Gerry Atwell was a connector: the much-beloved Winnipeg musician connected genres, connected communities and connected people.

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This article was published 26/11/2019 (737 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Gerry Atwell was a connector: the much-beloved Winnipeg musician connected genres, connected communities and connected people.

So when news came of his sudden death Saturday, the city’s arts community was once again thrown into a state of mourning, just three months after losing another pillar, folk festival founder Mitch Podolak.

Ebonie Klassen photo</p><p>Winnipeg musician Gerry Atwell</p>

Ebonie Klassen photo

Winnipeg musician Gerry Atwell

Atwell suffered a heart attack while playing a gig at the Pony Corral on Grant Avenue Friday night. Friends and family spent Saturday at Atwell’s bedside, unsure of his prognosis, but were called back later to say their goodbyes.

"I was kind of in shock to walk into the hospital and see a close friend of mind in a context I’ve never seen him before," says Vince Fontaine, Atwell’s Eagle & Hawk bandmate, who visited him at the hospital three times Saturday. "He was in the hospital bed and was all hooked up; very surreal and very emotional at first.

"A couple dozen people were there in the room to say goodbye; we stood there, talked, told quick stories. People sang a song here and there, just stayed close by. It was very emotional but there was also a sense of our community as people, as human beings, as people from Winnipeg and as the music community. It was quite something."

Atwell was most known for his keyboard and vocal contributions to bands such as Eagle & Hawk (with whom he won a Juno Award in 2002), Ministers of Cool, Rockalypso and Voice of Boom.

Atwell was also a go-to guy when it came to writing grants for artistic or philanthropic endeavours and was considered a hugely knowledgeable mentor who always made himself available to help in whatever way he could.

"First and foremost, he was a great musician and he was such a wonderful, open, kind, beautiful person. I think that was obviously a big part of what attracted so many people to want to play music with him and be around him; he was so supportive of other musicians and just a great guy," says Sean McManus, executive director of Manitoba Music.

"For us at Manitoba Music, we also saw beyond the onstage version of Gerry. Behind the scenes he was a really capable administrator. He tied a lot of different music communities together and he worked in a lot of different communities; he really helped people think about writing grants and how to think about how to run their business.

"He did that formally sometimes — he helped run workshops and do presentations — but I think he also was the kind of person who was just doing that all the time."

Local singer-songwriter Kerri Stephens was on the receiving end of a lot of that advice and guidance from Atwell, whom she first met when she applied to be a singing waitress at the now-defunct Alley Cats piano bar, where Atwell was in charge of hiring the talent.

She got the job, and her professional relationship with Atwell continued to strengthen. He believed in Stephens when she was a 21-year-old folk artist singing "lots of sad songs," so he applied for a grant for her without her knowledge. The funds made it possible to her to record her first demo.

"I would had never have gotten a grant if I had applied at that point, I had nothing to show for myself. He took this risk with me and he mentored me... to this day, every album that I’ve released since is always thanks to him. Always," says Stephens.

"He didn’t just care about music. He was passionate about music but he also cared about the artists, and it just made me realize how important that is and how much of a difference he made in my life by doing that and it makes me want to do that moving forward, to help mentor someone or guide someone or give them the confidence they need to do something that they wouldn’t believe that they could."

And Stephens is just one of many people who have had their life changed because of Atwell, whose reach extends well beyond the music community. Atwell was a pivotal piece of the redevelopment of the Broadway Neighbourhood Centre, where he and Eagle & Hawk bandmate Lawrence "Spatch" Mulhall worked to develop new, more engaging programming such as Just TV, a project now in its 11th year that "provides youth with opportunities to express themselves through multimedia in a safe, fun, creative environment."

"Gerry is quite an intellectual, he’s an amazing grant-writer and a great researcher and the board asked me to come in and I thought, ‘Well I’ll do it if I can bring in Gerry Atwell.’ We hardly had any money and he started writing a series of grants and was successful with every single one," says Mulhall.

"More importantly what he did was he wrote the grants and participated in the grant writing for all the greenspace redevelopment, which is 2.7 acres of greenspace here. So we built soccer fields, revamped the wading pool, built a hockey rink, community gardens, composting, a new commercial kitchen.

"He’s changed the lives of people who didn’t even know he was at the helm of it all."

As substantial and heartfelt tributes poured in on social media throughout the weekend, it became clear the legacy Atwell leaves behind is a massive one. It’s a legacy rooted in kindness, generosity and a true passion for music and the arts.

"I think musically the impact is huge. The bands he ran and the spirit he brought to the stage, we’ve seen it in outpouring of support and condolences from such a huge variety of musicians, from folk musician to rock musicians, R&B musicians and country musicians," says McManus.

"I think that being that kind of a connector and bringing that kind of spirit to the community, it’s almost impossible to quantify what that does for elevating the music that everyone’s doing and elevating the experience for live music in the City of Winnipeg."

"As we work our way onwards, I guess what I would say is Gerry’s presence and spirit with always be with the band and we’ll honour that and pay tribute to him," adds Fontaine.

"He’s leaving a legacy of community, music building and deep friendships."

Twitter: @NireRabel

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Erin Lebar

Erin Lebar
Manager of audience engagement for news

Erin Lebar is a multimedia producer who spends most of her time writing music- and culture-related stories for the Arts & Life section. She also co-hosts the Winnipeg Free Press's weekly pop-culture podcast, Bury the Lede.