After months of grappling with loss and controversy, friends and family of Paul Heenan, the local musician who was fatally shot by a Madison police officer last fall, want to celebrate his life.
Paulie Fest has its roots in Heenan’s many local musical collaborations, and will be presented at the High Noon Saloon on Friday, May 31, and Saturday, June 1.
Heenan, 30, accidentally entered a neighbor’s home after a night of drinking in the early morning of Nov. 9. Madison police Officer Stephen Heimsness, responding to a 911 call, shot the unarmed Heenan, who he said was trying to get his gun. The Madison Police Department said Heimsness followed proper procedures and the Dane County District Attorney’s Office declined to press charges, but many neighbors have been upset by what they see as an excessive use of force for the situation.
“Most of us just kept ourselves busy by thinking about the situation and burying ourselves into it to find some sort of justice,” event organizer and friend Kevin Pellerin said of the direct aftermath of Heenan’s death, referring to peace rallies and petitions organized by close friends and family.
“There’s been so much controversy, but this (event) really just focuses on celebrating his life and raising money for the Fender Music Foundation,” he said. “This is our way to heal.”
The festival’s lineup reflects the range of Heenan’s musical pursuits throughout his life, from Oregon, Wis. to New York to Madison, where he returned to live last summer.
All but one of the eight groups performing in the event are directly connected to Heenan in some way. The festival kicks off Friday with jazz combos from Oregon High School — organized by Heenan’s former music teacher, Leyla Sanyer — and continues with performances from rock groups Beyond Reason, a band whose work Heenan had just finished producing, and Mojo Radio, a group Heenan was planning to compose for and perform with. Hometown Sweethearts, which features one of Heenan’s former roommates, headlines Friday night’s bill.
Pellerin described Heenan as someone who could go from fixing a friend’s car to writing, performing, recording and editing a song in a matter of hours. “[He was] a jack of all trades,” he said. “Just a really kind soul.”
Cliff Hammer, a close friend and bassist in Heenan’s first band, Monovox, said Heenan was a natural born musician, which translated into talents as a music engineer and producer, in addition to skills as a multi-instrumentalist.
“He could play drums, he had a drum set, he could play bass, he was a singer, he was a songwriter,” he said. “He could do it all.”
Saturday night’s lineup features Hammer’s indie rock group Lorenzo’s Music, Cowboy Winter, a 1960s-style soul group Heenan was preparing to record, and headliner Solid Gold, a Minneapolis-based indie rock band with whom Heenan performed after Monovox disbanded.
Pellerin said All Tiny Creatures, the only band not directly connected to Heenan, approached organizers to participate while on tour with Bon Iver.
The festival will culminate Saturday night with a special tribute for Heenan. Shortly after his death, Pellerin discovered original songs Heenan had posted to YouTube. Festival musicians and Heenan’s friends will play some of these selections, each bringing a candle to the stage while a memorial slideshow plays in the background.
“I thought it would be really cool to see [these original songs] come to life, since Paulie didn’t have a chance,” Pellerin said.
A silent auction is planned for the event, and Paulie Fest T-shirts and guitar picks will be for sale, too. All proceeds benefit the Fender Music Foundation, which supports school music education programs.
Pellerin and Hammer said they hope to make Paulie Fest an annual event, but this year’s installment is especially for those who knew and loved Heenan.
“It’s so easy to get bogged down in all the controversy and the negativity surrounding everything,” Hammer said. “We need a light to go to instead of sitting in the dark like we have been all winter.”