For fans of jam-inspired, one-of-a-kind musical events, or for people who love to support good causes, you’ll want to be at Irvington Town Hall Theatre on September 27, when the seventh Tree of Life Benefit concert takes place. The event will feature, in various sets, Terrapin Family Band members Grahame Lesh, Elliot Peck, and Alex Koford, Twiddle’s Ryan Dempsey, The London Souls’ Tash Neal, along with additional musicians Hayley Jane, Karina Rykman, Jesse Bardwell, Alex Jordan, Joe Cirotti, Chris Crosby, and Alexander Deshawn. And it’s all for a good cause.
Just ask Robert Rosman and Stephanie Susnjara, two hard-working members of the Westchester community that are at the inception and heart of the Tree of Life benefit concerts. Since 2014, the concerts have been presented by not-for-profit organization Ferncliff Manor, which works to provide services and support for young people with disabilities within their communities. Rosman and Susnjara wanted to amplify Ferncliff’s admirable and important work through the power of live music.
Robert Rosman: What we’re looking to create is inclusion and diversity. That’s what we’re really all about. Young adults with disabilities working alongside people who are more typical. All people can be subject to developmental disabilities, and it doesn’t matter what race, religion, or creed you are.
Stephanie Susnjara: The goal is to have people with autism and other disabilities integrate into the community, and participate along with everybody else. It’s also about finding something that they’re passionate towards. Like, the kids that work our events are very passionate about music.
Since its start, six Tree of Life benefit concerts have taken place, and each one has raised funding for Ferncliff Manor but also has raised awareness and support towards the benefit’s goal of inclusion of people with disabilities into their community. The Poke Around wanted to hear about Tree of Life’s roots, and so Rosman walked us through it’s serendipitous beginnings.
Rosman: Ferncliff Manor, the 501C that we work with on these events, is located in Yonkers. The director of Ferncliff, Kristen Yurczak, lives in Irvington, like I do. Kristen’s grandmother started Ferncliff Manor seventy years ago, when this sort of work was untouched waters. She began doing this thing when nobody, really, was doing this thing. And, so my son has a disability, and when my family moved to Irvington, we immediately became friends with Kristin and her family, because of the connection.
So, about five years ago, I thought that I could really do something. I decided I wanted to throw a benefit concert, and I had built relationships with these young musicians. So I went to Alex Koford and Scott Metzger. Now I had been going to see Scotty perform for well over twenty years, since the time I first moved to New York. And Scotty knew my son because I had brought him to all the shows. So I went to him and Koford and told them I wanted to do this benefit show, and they were in, immediately. I asked Koford about Elliot Peck, and he said he’d bring in her and then also Ross James, and Scott agreed to bring in Jon Shaw, and there was Tree of Live number one. And it was crazy (laughs). Really, it was crazy.
Tree of Life Benefit shows are indeed kind of crazy—in a good way. The Poke Around caught the last event thrown earlier this year at New York City music club SOB’s (pictured right), which featured members of Terrapin Family jam beside members of North Mississippi Allstars and more. Just from that one show, it’s safe to say that there is a special, powerful quality about a Tree of Life benefit, musically and otherwise.
Susanjara: It’s like a party, really, or like a really grand open mic. You know, there’s not as much separation between the artists and the audience as with a regular show. But the artists get to do their thing, and they have a lot of fun and creativity with the performances.
Rosman: A lot of times they don’t even know what they’re going to play until day of show.
Part of what makes that possible is the closeness of the artists on board with Tree of Life. According to Rosman, the Terrapin Family Band members have stepped up to these benefit concerts with their own sense of interest passion, and them and their musical friends have returned again and again to put true energy and heart into these unique musical experiences.
Rosman: A lot of the musicians at Tree of Life are return performers. Elliot Peck, for instance, has been at every single Tree of Life event except for one. For this event coming up, she will be the musical director, and we just adore her. And Graham Lesh has played three events, Alex Jordan has played three or four of them. Alex Koford I actually met when he was just twenty-one years old, and even then he was just so supportive of what we were doing. There will actually only be two newcomer musicians to Tree of Life, Deshawn Alexander and Haley Jane. They have never played one yet. We’re really excited to have Hayley Jane come and play, she’s just great.
While past concerts have been held at intimate gatherings like Philadelphia’s Ardmore Music Hall and NYC’s The Cutting Room, the event later this month will be a huge step up, presenting the show in the gorgeous, expansive space of The Irvington Town Hall Theatre. That and the venue’s location will make this upcoming event one of the most important ones for Rosman and Susnjara yet.
Rosman: We just did a walk through today. Irvington Theatre, you know, is modeled after Ford’s Theatre, where Lincoln was shot. It’s going to be an incredible concert hall for this event. This is going to be the biggest concert at Irvington Theatre in twenty years. We’ve done the fancy thing, out in NYC and Philadelphia, but we’re bringing it back to our roots.
Susnjara: It feels really good to host this next one in Westchester County, we’re were both from, but where a lot of our friends and family are from as well. We get to share this with all of them now.