‘Our Gift To Newtown:’ After An Abbreviated Performance, Panacea Reuniting Once More For Full Show

Photo: courtesy Panacea

Panacea, which formed while its members were students at Newtown High School in the early 1970s, reunited to perform at The Great Newtown Reunion in July 2013. From left is drummer Rick Kuhn, guitarist Bruce Tibbits, bassist Corky Ballard, flutist Leslie Ballard Dasilva and guitarist Jon Dodson. Last year’s show was cut short due to a curfew, but the band promised to return and finish the performance. The same five will be at Dickinson Park on Sunday, August 30, offering what Corky Ballard calls the band’s gift to Newtown: Panacea & Friends, a free concert that will also include sets by Newtown resident Manny Pavone and local trio Eclipse.

Panacea, who performed what turned out to be an abbreviated reunion set during The Great Newtown Reunion last summer, has promised fans that this time they’re not leaving the stage early.

The band — which formed when members were students at Newtown High School during the early 70s — will headline a concert at Dickinson Park on Sunday, August 31. Panacea will return to their starting point over Labor Day weekend to perform a show that will also include opening sets by Manny Pavone and Eclipse. The event, Panacea & Friends, will begin at 4 pm, and admission is free.

Pavone will play some solo blues on his handmade guitars, according to Panacea member Leslie Ballard DaSilva, followed by the trio Eclipse and their signature three-part harmony of Celtic and folk songs, for about 45 minutes. Panacea will follow around 6 pm, performing until right around sunset at 7:30.

“This is a gift to Newtown from all of us,” said Leslie. She and her brother Corky Ballard sat down recently outside Newtown General Store to talk with The Newtown Bee about the band that continues to hold a special place in their heart. Judging from the response of those at last year’s Great Newtown Reunion — along with those who have already said they will attend this year’s show — the band is a touchstone for many longtime residents.

The band’s original lineup featured Corky on bass, younger sister Leslie on flute and tambourine, guitarist Matt Harris, and drummer Rick Kuhn. All four shared vocal duties.

Jon Dodson eventually replaced Harris, who in turn was later replaced by guitarist Bruce Tibbits.

All were in the Newtown High School music program, then led by Joseph Grasso.

“If not for Mr G, it’s likely that none of us would have gone into music,” Leslie said of the man who taught at NHS for more than 30 years before retiring in 1992. “Every one of us was in chorus. It’s where we all converged. Some of us were also in Mr G’s high school band — I played flute and was a majorette, Cork played trombone, and Rick drums.”

Leslie credits Joe Grasso — for whom the high school’s annual color guard competition is named — with not only launching the school’s music program, but also for making it “a huge magnet for all students.”

With their musical talents piqued, the four original members found each other and formed their band.

“We were looking for something different to do,” Corky said. “We wanted something lighter, like CSNY. Other bands were doing what’s now classic rock, like Cream, but we weren’t looking for that.”

Panacea found the difference they were looking for. Before long, members were performing familiar songs, but with four-part harmonies.

“Having flute in a band, and a girl singer, was unique then,” said Leslie. “Now? It’s a rite of passage.”

Corky handled much of the musical arrangements for the band.

“We had to arrange everything in order to play any of it,” said Corky, who went on to major in music when he went to school at what was then Western Connecticut State College in Danbury. “That taught me a lot.”

Eventually Panacea did some of their own music and by 1971, they were competing in a statewide battle of the bands competition held at The Palace Theater in Waterbury. Facing 164 bands from across the state, Panacea made Newtown very proud: the group brought home the championship title. The high school students performed a medley of their songs, “segments from our original songs,” Corky recalled July 24. “I believe we were the only band that did original music at that event.”

Leslie laughed at one of her favorite memories of the competition.

“I remember our mother scolding us, saying ‘How dare you compete against those other kids? None of them write their own music! That’s an unfair advantage!’” she said.

The Ballards offered support for the project, Leslie was quick to point out. “They let us practice in the basement, and we practiced and performed sometimes seven nights a week.”

“We did a lot of shows,” said Corky.

“Our following in Newtown was huge,” his sister added. “Everyone in Newtown was playing music, and we were gigging a lot.”

The band broke up in 1972, once everyone had graduated from high school. While most have not continued into a musical career today — Leslie is a freelance copy editor and writer, Corky works at TR Paul, Jon does sales for Duncan Aviation in Nebraska, and Matt is retired from the US Navy — Rick came close, having traveled the world with his wife and performing USO shows with The Bobby McGee Show, according to Leslie.

Others remained close to music. Most of Panacea’s members continued to perform in other bands after the group broke up.

Corky was in the band Voices, who recorded and released an album for Atlantic Records in 1985 (“We thought we were going to be rich and famous,” he said with a laugh). He has performed with a number of local bands and continues to maintain a recording studio at his home.

Leslie managed multi-room recording studios in New York City for 20 years, and also sang in the chorus of Amato Opera for five seasons. She moved back to the area following 9/11, and has been a member of Danbury Concert Choir.

Bruce’s band, The Edge, signed to Casablanca Records and also recorded. Rick continues to perform solo, and Jon performs with friends near his home in Nebraska, according to Leslie. 


An Abbreviated Reunion Set

When plans for a Great Newtown Reunion were announced last year, Panacea’s members decided to attend the special event and also perform.

“The Great Newtown Reunion Committee asked us to reunite” after 40 years, said Leslie. “We came from three states, rehearsed one week using our vacation time, and more than 1,500 people were at that reunion. It was the biggest crowd we’ve ever been in front of.”

By late evening at Fairfield Hills on July 27, 2013, the stage belonged to Corky, Bruce, Jon, Rick and Leslie.

“When we got on stage, and Jon announced we were from Newtown, everyone just crowded the stage,” said Corky.

Unfortunately, the day’s schedule ran into the band’s set, leaving them with a very small timeframe before the event’s curfew.

“We played six songs,” said Corky. “We had planned to play for an hour, but only had 20 minutes.”

“We promised the crowd we would do this again this summer,” said Leslie.

From the response of the crowd, the band was both elated — they had a great response to what they did perform, after all — and disappointed. Less than a week later, a letter to the editor from Gay Engelberger offered praise for Panacea.

“Last Saturday night … Panacea absolutely rocked our world,” she wrote in part. “Every single one of the rock group’s members was superb, and the song choices brought tears to our eyes. Panacea was back again, and 40 years magically melted away.

“In the cold light of dawn, it certainly felt like a dream,” she later wrote. “We really did hear Panacea perform, right before our very eyes and the world stood still and life was good. Bruce, Corky, Jon, Ricky and Leslie. Thank you for your talent, thank you for your magic that enveloped all of us in a dream and made us feel young again.”

Leslie said it was that public letter, along with many notes and messages from friends and fans, that made the decision easy.

“That’s what really spoke to us,” she said. “We thought, ‘We need to get together one last time.’”

On August 5, she talked some more about the upcoming show and its purpose.

“This isn’t about us,” she said. “We’re doing this for Newtown to get together.

“We’re obviously not going to have as many people at this show as we had at the reunion last year, but a lot of people said they were disappointed to have missed the reunion, or not get to hear their favorite song. This is a chance for all of those people to get to see us, and for us to see them.

“We hope to see a lot of families, people of all ages,” she added. “We hope to see plenty of dancing.”

The same five who performed at the Great Newtown Reunion will perform at Dickinson Park. As with last year, bandmates will be using vacation time to arrive in town early for rehearsals and catching up.

“Our guitarist is coming from Nebraska, the drummer’s coming from Idaho — my brother still lives in Newtown and I’m in Danbury — and we’re going to do it one more time, free, for everyone on August 31,” said Leslie, who pointed out that the show marks the second time that guitarists Jon and Bruce will be on stage at the same time.

Matt is planning to travel to Newtown for the concert, said Corky. He and his wife be attending the concert, but Matt does not plan to perform.

One of the songs Panacea will definitely be performing will be “Shower The People,” which had been prepared especially for last year’s reunion. Corky arranged the James Taylor song for his bandmates and friends, and each did a recording at their respective homes. At his studio, Corky was then able to create one seamless recording of the song.

The band is hoping this year’s performance turns out to be flawless as well.

“We’re going to have fun, and it’s going to be something that everyone in Newtown can enjoy on Labor Day weekend,” said Corky.

Panacea & Friends is being sponsored by Newtown Parks & Recreation, with additional funding from La Pietra Custom Marble and Granite in Ridgefield.

In addition, TR Paul of Newtown has offered some funding for video recording and other expenses, Leslie Ballard DaSilva said last week.

Follow the band on its Facebook page, or the August 31 event page.

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