Late last week, when the gravity of it all became clear, Dave Lamb’s many, many friends began flooding into the waiting room at Memorial Hospital of Rhode Island in Pawtucket.
They came in a steady stream from across Rhode Island and Massachusetts, from as far away as Maine and Missouri, Georgia and Tennessee, one after another. Hundreds strong, they invaded the place and didn’t leave until Saturday morning, when the 36-year-old musician from Warren let go peacefully and died after a year-long battle with leukemia.
“I think the most we had at one time was like 60 people in there,” MorganEve Swain, who was Dave’s bandmate in the band Brown Bird and his spouse and soulmate in life, said.
“We took over the entire &*%$# floor.”
Across the globe, countless thousands of fans were there in spirit, and continue to mourn today.
Rise of Brown Bird
Lamb and MorganEve lived on the third floor of a Warren apartment building owned by their friend, artist William Schaff, and were well-known here. But their reputation spread much further than the tiny town where Lamb first moved a decade ago to take a job as a marine mechanic at Blount Boats.
Brown Bird, which was at various times a three-piece and a four-piece before before becoming a duo in 2008, reached heights uncommon for bands from Rhode Island. The band produced a steady stream of critically-acclaimed acoustic, rock and Americana-tinged albums and over the years played hundreds of shows in small clubs, ornate turn-of-the-century theater houses and even the Newport Folk Festival, where they played the main stage two summers ago.
Through it all, the couple built a reputation not just as first-rate musicians, but humble people, happy and aware of how blessed they were to have found not only music, but each other. Instantly recognizable, he had a thick beard in recent years, had a full array of tattoos and wore an ever-present smile.
Swain hasn’t been surprised these past few days to read condolences left from fans as far away as Croatia, Germany and Australia. She’s never met them, and many of them never met Lamb, but their descriptions of him are often uncannily accurate, she said:
“As difficult that it’s been for me to read all the stuff that people are writing about him, it’s a total testament to him that people who didn’t actually know him can describe him so accurately, and it’s not just that he was so humble and gentle. People talk about his eyes, and the light that he had. He just had this presence.”
“It was a testament to how he lived his life, with integrity,” said one of his best friends, Joe Fletcher of Joe Fletcher and the Wrong Reasons.
Lamb was diagnosed with leukemia last May, after he fell ill in Texas two weeks into a two-month tour to promote “Fits of Reason,” Brown Bird’s most recent album.
Not yet married, he and Swain were uninsured at the time. Diagnosis aside, leaving the road was scary as the two derived all of their income from road money and merchandise sales and instantly faced tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills.
As bills piled up the band started an online fund-raising campaign that quickly brought in more than $60,000, and eventually topped $100,000. The money helped them defray medical and living expenses as the two returned home and Dave entered his first round of what would be four chemotherapy treatments.
Lamb endured three rounds of chemotherapy last spring and summer. And then, two days before doctors gave him a bone marrow transplant in late August, the couple married at their Water Street home on August 23, 2013.
Swain said she was inspired every day to see her husband’s attitude toward his illness. True to his form, he never complained.
“He was amazing. When he first got sick, it was devastating that we had to stop everything; we had all these plans, we were going to get married, we had just put out a record.
But “for him it was never like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’ It was just, he always kind of just rose to the challenge and tried to work through it. ”
As late summer yielded to fall and winter and he recovered from the transplant, Dave played music when he was able and strong enough, writing new songs and recording everything two, three even four times each — “he wanted to make sure everything was perfect.”
The eventual plan was to record some of those songs after he was declared leukemia-free, and get back on the road. He was always optimistic, always looking forward, and the couple entered 2014 with much optimism and hope.
“And it was the same time this last time he got sick.”
Doctors had told the couple that Lamb would have to take a year off from work to let the transplant take, and it initially appeared that the treatment was successful. But late last month, he started feeling run down. Doctors couldn’t find the issue and two weeks ago sent him home with antibiotics to treat his flu-like systems. It didn’t last.
Last Wednesday, during a review of test results doctors sat the couple down and told them that the leukemia had moved from his marrow to his blood, and that 95 percent of his white blood cells were leukemic. Doctors ordered aggressive chemotherapy to knock back the disease, but he did not respond well to the treatment and, surrounded by friends and family, died early Saturday morning.
A day later, someone got into the bell tower at the Baptist church in Warren and rang the bell 36 times, one for every year of his life.
Tuesday night, hundreds of fans will crowd into Providence’s Columbus Theater to pay musical tribute to Lamb and Brown Bird.
Fletcher said he’ll play a set of songs including Lamb’s “Mabel Grey,” a sea shanty which he has performed on regular rotation since his friend’s diagnosis. Alec Redfearn and the Eyesores is also on the bill, as is Last Good Tooth, Death Vessel and other friends and fellow musicians. There are no other public memorials planned, Swain said, though there will be another small gathering for family and loved ones.
Though she doesn’t really know what her next step is, MorganEve said the eventual plan is to the release the home recordings produced during her husband’s illness. For her the music will always be there, and she will continue to play and tour in one fashion or another. It’s one of her husband’s many legacies, she said.
“I was recently talking to his friend Jeremy,” she said. “He told me how happy he was that Dave and I found each other, because Dave had been searching for who he was for such a long time. All his friends tell me he didn’t find out who he was until he met me.”
“I feel exactly the same about him. I was 23 when we met. I was playing in bands, but I didn’t know what I was going to do and didn’t trust that I could be a musician. Dave changed all that.”
Like countless others, Fletcher said he will keep his friend close to his heart, and said he felt blessed this week to meet Lamb’s big brother Michael. He sees his friend in his brother’s eyes; though they’re different people, their souls are similar and he can see the same spirit in him.
“I’m going to stay friends with that guy because it’s going to help me for the rest of my life.”