Madawaska honors the legacy of town rockstar with memorial concert

MADAWASKA, Maine — Randy Cyr was surprised to find himself standing outside the packed Knights of Columbus Hall on Friday night. The summer evening was warm and buzzing with rock music and the sound of hundreds of people chatting in the hall and in the parking lot outside. The air smelled like food and cigarette smoke.

Cyr didn’t think he was going to make it to the concert in honor of his long-time former bandmate, Jesse Waltman Jr. Although Waltman died in April 2020 after a three-year battle with lung cancer, the wound is fresh. Cyr hasn’t played music in public since Waltman’s death.

As Cyr stood just outside, long-lost friends came over to slap him on the back and ask him how he was holding up. Surrounded by the community Waltman had built around him, Cyr said it almost felt like he was about to go on stage and perform again.

“I know he’s here, you can feel it,” he said.

Drop Dead Cynical performs in Jesse Waltman’s honor at Friday memorial concert. From left, Dennis Ouellette, Eric Gustin, Brad Pelletier, and Dennis Michaud. Phil Smith is the drummer. (Hannah Catlin | St. John Valley Times)

Waltman always told his family that when he died, he would come back as a bird. A loving father, sibling and husband, he was a spiritual man who found peace in nature and loved animals. To those who knew him best, Waltman was a kind man of simple pleasures.

He was also Madawaska’s hometown rockstar. A musician from the age he could carry a guitar, Waltman began performing in earnest in high school in the 1970s and played shows across Maine throughout his four-decade music career. He performed under many names, perhaps the most famous being Zig Zag, a band he and Cyr — a generation his junior — played in together starting in the late 1990s.

It was in the earliest high school years that Waltman also started dating the woman who would become his wife, Carol Waltman. The two of them and their friends traveled across the state to see bands live. Carol recalled sleeping in the furnace room of Jesse’s sister Sandy’s apartment building in Bangor so they could go watch Kiss play.

Renowned for his electric stage presence, Waltman was a lover of southern rock and well-known for his harmonica, juice harp and washboard. But he was more than just a performer — Waltman worshipped music, he was synonymous with it.

His reputation made him unavoidable in Madawaska’s music community. For young musicians, Waltman was simultaneously a father figure and a legend. 

“Every musician in Aroostook County knows every musician in Aroostook County — but everybody knows Jesse,” said Eric Gustin, the lead singer of Drop Dead Cynical who performed at the concert on Friday, July 9. 

Carol Waltman sits at the front of the audience to listen to Infinity, a band her husband Jesse played with in the 1990s. (Hannah Catlin | St. John Valley Times)

Seeing Waltman perform live was not an experience you soon forgot. With Waltman’s long ‘70s hair-do and funky instruments — the designs on which were done by Carol — it’s easy to imagine what kind of showman he was. Videos of his old performances played on a projector during the concert — although he’s older in these clips he’s headbanging and dancing across the stage with abandon.

Former bandmates and other musicians described him as captivating and one-of-a-kind. Waltman put on the kind of show that left an impression on young musicians for years. Brad Pelletier, the bass guitarist in Drop Dead Cynical, said that he remembers the first time he saw Waltman live. 

“I want to be like that guy,” Pelletier recalled thinking. “I’ve never seen anyone do it like him.”

Cyr, who had intense stage fright and struggled with his ADHD as a young person, said that it was Waltman’s confidence in performing that helped ease his nerves. The two connected on stage to the point where Cyr, a drummer, would often play with his eyes closed. He described a preternatural bond he felt with Waltman when they performed — the two could communicate without words, even without looks.

“He put my mindset where it needed to be,” Cyr said. “After that, everything else comes easy.” 

Drop Dead Cynical was one of the five bands that performed on Friday. The others: Soul Shine, Isaac Leach, Infinity, Undecyded and 327 Black Point, were a combination of bands Waltman once performed in and young musicians who counted Waltman as a mentor. 

The audience packed the K of C Hall for a concert in memory of long-time Madawaska musician Jesse Waltman Jr., who died last year. (Hannah Catlin | St. John Valley Times)

But while the night filled up with music, laughter and dancing, the concert played a second role for those closest to Waltman. It was a moment to revel in the memory of their father, husband, brother, friend, and to grieve after a year of waiting.

“It’s been looming over all of us,” his son Jesse Waltman III said. “I want him to be free.”

With his father’s image projected nearby, Jesse III danced wildly at the front of the audience on Friday night.

Above everything, even above the music, Waltman was a family man — especially close to his siblings who live scattered across the world. Steve Mairs, Waltman’s brother, splits his time between Maine and Thailand. Where Waltman was extroverted, Mairs is soft-spoken and reserved. But the two were close nonetheless. 

Mairs said being at the memorial concert and being in the community Waltman’s music helped to form felt like another gift from his brother.

“I always knew he loved music,” Mairs said. “I never realized how much other people got out of his music.”

Carol Waltman (right) and her grandson Caleb Bassett listen to musicians play at Jesse Waltman’s memorial concert on Friday night. (Hannah Catlin | St. John Valley Times)

For Carol Waltman, who was by Waltman’s side for nearly 50 years, the weekend was equal parts pain and joy. She remembers her husband’s younger years of performing well, and traveled with him occasionally. But after their early 20s, she mostly stayed with the family — if you’ve seen 100 concerts, you’ve seen 1,000, she said.

While music was forever a part of Waltman, he lived life for his family — Carol and his children. He may have loved to take his bands on the road, Carol said, but Waltman stayed in Madawaska to help support them. He worked at Twin Rivers Paper Mill for more than 20 years.

When their two biological children were older, the Waltmans took in another young girl, Michelle Bassett, who they discovered was in need of a home. The Waltmans, by all accounts, pulled people into their family — not just Michelle, who Carol said she and Jesse love like their own daughter — but bandmates, friends, in-laws.

“He touched a lot of people’s hearts, not just through music,” Carol said. 

When Jesse was diagnosed with lung cancer, the world tilted. He and Carol moved to Pennsylvania for a time to be closer to his chemotherapy treatments — doctors told him he had 9 months to live, but he lived another 37 months. In that time, Carol said they grew closer than ever. One more adventure for the road. 

“In those three years it felt like we were dating again,” she said.

Ultimately, when Waltman passed, he did it with his family by his side and music playing in his ears. His daughter Megan Daigle remembers the song: “Free as a Bird,” by the Beatles. 

Friday’s concert was what he wanted, Carol said, a celebration of everybody he loves, blood family and found family, and the music he lived for. 

“Jess wouldn’t want you to cry,” Cyr said. “He’d want you to rock out.”

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