A photographic account of heavy music in Portland, Maine
Mark Belanger attended his own funeral, and it was a pretty good time.
That’s how the 43-year-old guitarist/singer of Pigboat likens a series of benefit shows thrown last year in his honor.
The Relentless Belanger was a four-day bender in August that was held in three venues and featured 16 local bands. The shows raised money for the frontman who was in the midst of a health-care crisis. Belanger had been diagnosed in April 2013 with lymphoma — cancer of the lymph nodes — and was undergoing chemotherapy.
Belanger’s prognosis was good all along — the success rate for lymphoma treatment hovers around 90 percent — but he missed three months of work at Guitar Grave and his bills were piling up, so Belanger’s friends stepped up. The benefit shows were organized by WCYY personality Mark Curdo, restauranteur/entrepreneur/musician Johnny Althoff, and all-around badass Sean Libby.
It wasn’t the first time the community came together for one of its own. A few years earlier, a similar series of benefit shows was thrown for the family of Spike Jennings — a fixture in the Portland music scene who died suddenly from a heart attack. Thoughts of Jennings’ shows weighed on Belanger’s mind during the Relentless Belanger. Attendance for both benefits was noteworthy and the comparison was unavoidable.
“[Jennings] never got to see any of that, but I did,” Belanger said. “It was like seeing my own funeral, which wasn’t a bad thing, because the real one, I’m not going to get to see that.”
Earlier this week, Pigboat released its second LP. The album is dedicated to Jennings. The eight songs on “Distracted by Adventures in Healthcare” were written before Belanger’s cancer experience, but the album title is a direct result. Recording was often delayed by his illness.
The collection was recorded by Wally Wenzel (of Mallet Brothers fame) and released on Deporter Records — a Portland-based independent label founded by Pigboat bassist Ed Porter and his brother, Doug. (Pigboat’s drummer is Brian Chaloux.)
“It sounds like us,” Belanger said of the album. “We’re not blazing new trails. We sound like what we sound like.”
The album shows an obvious affection for ’90s heavy music. Belanger said the trio takes its inspiration from “Sabbath, punk, rock, anything with a loud, heavy guitar tone.”
And the guitar tone on “Distracted” is correct. For the rhythm tracks, Belanger plugged into four half-stack amps.
“It was a ridiculous guitar setup,” he said. “Two passes of rhythm guitar ate up 17 tracks of audio.”
The band will play songs from the album Friday during a CD release party at Geno’s Rock Club. If all goes well, Pigboat’s set will feature guest appearances from Libby and Whitcomb singer Brant Dadaleares. (Also playing are Mindset X — a prog metal band from New Hampshire — and Sylvia. [Sylvia recently announced that Friday’s performance will be the band’s “last show until we finish writing new tunes” or until they release their long-awaited 7-inch split with Eastern Spell.])
The album follows Pigboat’s 2006 EP, “Nothing’s Ever Finished,” and 2009 LP, “Float.” The band celebrated its 10-year anniversary in May.
“We make records just a little bit faster than Tool,” Belanger joked.
Belanger was born and raised in Bangor and moved to Portland in 1995. At Guitar Grave, Belanger waits on customers, fixes guitars and, more recently, edits surveillance videos from the store into true-crime stories and/or irreverent glimpses into the human condition — the kind of bizarro shit you’d expect to see within a pawn shop on Congress Street, Portland, Maine.
The videos, called Tales from the Grave, have attracted a swarm of attention this year. Stories about Belanger’s videos appeared in the Press Herald, Down East and, um, Today’s Pawnbroker. Belanger’s video work also earned storeowner Mike Fink a citizen’s award for helping police detectives identify bad actors, so to speak.
Before his second act as a video editor, however, Belanger was diagnosed with cancer.
Belanger quickly learned that his type of illness has a tagline among medical professionals: “‘If you have to pick a cancer, lymphoma is the one you want,'” he said. The worst part about the disease was the month between his diagnosis and the start of chemotherapy.
“It kind of felt like the opening scene in ‘Saving Private Ryan,'” he said. “You’re on the boat, you’re headed toward the shore and you know it’s not going to be fun, but you don’t know what’s going to happen yet. Once that ramp goes down, then it’s happening, and whatever happens you’ll deal with. But … not knowing is the worst part.”
In some ways, Belanger’s cancer experience was atypical — if there is such a thing.
“I joked going into it that I’d be the one guy who gets cancer and gains weight. Turned out that was true,” he joked.
Belanger also shaved his long hair in anticipation of losing it all, but the decision proved hasty.
“I figured, ‘If I don’t shave it, it’s going to come out in big patches and clumps and I’ll look like the Toxic Avenger or something,'” he recalled. “After the first treatment, my hair started growing back and I wasn’t too happy about it.”
Eventually, his hair did start falling out, but, for the most part, it originated below the belt.
“I told my doctor about it and she said, ‘Don’t worry about it. A lot of people spend good money for that.'”
Belanger said the benefit shows last summer were simultaneously weird, humbling and awesome. Aside from bolstering his spirit and lifting him out of a tough spot, the Relentless Belanger also helped him plan for his eventual demise, whenever that may be.
“After last summer, I’m kind of content. You can just throw me in the dump [when I die]. I’ve had my funeral,” he said, before briefly reconsidering. “If it was legal, I’d like to be stuffed … Put me in Perry’s Nut House.”