‘Music has the power to heal:’ Lifetime musician brings culture, life to North Lake
“Hello, is anybody in there,” Robbie Polomsky sang into his neighbor’s front door surveillance camera amid a snow storm in late January.
Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” — from which the lyric comes — is one melody of many Polomsky, better known as “Gade,” has played each day since he received foot surgery in February 2020.
The Ohio-native pushed past 365 days straight of public performance last week to bring his sound to locals and tourists alike on neighbor’s porches, public parks and outside local eateries since before the pandemic began.
Amid COVID-19 related restrictions, Gade has taken — or made and then taken — every kind of stage one can find in Tahoe City, even digging himself a mini-igloo.
“I live 800 feet above the lake, so I couldn’t get out to keep my streak going,” Polomsky said. “What am I going to do?”
Polomsky’s daughter, Sara Sullenger, said her father’s commitment to sharing music with others is inspiring.
“His passion for music has been a source of entertainment and happiness for countless people during COVID,” Sullenger said.
But Polomsky’s daily performances have invited more than new Facebook friends and reviews of security camera footage.
“Because I’m the only one around, a musician will show up every few days,” Polomsky said. “They’ll say, ‘I’ve been sitting around for a year,’ and we’ll play together.”
Polomsky performed the first portion of his set outside of Moe’s Original BBQ this past Wednesday with an accordion player. Later, a woman arrived to riff alongside him on a harmonium.
“He’s got 30 other locals that come and step in with him,” Sullenger said.
Sullenger said her father has taught himself a new song every day since before the pandemic began to expand his brain’s hefty catalog of music
“He’s such a musical genius,” Sullenger said last week. “For 364 days now, he goes home, he learns a new song every night — an appropriate song for whatever’s going on in the world.”
Sullenger was born in Truckee and raised on all genres of music in North Lake Tahoe. She said her father’s performances have a particularly potent power between Donner Summit and COVID-19.
“Music has the power to heal,” Sullenger said. “When I’m having a bad day I bump my rap music and clean the house.”
Sullenger said her father’s daily performances feature both contemporary and classic artists.
“He’ll do funny things like Justin Bieber’s ‘Despacito’ or the Drake song, ‘Hotline Bling,'” Sullenger said, adding that her father has 1,200 songs committed to memory. “He can do anything.”
History of Performance
Polomsky, best known in the area as “Robbie Gade,” began performing in Tahoe after moving away from religious roots in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1977.
“He did not fit in,” Sullenger said. “He had long hair and a ponytail, got a van out here and sort of started to take over the Tahoe scene.”
Polomsky said every friend he has made in life has been through music.
“I’ve never gone to a bar and hung out,” Polomsky explained. “I’m always gigging. I play, and people come up to me and you meet new friends every day and night.”
Polomsky’s most famous Tahoe-based group, Public Eye, played rock, blues and reggae at events around the lake throughout the 1980s and into the early ’90s. Polomsky said he was in touch with several big names known far beyond Tahoe’s burgeoning music scene.
Polomsky played with Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin 29 years ago when he came to visit David Coverdale of Whitesnake, a resident of Incline Village.
“I was in a trio — just me, a bass player and we had another amp just waiting ready,” Polomsky said. “Then he finally came and was sitting 10 feet in front of me. My heart started racing.”
Polomsky said sharing the stage with one of the world’s best guitar players was one of the highlights of his life.
“We used to have 80 people in the audience and then we had 500 in a club that held 300 people,” Polomsky said.
Polomsky played alongside Creedence Clearwater Revival’s drummer, Doug Clifford, for over 10 years.
Polomsky said he and Clifford recorded an album in 1986 that was just released in April 2020 — “Magic Window.”
In 1991, Polomsky founded Renegade Productions, putting on several festivals in the Pacific Northwestern circuit.
“I had a production company from 1990 on that slowed down around 2014,” Polomsky said, adding that he takes responsibility for bringing Ziggy Marley to Tahoe.
Polomsky said he worked with reggae and hip hop groups primarily, taking the same group from Tahoe, Nevada City, Chico, and Eureka through to Ashland and Eugene, Oregon.
“Bands would ask, ‘Can we get a gig?’ and I’d say ‘I can get you six gigs.'”
Polomsky said he used to book the Monterey Bay Reggae Festival, before it became California Roots Festival.
Polomsky knows the couple that runs California Roots Festival, Dan and Amy Sheehan.
“Amy used to work for me in Tahoe,” Polomsky said. “Then, she was just an intern and put up fliers at the door.”
Polomsky’s daughter said her dad got caught up in the business side of things, but has always practiced the world’s “universal language,” playing at the Alibi and other venues in the North Lake area.
Local love for culture creation
Curtis Clark, the owner of Syd’s Bagelry & Espresso, said it’s been a pleasure to have “Rockin’ Robbie” perform outside his business given the canceled Tuesday Bluesdays and Commons Beach concerts usually held every Sunday of summer.
“Our goal was to keep on the Tahoe tradition of live music while abiding by social distancing,” Clark said.
Clark said Syd’s location is next to Heritage Park, where Polomsky would busk anyways.
Clark said Tahoe’s culture is largely fortified by the focus on buying local.
“Tahoe City is very community based,” Clark said. “It’s a walking town, one mile in either direction. There are no franchises here.”
Clark said that focus on local enterprise has helped the community survive and, for the most part, stay abreast of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our locals have supported us,” Clark said, adding that the sheriff, captain, fire guard and Coast Guard who train in the area have been committed customers. “Now, we are happy to get back and to help people get away from the stress and strain.”
Clark said until venues open up again he is more than happy to share his asphalt and the open air.
“Robbie is driven to give people a little happiness,” Clark explained, adding, “all the time, of course, but now especially that people are suffering and wondering what will happen next.”
Throughout the years, Robbie Polomsky towed around six guitars — Taylors or Gibsons — to various performances and events across North Lake Tahoe. Polomsky travels a bit lighter these days, but the grind has only intensified.
“I have two with me and one in the car,” Polomsky said.
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with the Sierra Sun and The Union, a sister publication of the Sun.
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