Mitch Reems will join his popular tribute band, the New Blues Brothers, for the first time since August on March 30 at the Landmark Convention Center’s Temple Ballroom. He anticipates feeling a lot fresher than he did for most of last year, when he'd struggle to make it through a single gig.
For nearly three decades, Reems has been known for his lively interpretation of Elwood Blues, Dan Akroyd’s character from “Saturday Night Live” and John Landis’ classic 1980 comedy, “The Blues Brothers.” But, last summer, he felt beat up and listless. He’d endured weeks of intensifying back pain; and running through “Shake a Tailfeather” was enough to suck the wind right out of him, let alone finishing an entire set.
“It was tough,” he said, recalling the New Blues Brothers’ appearance on the main stage at Freedom Fair last Fourth of July on Thea Foss Waterway. “I’d sing my part, then I’d turn around from the crowd, go some place and try and catch my breath.”
At 64, Reems initially chalked it up to the ravages of time. But a biopsy soon revealed it to be something far worse: stage four non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.
It was the start of his second bout with the potentially terminal disease. He'd already beaten prostate cancer, a battle that forced him to step away from the New Blues Brothers in 2010, paving the way for new “Elwood,” Gary Ruhl. But this time, the disease was widespread and attacking his body aggressively, prompting an intense regimen of chemotherapy.
“I like to say whenever I had a treatment they just went over to Hanford and took some of the water over there and poured it into my body,” Reems joked this week. “These were some pretty intense chemicals they were putting in me. The average visit for a chemo patient is three hours, somewhere around there. Every time I was there it was a minimum of eight hours, sitting there with that stuff going into me.”
The treatments seem to have worked, though. Subsequent tests have shown the tumors shrinking. Reems said he expects to receive a clean bill of health after his next scan, early next month. “At this point, I’m about two months out from my last treatment, and I’m starting to feel stronger each time,” he said.
The March 30 show is a celebration of his ability to bounce back and a benefit to help deal with the hefty price tag that comes with being diagnosed with cancer. Bump Kitchen, Champagne Sunday, and Gabriel with Merrilee Rush will join the New Blues Brothers onstage, with music starting at 3 p.m.
“He’s a great jazz drummer and a fabulous singer,” said New Blues Brothers drummer Michael Kinder, who booked the bands for next weekend’s show. “We tried doing the band without Mitch a few times, and it’s never been the same energy. He brings this dynamic to the stage that no one can really replace. ... He’s like a force of nature.”
Jessi Fredeen – half of folk-pop duo Champagne Sunday – also counts Reems among her favorite local performers and greatest influences. Granted, she has reason to be biased.
“There just is nothing like seeing my daddy onstage,” Fredeen said.
“Both my parents are musicians. My mom and dad had a show the night they had me, so I’ve never been away from it. I’ve always been surrounded by music. I remember being 7 years old and having to sit outside of the beer garden at the Taste of Tacoma or whatever, seeing him onstage. Now – being a grown woman, watching him with these same guys – it’s just amazing to me.”
Fredeen and her husband, Jared, will perform songs off of their most recent CD, “Heaven Knows,” followed by a joint set by “Angel of the Morning” singer Merrillee Rush and Gabriel, among Seattle’s most popular rock outfits in the ‘70s.
Headlining the show is popular funk and soul band Bump Kitchen, a group has been putting the finishing touches on its first album since 2009’s “Who Ordered the Waffle?”
Drummer Everett James hinted at a new direction that he compares to Blue Magic and other '70s soul acts. “Then there’s maybe two tracks on there that are instrumentals that have more of a funk-jazz kind of thing happening,” he said. “But a majority of the album is soul.” James expected the as yet untitled disc to hit iTunes, CD Baby and other outlets by late April or early May.
Reems, for his part, admitted to feeling overwhelmed that so many of his friends and family would come to his aid. “I’ve done a million (benefits) over the years for people - friends and family. But when it happens to you, it’s a bit overwhelming,” he said, chuckling.
“It’s been pretty heartwarming. (Bands have) come out of the woodwork and are supporting me pretty well. Hopefully, it’s just gonna be a nice celebration because I’m not on death’s door, thank God. I’ve gotten through this, and it will be nice to enjoy this event with friends and family and all the great music that’s going to be there.”
Mitch Reems Benefit Show