When I first moved to Seacoast in 2000, I only knew a handful of children at UNH that I grew up with. I didn’t know anything about music communities – let alone that I would be deeply interested in wanting to contribute to any of them.
Initially, my contribution was as a fan. A listener. There was no live music to speak of in the small town where I grew up. I fell in love with music through the plentiful stacks of CDs and vinyls my dad had. Neil Young was an immediate favorite. Lou Reed another. The band spent a considerable amount of time in my own stereo. Jimi Hendrix. Zeppelin. WHO. The stones. The usual culprits … My mother used Bruce Springsteen and Spin Doctors tapes. And eventually, I fell into my own tastes, but I never strayed too far from what was an obvious part of popular music for a given period.
Coming to Seacoast and seeing the Dan Blakeslee posters left an immediate impact. I couldn’t understand what independent music was. I was legitimately distraught. But my thirst for all things musical was insatiable. If a day went by that I didn’t consume it live, my family and friends would ask me to check my pulse. I don’t consider myself to be a music junkie for humor. I am. Buying any CD (people weren’t really pressing vinyl in the early 2000s) graced every merch table from Portland to Dover, Newmarket, Portsmouth and Boston. My musical education was where I excelled. Which ultimately led to the failure of the UNH on my first round. Turns out, going to shows every night of the week doesn’t bode well for homework or studying for the next exam. Another lesson learned. Balance is the key. I would say moderation is important too, but I had to find a balance without compromising my daily music consumption.
In his own words:Five Spot interview with David Surette
Anyway, at one point I stumbled upon the Barley Pub and found myself blown away by the instrumental beauty of a certain David Surette. Guitar, mandolin and a smile as deep as the music he was making. A smile that lit up any room the man stood in.
David Surette introduced me to music that I could consume while doing other things. Love to read. Like writing. Heck, the thought was even on Bill. It was a real “ah-ha!” moment for me. I wasn’t at the forefront of instrumental music magic in my late teens and early twenties. My mind was really blown away.
I did not introduce myself to David after this concert. I’m always a guy who hangs out in the back – in the shadows – and doesn’t really talk unless you talk to him. But that’s when I wanted to know everything about this guy. What the devil of magic was he weaving here?
So I did what any non-threatening fanboy does. I’ve watched it. I discovered the records he had under his belt and after digging deeper I found out that they had taken them out onto the street from my Newmarket apartment at Acoustic Outfitters in Stratham. I drove there the next day. I was looking for his record, “Trip to Kemper”, because I suddenly felt the urge to rediscover some of my Irish roots. When I got to Acoustic Outfitters, I walked straight to the revolving rack in the center of the store that held CDs. I found “Back Roads” and picked it up by wiping off a thin layer of dust which gave it extra character. But no “Return to Kemper”. So, I brought my selection to the counter which encountered a “that’s a good choice” from the clerk working at the counter. “Did you hear ‘Journey to Kemper’?
“That’s exactly what I came here for,” I say.
“I’ll get it for you. Come back next week,” he said.
I followed his instructions.
In Kitterie:March Mandolin Festival, founded by David Surette, presents a concert
When I returned, he immediately recognized me. Turns out, Gigantic Gingers don’t frequent too many stores in Seacoast, New Hampshire. We go out a little bit.
He pointed at me, as if to say, wait, I’ve got what you’re looking for, as he retreated into the back room. Moments later, “Trip to Kemper” was delivered to me personally – by David Surette himself.
I hadn’t interviewed a single musician at this point in my life. I am a bad talker. And I’m an even worse conversationalist when I’m taken by surprise. Plus, things get even more questionable when I’m approached by someone who I admire a lot. David fucked up Surette. Apparently, if I remember correctly, he gave lessons at the store. Organized a few clinics. That sort of thing.
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So for the second time in the space of a week or so, David Surette blew me away once again. The inviting warmth he gave off. The way he made it easy for you to talk and ask questions, and more importantly, the way he listened intently to your response. He was an absolute gentleman. The coolest guy in every room he’s been in, even though he wasn’t trying to be cool at all. We chatted for a good half hour. And he gave me his contact details. He told me to keep in touch, and damn it, he really meant it. I left the store that day with some idea of what the word “community” meant. David Surette had ignited a little spark in my brain which only grew in the decades that followed. I go from being a fan to being a defender.
Of course, I did not know David well. But we have had many conversations over the years. He and his wife (and music partner) Susie Burke have been kind enough to do a bunch of interviews with me over the years. My God, he and I must have done at least a dozen to support his annual mandolin festival alone. That’s a lot of questions about mandolins… I’m sure I wasn’t good at coming up with new ones every year, and yet he always made it interesting. What about him explaining to me that he recorded his 2010 album “Sun Dog” in his kitchen? Such mind-blowing badassery. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for part of this.
We also did a lot of concerts together. And he’s come to many other shows that I’ve been on as a promoter. He was always “around”. Listen. Observe. Immerse yourself in every moment. What I love so much about David Surette is that he wasn’t just a ridiculous world-class musician hiding in that corner of the woods; he was also a fan. Like me. An avid listener. A guy I could make fun of music with and not feel like I was bothering the other party to the point of oblivion. He made me discover a world of new artists and ways of thinking about music in general. If I’m lucky, I might have even introduced him to a thing or two. He was eager to hear what I was listening to and also didn’t hesitate to reach out to me and let me know that he had read something I had written and how much he enjoyed it. These simple gestures go so far.
I admired David Surette so much.
Correction: I admire David Surette so much. Because even if he’s gone, his indelible mark will be there for quite a while – through Susie, their daughters, Julianna and Isa, and the countless musicians he’s collaborated with over the years. David Surette was just one of the most talented people to walk on this planet. And I will always admire the way he conducted his business. Not an ounce of ego on him. He let his game, his warmth and his general kindness speak. We are all better to have known him, and if he has taught us anything, it is to listen carefully to those who care enough to share a thought or a story with us. Listen with your ears and your heart. And don’t be afraid to add a few good jokes to it along the way.
I credit David Surette for unknowingly pushing me down a path I didn’t know I had to take. I have existed within such a rewarding and vibrant music community in large part because of the kindness a man showed me in his hand by delivering me one of his albums and striking up a conversation with a stranger in there. time just because.
I am sure I will miss you, David. We all will.
Christopher Hislop is the longtime music editor for Edge Magazine, Seacoastonline.com and Fosters.com. Local musicians have created a David Surette tribute Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/groups/tunesfordavidsurette.