Dave Grelle has been one of the most sought-after keyboard players in St. Louis for years. But two years ago, his life — and his music — were upended. A hit-and-run driver struck him on South Grand Boulevard and caused him major injuries, from which he’s still recovering.
Grelle has been easing back into his musical life, sitting in with various groups around town. Now comes a big milestone: For the first time since the accident, Grelle will make his way back to the stage as a bandleader this weekend, when he leads a group of local all-stars, Friday and Saturday at Ferring Jazz Bistro.
In Grelle’s rehearsal studio in the T-REX building on Washington Avenue, the walls are covered with posters from shows he’s played. He’s worked as a touring musician and also played around St. Louis with groups ranging from Funky Butt Brass Band to the Led Zeppelin tribute group, Celebration Day.
One wall is covered with hand-made, get-well cards he received after his accident. Mixed in is a drawing by his son Julian, who was a toddler when his father was injured. It’s an ominous swirl of dark blues and greys.
“It’s kind of a splattering of very dark colors,” Grelle, 38, says of the memento. “There’s a little white, but it’s a very ominous and dark piece of art there.”
Grelle was midway through a crosswalk on South Grand Boulevard in November 2016 when a woman struck him with her car and left him lying in the middle of the road. The driver, Michelle Conway, later pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and was sentenced to five years probation.
Grelle and his wife, Kasey, were about a month away from the birth of their second child, Kit, at the time. It took multiple surgeries to save his life. He suffered about 20 broken bones, a lacerated liver and head trauma.
His sometimes-dark sense of humor remained intact. When asked about his recovery, the diehard St. Louis Cardinals fan cited two positive things: he didn’t die, and he has no memory of the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series.
Yet his physical rehabilitation has been difficult. He said the worst part is that his head trauma and a heavy regimine of painkillers have made it hard to concentrate, and wiped out his short-term memory.
“With the physical stuff,” Grelle said, “you just learn to deal with the pain. ‘Today sucks, but maybe it’ll be better tomorrow.’ The memory stuff definitely messes with me more than the physical stuff.”
After progressing from being bedridden to using a wheelchair to walking with a cane, he’s now well enough to walk around some familiar places without any assistance.
But the mental side of his injuries make it hard to get back in the swing of things, professionally.
“Once I’m in the song, once I’m in the middle of a tune, I know what to do. Muscle memory comes back. My ears start working again,” he said. “I start learning the skills I’ve spent all this time acquiring. But you know, if I see a setlist for a band — if they put that in front of me — I don’t know how half these songs go.”
Yet he’s been able to write some new songs and new arrangements for older ones, and put together a new band of top players on the scene: saxophonists Ben Reece and Rob Nugent, trumpeter Adam Hucke, bassist Zeb Briskovich, drummer Kevin Bowers and percussionist Matt Henry.
Performing as Dave Grelle’s Playadors, the group will play a gumbo of funk, soul and various flavors of jazz.
Hooke is a longtime collaborator, a veteran of the Funky Butt Brass Band and Grelle’s group the Feed.
“It’s really cool to see the songs that Dave has chosen,” Hooke said, “the songs that Dave has written, some songs we’ve played together in the past. But it’s a great look at what he thinks a gig should be, because he’s choosing everything.”
This weekend’s shows will form a big moment, in Grelle’s personal development and professional growth. He says the songs and band are part of his recovery, and a piece of the personal evolution that's been forced on him he’s been forced by circumstances to undertake.
“You’ve gotta find a new self. It’s really rough to say goodbye to the old you, because you want to get all that stuff back,” he said. “You’re told you’ll never be able to run again, you’ll never be able to, you know — you don’t want to believe it.
“And I don’t, but you also have to kind of realize this is a new you. And accept it, and this debut is kind of like: OK, this is the new thing. This is me. This is some stuff I need to get out.”
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