Remembering Damdave Gillett
By Julie Horner with Tiffany Gillett, Jessica Gullo, Jennifer Thompson, Elicia Burton, and Eric Burman
The phone rang the morning of November 27, the day before Thanksgiving. The voice on the other end of the line was gravelly, fondly familiar, but the words were uncharacteristically hesitant and choked with emotion. It was Damdave. Children’s laughter could be heard in the background; family and friends from near and far were gathering in Hilo for the holiday. In a watery voice, Damdave said that he wasn’t going to make it. They couldn’t kill the tumor on his lung after all. Months of treatment and pain, hope, humor, and boundless heart, but nothing more could be done. He said, “They say it could be a day, or it could be a year.” His voice trailed off. The musical timbre of grandkids running amok filled the silence. I told him, “I love you so much.”
There had been quite a bit of optimism in August. Dave had been living in Hilo, Hawaii with his daughter Tiphany while undergoing treatment. Dave worked diligently over the summer to regain his health, enough so that doctors would allow him to fly home to Boulder Creek to visit his friends and to attend the Good Old Fashioned Bluegrass Festival, of which he had been a part for many years. It was a rich time spent playing music and sharing memories and laughter. The memories linger still, warm and sweet like the summer sun.
David Gillett, Boulder Creek singer-songwriter, local legend, dad, grandpa, and dearest friend, passed away surrounded by his loved ones on Wednesday, December 4th, 2019.
Daughters Tiphany Gillett, Jessica Gullo, and Jennifer Thompson and their families were by his side to read aloud well wishes sent from beloved friends. Bandmate “Mando” Mike Reynolds joined the family to bid his compadre farewell.
Just a couple of years ago, heads close together in comfortable familiarity in the late afternoon light, Dave Gillett and I sipped our “usual” and went to town reminiscing about spirited times in old haunts around the San Lorenzo Valley. Known affectionately as “Damdave,” he was the front-man singer-songwriter and guitar player for the Boulder Creek-based Americana group, Damdave and the Left-Hand Band.
I asked how he got the name “Damdave.” He explained how he had moved to Brookdale and started a folk jam at the Brookdale Lodge. “I didn’t drink at the time,” he said, but he wound up “earning his PhD” hanging out in the bar. At one point someone asked his name. When he said, “David,” someone at the far end of the bar shouted, “Not another damn Dave!”
Tuesday nights at the Brookdale Lodge were the slowest. “You had a couple of guys from the bar and we formed Damdave’s Odd-Ass Instrument Jam on Tuesday nights from ‘98-ish to 2008 or so,” Dave said. The popular Tuesday night jam became the forerunner of the Brookdale Bluegrass Festival. Eric Burman remembers coming to Dave’s jams and they decided after a time, “’Hey this would be a great place for a festival’…and it took off.” Burman recalled, “We’d all get together and come up with crazy things…like the underwater banjo contest. One of the girls asked if it was important to have a costume…when we said no, she jumped in the pool, and the only thing she had on was a tattoo. People forgot that she actually had a banjo. Damdave was definitely one of the judges that day.”
Burman also remembers one of the most fun things that the two of them would do together was take common songs and rewrite all of the words. “They were all awful,” he joked. He notes that “the biggest thing that Dave did was have that jam at the Brookdale Lodge on Tuesday nights. That’s where we formed our bands, that’s where we wrote our songs, that’s where we jammed with all the musicians from all over. Because we were working so closely with the Brookdale, that was because of Dave. He was instrumental in forming the Brookdale Bluegrass Festival and ran the ‘tweener stage at the Good Old Fashioned.”
Dave later became a Boulder Creek townie. “It’s a nice little town. I’ve written five songs about this town, I Love These Mountains, Bear Creek Road…there are more.” He’s also written three Brookdale songs, among them, Brookdale’s Burning and Highway 9, a takeoff on the old song Highway 55 co-written with Eric Burman. “She always walks alone, neither flesh and neither bone, ooooo!! There’s some really good lyrics. Eric always made it a 20-minute long instrumental thing with audience participation.”
For a while he was Damdave and the Hot Damn Band. The name change reflects the distinction that Dave plays left-handed. Along with Graham MacFarlane (standup bass), “Mando” Mike Reynolds (vocals, mandolin), and occasionally “Joebro” Adams (any of whom may or may not also play left-handed), the guys could entertain you with “a mix of dysfunctional bluegrass, country, blues, soul, and a healthy dose of Damdave originals.”
He’d said at the time, “I’m not bluegrass, I don’t want a bluegrass band.” His sound was Americana tending toward the bluesy. “I’ve always been a blues kind of guy.” He was raised in Ann Arbor, between Detroit and Chicago. “My voice is kind of gravelly, I grew up with Bob Seger. I like Gregg Allman…I like all kinds of music. I was thinking about this not too long ago. When I listen to people singing, when I listen to blues or Motown, the way they sing a song, the emphasis is on the words and music together. I want to develop my voice and my songs to be able to express the parts of the music I want to express…with an honesty in my voice.”
“Dave was the kind of guy who could ramble, talk, talk talk, and talk, without any particular point or reason, no punchlines, just thinking out loud,” said fellow musician, Elicia Burton. “I remember playing with Damdave at Don Quixote’s where we featured him and his music. I loved playing the tune Tennessee Whiskey on my fiddle, backing him up. He was always a standard and was great help at the Good Old Fashioned Bluegrass Festival signing folks up for the ‘tweener stage. I also loved his song “Blue Day,” his gruff vocals on that, his backward guitar playing – as you know he was a lefty. And the song about growing up in Kalamazoo was a really great, real American song. I am missing him now.”
“He had a huge sweet side to him, he totally loved his family, his girls were always the apple of his eye.” – Elicia Burton
“Daddy, Dampa, DamDave. The community lost a one-of-a-kind man. Your silly light-hearted disposition will be missed. I thank you for your artistic, musical nature that you shared with your children, grandchildren, and friends. While I myself have no musical talent inherited, I will forever sing your original song you wrote about our special town, “I Love These Mountains. Jam on Dam dad” – Jenny
“Dear Naddy (Daddy). I’m so relieved you are no longer in pain and are free to jam, jam, jam until the end of time. You fought hard, stayed positive, continued to play music, and kept a sense of humor to the very end, even when you were in unimaginable pain – qualities that will never fail to amaze me. I am honored to have gone through this journey with you and grateful we were all together during your final days. I envision you surrounded by love, light, music, and hopefully the finest of tequilas! Somehow, It feels appropriate to complete the circle and send you off onto your new journey with the words you wrote on my birth announcement, ‘peaceloveandkeeponkeepin’free.’ I love you forever.” – Ninny (Tiphany)
“Rest in peace damn dad. I know you’re up there jamming, free of pain. You are loved and missed more than I have words for. I am so grateful you were surrounded by family and your BFF. I am so grateful for our time together. I’m so grateful I was able to fly out to spend these last few days with you. I will cherish the memories. Thank you for teaching me to not take life so seriously. Your humor through your suffering was admirable. Aloha, Daddy” – Jessica Gullo
“Love and hugs to our man, Damdave, The Tom Waits of Boulder Creek Bluegrass. Your wonderful family and great songs will carry your name into the future…I’m teaching them to everybody. Enjoy the ride Brother, wink and smile with that twinkle in your eyes as you make that left hand turn.”
– Joe Adams
A memorial for island locals was held on Sunday, November 8 at his favorite spot, the Makuu Cliffs. A memorial for mainlanders will be held after the holidays. With the help of Barry Tanner and Bruce Bellochio, a commemorative collection of Damdave’s music will be made available soon. For more information, send email to Barry: firstname.lastname@example.org
(c) December 2019 Julie Horner for the San Lorenzo Valley Post. Also published in part by permission of the author in the Santa Cruz Mountain Bulletin December 2019 issue.
Visit Santa Cruz Mountains Local: https://santacruzmountainslocal.com/2017/02/02/tending-toward-the-bluesy-damdave-and-the-left-hand-band/