Stuart Peak is grateful to the music community for its generosity after health emergency
Community reaches out to help one of its own in need: It’s a classic feel-good tale often found amid the pages of newspapers, on TV news broadcasts, or, in more recent years, on a website or social media platform.
The story may be a familiar one, but that doesn’t make the subject any less compelling or heart-warming, especially in an era when heightened tension over politics, pandemics, and economics makes a bit of good news welcome. And it’s a story that Stuart Peak, a stalwart member of Greater Boston’s Irish music scene, never imagined would be his.
Earlier this year, the Middleboro resident – enjoying the resurgence of music events and activities that had been largely shut down by Covid for most of the past two years – suddenly found himself in the hospital for a week, wracked by life-threatening ketoacidosis and saddled with a diagnosis of diabetes.
Since his release, Peak has endured nausea, vomiting and stomach pains, as well as difficulty in keeping food or liquids in his system, and limited energy overall. Some of the medications he took resulted in blurred vision, which made driving – especially at night – a very risky proposition. Peak’s situation was all the more serious given that his health insurance only covered some of his medical expenses.
“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” says Peak, 39, who was born in Massachusetts but spent his childhood in Maine. “I’d never been in the hospital before, except to visit other people. There was no messing around with this: If you’re not treated quickly and in the right way, you can die.”
All of which made it near impossible for Peak to handle the ongoing assortment of gigs that has been his livelihood since he took up as a full-time musician more than a decade ago. Among other activities, Peak is a regular and co-host at many area sessions, especially at The Tinker’s Son in Norwell, and has played in numerous bands and other collaborations, most recently Connacht and Erin Og.
Crowd-sourcing via the Internet has become a staple of 21st-century life, but Peak resisted the idea at first. “I’m a very private person,” he explains. “I just don’t like putting my personal life out there for everyone to see; I’ve always tried to keep it professional. I talked to some of my bandmates about doing a GoFundMe, because I didn’t want them to feel ostracized or uncomfortable with it, and they were all very supportive.”
So, despite his reluctance, Peak took his story public and started a GoFundMe site in June. “I've never asked for anything charitable in my life,” he wrote on the page, “but I feel like in my time of need, this community and beyond will come out to support me. I thank you for anything you can contribute.”
The response has been “above and beyond,” according to Peak. The original GoFundMe goal of $10,000 was met in four days, and donations are still coming in. Peak also has received contributions via Venmo and by check, and even had books gifted to him through Amazon.
Peak says he will use any funds received for cost-of-living expenses and medical bills. How long it will take him to get his life back to normal – or close to normal – is unknown at this point.
On Wednesday (July 20), The Tinker’s Son will hold a special evening from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. to benefit Peak. There will be an open session as well as entertainment, including a performance by Connacht (which Peak will sit out, much as he’d rather not). Admission is $25 at the door.
Though he has Irish and Scottish ancestry, Peak didn’t exactly grow up playing Celtic music – his musicianship began as a fifth-grader playing clarinet, and then piano, in the school band. But a few years later, while perusing the stacks one day in a bookstore, he heard an album by Scottish champion fiddler Bonnie Rideout. He bought Rideout’s album, then snapped up “No Boundaries” by Cape Breton fiddler Natalie MacMaster.
“I guess the best way I can describe what happened is, ‘It spoke to me’ – I just had never heard this music before, and I knew it was part of my heritage, so I felt a strong connection,” says Peak. “I quickly went from wanting to listen to it to wanting to play it.”
On a trip to Boston, Peak picked up a tin whistle with instruction booklet and cassette and, inspired by listening to esteemed musicians like Mary Bergin, taught himself to play. He found a youth musical group run by a contra dance musician, providing another gateway into traditional music. Having learned whistle, Peak turned his attention to fretted-string instruments, like the guitar, bouzouki, and tenor banjo.
Peak’s awakening coincided with the emergence of “Riverdance” as a global sensation and a fount of Irish culture, and by the time he moved to Massachusetts in 2001, he had narrowed his focus to Irish music. Peak made his rounds of sessions in the Boston area, including the venerable Green Briar, where he befriended and played with Larry Reynolds, a giant of the local Irish music scene for decades. As he became established as a well-known musician himself, Peak found more and more opportunities to play, including with renowned figures like uilleann piper Paddy Keenan and concertina player Mary MacNamara.
A vacation to Ireland in 2010 proved to be a turning point: Not only did Peak get a full immersion experience in the music, when he returned home he found out that he’d been laid off from his full-time job. “I just said, ‘I’m done with this,’” he recalls. “I’d been playing out up to four nights a week, even with a full-time job. So now that the job was gone, I decided to make music my full-time occupation.”
Peak had already learned that when music is your business, “you really have to make your own opportunities.” Even before he went full-time as a musician, he’d made a valuable connection with Tinker’s Son owner Brian Houlihan, who hired him to help run the pub’s weekly session. Peak continued to find or create opportunities wherever he could, and adding to an ever-growing list of friends and acquaintances connected to Irish music.
These relationships have proved to be critical to Peak during these difficult months, and he’s been heartened not just by the financial assistance but by the many messages of encouragement he’s received.
“They all want to help, and it means a lot to know that. You hope that, in your life, you’ve done a good job connecting with people, and an experience like this really makes you feel you’ve got a community behind you.”
Stuart Peak’s fundraising page is at gofundme.com/f/janbj3-local-musician-needs-help.