Beloved Lake Tahoe musician Peter Joseph Burtt back in the groove 8 months after heart surgery (VIDEO)
If you go
What: Peter Joseph Burtt and the King Tide
When: Saturday, April 29 (after Mama’s Cookin’ performs the Crown Room)
Where: Crystal Bay Casino Red Room
KINGS BEACH, Calif. — Peter Joseph Burtt has been singing songs his entire life.
His earliest memories, in fact, are harmonizing with his grandmother and sisters as a 4-year-old, singing along to the Irish folk records — The Clancy Brothers, The Dubliners, Paddy Tunney — as they spun and crackled on a turntable in his childhood home in Seacoast, N.H.
“From as far back as I can remember, I was very comfortable singing,” said Burtt, 52, from his home in Kings Beach, where he’s lived for 20 years. “I was just always a singer.”
Eight months ago, however, Burtt wasn’t sure if, physically, he’d ever be able to sing again.
SHAKEN TO THE CORE
It’s Aug. 28, 2015 and Burtt is sitting inside the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, hours away from having his chest cut open for an exploratory surgery — a method used to find a diagnosis for an ailment — that would later reveal he had a leaking aorta, the main vessel that delivers blood to the body.
Here, moments away from going under the knife, Burtt, a lifelong singer and multi-instrumentalist, asks his surgeon a question that’s weighing on him heavily.
“I said, ‘Look, man, sorry if this is a stupid question, but I’m a singer … is there any chance that I won’t be able to sing when this is done?’” said Burtt, hoping for his doctor to put his mind at ease.
Instead, “He said, ‘That’s not a stupid question at all — the nerve that controls your singing voice is right in the area where we have to cut you. So there is a chance that you may never sing again.’”
The thought shook Burtt to his core.
“I’m a parent, I have a 9-year-old son — obviously the primary concern is you want to be there for your children,” said Burtt, who had open-heart surgery three days later to replace his leaking aorta. “But I thought, if I couldn’t sing, what would I do? My earliest memories are singing songs. If I couldn’t sing … that’d be terrible.”
A HEARTFELT TRIBUTE
It’s Sept. 17, 2015 inside the Crystal Bay Casino Crown Room and Burtt, cane in hand, is standing on stage, hovering over a microphone.
Despite being just two weeks removed from the operating table and one week removed from a hospital bed, Burtt, defying his doctor’s orders, is attending his own benefit concert — “Burtt Fest,” organized by Mama’s Cookin’ frontman Zeb Early and the CBC’s Brent Harding and Bill Wood.
Though it wasn’t his intention heading into the concert, which featured more than a dozen Truckee-Tahoe bands, Burtt decides he wants to find out whether or not his singing voice has left him.
“I didn’t know if I was going to be able to sing that night,” Burtt said. “I said, I’m going to come up and do one song, ‘Born All Over.’ I’m going to try to sing the first verse … if I can’t, I’ll just stop.”
Burtt didn’t have to stop — crooning his gritty, soulful voice to the especially enthusiastic crowd to the song’s very last note, and capping his inspired performance with a heartfelt thank-you to the crowd.
“I was just waiting and wondering when I stepped up to the microphone, ‘Is my voice going to be there?’” said Burtt, who performed alongside his backing blues band the King Tide, composed of Mike Adamo (drums), Todd Holway (keys), Sam Ravenna (bass) and Early (guitar). “And when it was, it was a profound moment in my life, and I sang the song. Just being able to be with the people that supported me and my family, those are the kinds of things that form community. I’ll never forget that.”
FINDING SOLACE IN SONG
Following the benefit concert, though, Burtt was bedridden the next two days.
The longtime musician had to come to grips with the reality that singing and playing his array of instruments — drums, guitar, thumb piano, kora — for hours a day was no longer going to be the norm, at least for a while.
“My hands were numb, they’re still numb now,” Burtt said. “I had to start over pretty much. It was terrifying; it was painful … Every day my son would help me prop up a guitar on some pillows because I couldn’t lift it and I would sit there and play.
“I couldn’t move the way I used to, I couldn’t think the way I used to.”
Despite his physical and mental hindrances, Burtt took solace in the fact that he still sharply remembered lyrics to songs, be it his own or the old Irish folk songs he grew up singing.
“I still remembered lyrics to songs, and that was my safe zone,” he said. “Where I felt like, OK, it’s all going to come back. I will be strong enough to do the things I want to do, and will be able to perform the way I am accustomed to.”
FINDING HIS GROOVE
What began as playing the guitar for a mere five minutes at a time slowly — over many months — built to five hours.
Burtt even began plucking his famed 26-string kora, a lute-like instrument invented in West Africa, where he lived for a total of three years in the early 1990s, studying the melodious music born of the region.
The traditional kora is 21 strings, but Burtt had five strings added to his so he can play in different tunings in a live setting.
“Peter, he’s a natural musician,” said Zeb Early, who’s known Burtt roughly five years. “He’s very passionate about what he does, and he lives and breathes music.”
Fourth months into his post-surgery recovery, Burtt had a breakthrough, returning to the stage with the King Tide for a gig at Squaw Valley on Jan. 15, 2016.
“I live for those two hours when I’m on stage,” Burtt said. “Everything leads to that moment and you’re sharing that time with the audience … it’s just a very special time.”
BACK IN THE CBC
Burtt will be re-experiencing that special time soon as he and the King Tide will play a free show in the CBC Red Room on Saturday.
The group is on the heels of mixing its second album, “Mermaid’s Curse,” which Burtt said will likely be out in July.
Notably, on Saturday the five-piece outfit is playing as the after party for Mama’s Cookin’, which will perform a free set in the Crown Room starting at 10 p.m.
“I’m really excited, I haven’t played in there since the benefit concert they had last September,” Burtt said of the CBC. “We always know we’re going to have a good crowd and the energy is going to be really good.”
And this time around, Burtt won’t be limited to a one-song performance with his hands gripped on the end of a cane. No, Burtt will be cradling his kora and guitar, masterfully plucking and strumming, as he sings the blues into the early morning.
“I’ve seen him come a long way,” Early said. “I think he’s more energetic in some ways than he was before (the surgery). I know he’s had his challenges, but he’s a strong guy and I’m excited to play a show with him.”
For Burtt, whether he’s on a stage, in a studio or in his living room, he’s just happy to have his voice back.
“Music has really been the one thing that pulled me through,” Burtt said. “It’s very inspirational to have it all come back to me and to be able to play again and to be able to sing.”