He looked a little frail as he walked onstage. Moving slowly, almost gingerly. But maybe some of that was Bat McGrath looking out at the sold-out crowd of nearly 800 people at the Lyric Theatre Saturday night. And seeing the standing ovation, before he’d sung a word or played a note on his guitar.
“I know why you’re here, and I really want to thank you,” McGrath said as he carefully arranged himself on a chair at the front of the stage.
Yes, they were here for the McGrath songs that are oh-so relatable. Songs about love and love that doesn’t quite work out. Songs about hanging out at The Blue Eagle, songs about grandkids and getting old. Most of the crowd had heard these wry, heartfelt and often self-deprecating words before. But they took on a new poignancy, an urgency to be here now, because the guy onstage is dying of cancer.
The 73-year-old McGrath was diagnosed with cancer on Dec. 12. A suspicious colonoscopy result led to the discovery that the cancer had spread throughout his liver. With treatment, it was estimated that McGrath might have another 1½ years to live; procedures that would seriously compromise his quality of life. McGrath and his wife, Tricia Cast, made the difficult decision to decline treatments. A decision, they were told, that would leave McGrath with mere months to live.
Upon receiving the diagnosis, he contacted his longtime friend, WHAM-TV news anchor Doug Emblidge, about doing one last show in Rochester. But what venue? How many people should they expect?
They seriously misjudged this one. The Lyric sold out in 30 hours, followed by a continuous clamor for tickets from those shut out. Adding a second show was considered, but McGrath was worried he wouldn’t have the energy.
Indeed, since his cancer diagnosis, McGrath has had both good days and bad ones. He and Cast arrived in Rochester on Thursday – local benefactors picked up the tab for the flight from their home outside of Nashville and a hotel room here – with plans to appear on WXXI’s Connections with Evan Dawson on Friday afternoon. But the cancer has done its work: Two weeks ago, McGrath was down to 130 pounds. He felt too weak to appear on Dawson’s show, and also missed a soundcheck at the Lyric that afternoon.
Yet by Saturday McGrath had pulled himself together, and at Saturday’s show told the crowd he was drawing energy from them. The illness hasn’t robbed McGrath of his self-deprecating wit. He pointed out the irony of having quit drinking in August for his health, only to get his cancer diagnosis months later. And how friends had ordered an expensive bottle of wine to be delivered to his Rochester hotel room when he arrived here. That’s the end of the abstinence. “If it kills me,” McGrath said, “so be it.”
He apologized for not having any musicians accompanying him, but, “I just wanted to end this the way I started.” Just a guy and a guitar and his songs. Yet the show’s highlight was the only moment McGrath was not alone. Jim Richmond of Rochester’s Prime Time Funk brought out his tenor sax for a beautifully melancholy take on “She’s Gone,” a song McGrath and his musical partner during their Rochester days, Don Potter, co-wrote with Chuck Mangione.
This show was an event. A couple of McGrath’s producers flew in from out of state. The Mangione brothers, Gap and Chuck, were there. And there was a big contingent from the Rochester Music Hall of Fame; McGrath himself was inducted a few years ago.
He doesn’t treat even the best of his compositions like they’re some kind of sacred artifacts. In the midst of “Wegmans,” his tribute to hanging out at the grocery store, he abruptly stopped in mid-song to point out that sometimes in the south he would have to explain the line about being at a party where the guys were too shy to dance, leaving the girls to dance with the pole supporting the cellar roof, because the houses in that part of the country often don’t have basements.
McGrath told of how Wynonna Judd had called when she heard about his cancer, before performing the song he wrote that she had a big hit with, “Come Some Rainy Day.” He talked about working with the legendary country songwriter Harlan Howard, who advised McGrath that, “If we don’t get a song by noon, we’ll go get a drink.”
And still more stories. He recalled the nights when he and Potter ran Rochester’s hip club of the late ’60s, Hyliemorris’ Alley: “I’m going to check the Coke machine” was code for going outside to smoke a joint. He marveled that his song “Cincinnati Dust” is getting airplay in Ireland: “That kills me, no pun intended.”
McGrath has handled his diagnosis with grace. He’s been blessed, he said. For the last 55 years, “I’ve never had a job except playing guitar and writing songs.” First-hand experience for his impassioned defense of funding arts in the schools. “It’s the first thing to go,” McGrath said, “when I think it should be the first thing you run to.”
He has shown grace while facing the final curtain. Yet, while recalling sage advice he’d heard over the years, a bemused McGrath added his own hopeful codicil: “A great artist knows when it’s time to leave the stage. Having said that, I’m not a great artist.”
Jeff Spevak, a cultural arts contributor to WXXI, is a Rochester-based writer. His web site is jeffspevak.com.
Here's some video of the concert from WXXI's Jason Milton & Mark Czelusniak: