After a Bassist’s Life Is Cut Short, the Music Plays On

  • Alex Abraham, left, plays with Bow Thayer at the Skinny Pancake in an undated photograph. Abraham, a 2009 Woodstock Union High School graduate who toured the country as a part of Thayer's band, died in March 2018. He was 28. (Courtesy photograph)

  • Alex Abraham, of Stockbridge, Vt., rehearses on April 3, 2017, in Newbury, Vt., with other players in preparation for three performances of the Mountain Money All-Stars. Ophelia Ross, 2, plays along with her father Patrick, the event's organizer. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Must the show go on?

Bow Thayer remembers asking himself that question many times in early April before going ahead with a planned tour of Alaska. On March 30, Alex Abraham, the quiet, gifted bass player for Thayer’s Americana band, had taken his own life at the age of 28.

“I took some of Al’s sound equipment on the tour, splitting the signal so that I could play the bass register with my bojotar (a hybrid instrument),” Thayer said this week, during a phone conversation from his home studio in Stockbridge, Vt. “And we kind of limped through the summer, just trying to fill in, with different guys rotating into Al’s role.”

Six months later, the answer to the existential question is an easier “yes” for Thayer going into the gig that the current incarnation of his band, Choirs of Aether, will perform on Saturday night at The Engine Room in White River Junction. There, accompanied by belly-dancers, they’ll unveil songs from an upcoming, blues-y tribute album to experimental jazz guru Sun Ra. Abraham’s bass tracks run deep through that record and others punctuate yet another Thayer album, A Better Version of the Truth, due for release in November.

“He rocked on that record,” Thayer said of Version. “A lot of it came straight from what were supposed to be demos. His work on the upright bass was particularly soulful.”

Thayer noticed that “sense of soulfulness” in Abraham, a 2009 graduate of Woodstock Union High School, during an open mic five or six years ago, while scouting for players to join him on the road and in the studio.

“I was getting sick of playing with all these older people, very set in their ways — like me,” Thayer said with a chuckle. “It’s hard to get people to see the vision you have. I was looking for someone I could mold, even mentor.”

As the relationship and the music bloomed, Thayer also needed to console his bassist after Abraham’s older brother, Ryan, died by suicide in January 2016. Abraham learned of the loss at Thayer’s studio, while Choirs of Aether was recording a cover of Ralph Stanley’s lament O, Death.

“We talked a lot about mortality after that,” Thayer recalled. “We spent many, many hours talking in the car that spring and summer, in British Columbia, Alaska, all over. He always had that old-school, old-soul, silent and stoic way about him. Listening back (to the blues record), you can really feel the struggle. You can really hear the pain.

“At the time, we didn’t know he was going through this quiet torture of his own.”

Nor did Krishna Guthrie, the Rutland-based drummer and guitarist with whom Abraham had often performed and jammed for more than two years.

“When he left this world,” Guthrie wrote during an exchange of emails this week, “it was devastating for the music community.”

Guthrie had met Abraham during an open mic in Rutland in 2015.

“Even though he was a very quiet person off the stage, he still stuck out to me for some reason that first night I saw him,” Guthrie wrote on the way back from a tour with his grandfather, folk musician Arlo Guthrie. “His note choice was amazing and he just had so much control over his instrument. I ended up on drums at some point during the night, and we got to do some jamming. We ended up starting a band called Sonic Malfunktion and doing a lot of playing in Killington, at the Wobbly Barn. … Al would also come to my solo shows and sit in on bass all night, and he did it for free because he just loved to play so much.”

That loyalty and dedication inspired Guthrie, who also is the great-grandson of folk balladeer Woody Guthrie, to bring one of his other bands, Oak Totem, to Alaska with Thayer.

Going on tour wasn’t easy, so soon after Thayer’s wife found Abraham dead at his home near the Thayers’ in Stockbridge, on the afternoon before the band was scheduled to play a local gig.

“We decided to go through with the tour to honor Al,” Guthrie recalled. “And when we got back I ended up playing some guitar with Bow and his band, and because we were missing that low-end sound, I started playing bass-like riffs on the guitar, to try to fill in the empty space. After doing a gig in that configuration, Bow asked me to take over the low end. I was nervous at first because I knew I would never be able to fill Al’s shoes, but between Bow’s confidence in me and just knowing that I had to continue playing with him, I decided to take on the challenge.”

The bandleader wasn’t worried.

“It’s in Krishna’s bloodline,” Thayer said. “He picked right up on the bass. He’s playing Alex’s big, old six-string. Even though he’s a drummer first and does some guitar, for some reason he’s filling Alex’s shoes. I guess you could say it’s serendipitous.”

And it’s therapeutic.

“There’s two parts of my life: Before Al and after Al,” Thayer said. “There’s no way you can come out of that unchanged. He’s been coming to me in dreams, and other people have said that, too.”

Abraham left behind something more concrete, in the form of unreleased recording sessions with Thayer’s band.

“I’ve got enough material with him on it in my hard drive to go on two more albums,” Thayer said. “I feel compelled to release them, to keep his legacy alive. He got really good. I’m going to trickle the material out. It’s the only thing I can do.

“It’s right back to grass roots.”

Bow Thayer and Choirs of Aether perform at The Engine Room in White River Junction on Saturday night at 8. Admission costs $15. To reserve tickets, visit The Engine Room’s Facebook page or brownpapertickets.com.