HeadCount at Ten: 2005 Katrina Benefit

This year marks HeadCount’s 10th Anniversary. To celebrate, we’ll be taking a look back at our history on a year-by-year basis. In this installment, we remember a 2005 Katrina Benefit HeadCount helped organize, marking our first foray beyond voter registration.

On September 13, 2005, an all-star lineup of musicians came out for the very first Katrina Hurricane benefit concert in New York City. The Disco Biscuits, Joe Russo’s Flying Circus, Danjaboots (Russo and Guitarist Scott Metzger), and DJ Omen shared the bill at the Spirit Dance club, with Phish’s lighting director Chris Kuroda behind the lighting board.

The show raised over $20,000 for the New Orleans-based non-profit Tipitina’s Foundation.

HeadCount had basically been dormant since the 2004 election the year before, but helped organize the event.

The show itself is most notable for being the first Disco Biscuits concert after the farewell of original drummer Sam Altman, who bid farewell at Camp Bisco a few weeks before. A couple of songs from the performance are available on Grooveshark.

But other than that, this one-time event is almost lost to history. No photos appeared in the press, and that familiar collection of musicians never played on a similar bill together again. A blogger later reminisced: “One thing that sticks out is the "Smoking Allowed" signs in the back of the club, a relic of a bygone era now, as smoking would be officially banned from all NYC clubs by the end of that year.”

The real legacy of the show was the money it raised and that it marked the first step toward proving that HeadCount’s organizing power could be used for more than just registering voters.

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“From day one, we had talked about becoming a 'community organizing arm' for the live music scene. So when this benefit came together, that element of HeadCount was first actualized,” said HeadCount co-founder Andy Bernstein.

It all started when Marc Brownstein, The Disco Biscuits’ bass player and HeadCount’s co-chair and founder, was approached by a promoter named Brian McEnany. McEnany had put on a few festivals that summer, and he was determined to do whatever he could to raise money for the people affected by Katrina.

“I was watching television and seeing the absolutely horrific way that things were being handled down in New Orleans,” recalls McEnany. “That city has such a rich history when it comes to music, so I always felt like I had some sort of an attachment to that town. I thought to myself, ‘there’s something we have to be able to do here.”

Brownstein was quick to get HeadCount involved, figuring he could leverage the massive network of volunteers and the organization’s positive image to make something happen as quickly as possible.

“I approached Marc (Brownstein), not just because he was the bassist for the Disco Biscuits, but because he was co-chair of this new organization that was getting people involved,” continues McEnany. “I think it was on a Thursday that we wound up talking, and it was just a week later that we had the concert.”

If a week doesn’t sound like much time to plan an event like this, that’s because it isn’t. McEnany, Brownstein and Bernstein had to get to work as quickly as possible, pulling all of their resources to make the benefit show a reality. Fortunately, the idea was well received in the music community. A New York City club called Spirit was generous enough to donate their space, while all of the sound equipment was provided free of charge and Kuroda offered his services as well.

The Disco Biscuits were also ready to heed the call, but there were a few kinks that needed to be worked out first. The band had just lost their longtime drummer and they hadn’t yet settled on a permanent replacement. However, a few phone calls were all that was needed to enlist the very capable Joe Russo and Mike Greenfield, who agreed to fill in for the show. (The two drummers would go on to play with Furthur and Lotus, respectively).

As critic Jesse Jarnow reviewed on Jambands.com, the show was a “casual treat,” for fans of the Disco Biscuits, and “an excuse for musicians to just get together and play without being overly self-important about the job.”

Brownstein describes how the choice was made that a Katrina benefit was the next project for HeadCount.

“We put a lens up and ask: is this going to make some sort of difference for the world, and does it make sense for HeadCount?” adds Brownstein. “The benefits to these kinds of things are always multi-faceted. We’re trying to raise money, we’re trying to get the word out, and we’re trying to get volunteers on board. A great show with great artists can accomplish so many different things.”