrible seizures every day, and others, like Carolina, would have a seizure maybe once every two years,” Miller adds.
Miller streams each show live over the Internet. People sign up and pay in advance to attend or watch the concerts online. The Internet component is a natural, given Miller’s professional background. Raised in Bucks County, Miller’s father runs a business selling scientific testing equipment and his mother was a long-time employee at Dow Jones. So was Miller, who over the past 15 years has been both a developer and a project manager at Dow Jones, ETS, and Bank of America/Merrill Lynch.
“I started working on the music side when I connected with Dan Reed and began booking some shows for him in the U.S. Pursuing that interest further, I ran a season’s worth of independent shows at Rho Waterfront (then KatManDu),” he says. “When it comes to working on this series, I’ve used all of those skills, both the creative and technical/business skills. And all for a good cause, so it keeps me very well motivated. I have a clear vision and am blessed to have had the professional experiences I’ve had, which I can now apply to something so truly personal.”
Miller plans to keep running the concerts as long as he can. “It’s a pretty good sounding room, and we can comfortably seat about 40 people here,” he says of the living room of his Pennington home. His website, www.candlelightconcert.org, and Facebook page help get the word out about the concerts.
A camera crew from New Jersey Network was at Miller’s home for the June 9 concert by John Wesley Harding, and the crew interviewed both the artist and members of the audience.
“I’m just getting started with these concerts,” Miller said, “and of course, never realized epilepsy could be so fatal. I see much of what we’re doing as just getting that message across — that epilepsy can be fatal — and that it’s much more common than most people think.”
Dan Reed, Candlelight Concerts, Pennington. Thursday, July 12, 8 p.m. Suggested donation $50. www.candlelightconcert.org.