Paul Martinez was onstage at the Annapolis Rising benefit concert for Capital Gazette shooting survivors and their families in 2018 when he noticed Zane Brennan in the crowd.
A drummer for The Great Heights Band, Martinez had recently lost his friend Rob to suicide.
“I was thinking how very fortunate I am to still be making music, but I was melancholic that Rob is not with us anymore,” Martinez said. “Zane had a Burgers and Bands sign that said, ‘You are not alone.’ It caught my eye. It’s a couple simple words that sum up a lot.”
Martinez and Zane, the child of Burgers and Bands founder Ann Brennan, connected after the performance. With that encounter, the Great Heights Band became a lineup addition to the annual Burgers and Bands for Suicide Prevention concert at Severna Park Taphouse.
“It was a no-brainer to get involved because I am very passionate about mental health,” Martinez said. “I’ve had too many people leave the world by those means.”
The Great Heights Band was one of 27 acts to perform at this year’s event on May 21. All musicians, whether young or old, participate as volunteers.
Big acts took the main stage, next to the Priddy Music Academy stage. Inside Severna Park Taphouse, George Evans coordinated acts on the acoustic stage.
His goal for the event each year is to remove the stigma surrounding mental health.
“A diabetic is going to get insulin and the help they need. Someone with mental health shouldn’t be judged,” he said. “Burgers and Bands is more than this event. It’s a year-long thing and a message we need to get out there.”
Fifteen-year-old Bella Holmes attributed the message as the reason she got involved. She sang tunes from Jet, Paramore and other bands as the vocalist for a Priddy Music Academy band, Walk-Ins Welcome.
“I’m here to perform and I hope you guys like the music,” she said, “but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how well I do because the end goal is that you should be contributing to this cause and knowing that you are helping people out there. It’s just something beyond yourself.”
One of her bandmates, 13-year-old bassist Alex Eloff, chatted with The Great Heights Band after taking the stage. Not only does Burgers and Bands emphasize the importance of mental health awareness but it also provides young musicians with a chance to meet role models.
“Playing in the same area as [The Great Heights Band], it definitely makes me feel better about myself,” Alex said. “And getting to talk to them, like the bassist told me he didn’t start playing until he was 16, so I already had a few years on him. That whole band is super nice.”
Alex has played bass for about five years and his influences have grown, starting with Green Day and now including Queens of the Stone Age.
“I have started listening more to R&B and hip-hop,” he said. “It has definitely driven my playing to a funkier kind of mannerism. I’m also listening to much heavier music.”
The bond between musicians has been fun to witness for Evans, who recalled his introduction to the music scene 10 to 15 years ago.
“People gave me tips and pointers, but it was tough to break into,” Evans said. “As I got acclimated … I wanted to be part of a scene where we support one another. It’s competitive, but I’ve seen it grow where bands are coming to see other acts perform and that is really cool. It’s turned into a fraternal sort of thing where musicians are hanging out and supporting one another.”
Even with that in mind, the musicians did not lose sight of their purpose for attending Burgers and Bands.
For Martinez, the cause is personal. He attempted suicide 22 years ago. Peers saw him as the captain of his school’s wrestling and lacrosse teams, a member of a punk band, and a skateboarder. He had many talents, but inside he was hurting.
“At 16 years old, you’re trying to figure yourself out but also be independent,” he said. “You’re taught to stuff your feelings down as a man. We don’t have emotional support systems because we’re taught that having feelings is wrong. I felt like I couldn’t handle it.”
Now, he does not feel that burden.
“My band is my emotional support group,” he said. “We are four guys who are there for each other.”
He is starting a Baltimore-based nonprofit to collect drumstick donations for kids interested in drumming.
Ann Brennan is proud to have assembled an event with so many people, like Martinez, who are dedicated to the cause of suicide awareness and prevention.
“Burgers and Bands is an event that represents hope,” Brennan said. “It’s a celebration of survival. You can make it through depression without ending your life. There is hope for a better life.”
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