RIP Sense Field’s Jon Bunch: Saturday, the TLA will fill up in memoriam

The singer who influenced tens of thousands of fans died this winter; this weekend, a can’t-miss tribute show takes over South Street.

How often do you get to be a part of something that matters? On Saturday, old punks from all across the country will descend on South St. and meet at the TLA for something that truly matters.

Jon Bunch matters.

To tens of thousands of fans around the world, Jon Bunch — the former singer of influential melodic punk band Sense Field — mattered. When Bunch died in February at age 45 after what was ruled a suicidal overdose, the loss mattered, both to those spawned from the influential punk community he helped build in the late 1990s and, in a more personal sense, for his 12-year old son, Jack, who he left behind this winter.

This Saturday, Bunch’s surviving band mates from Sense Field and his other band, Further Seems Forever, will join a who’s who of names and voices in the punk rock community for the second of two benefit shows. They’re being put on to both honor Bunch’s legacy in the industry, and help raise money for a college fund set up for his son. To date, fans and friends have raised more than $65,000, with Philly’s show hoping to continue to push that total forward.

Remembering the Life and Love of Jon Bunch – East Coast Edition from Exit House Films on Vimeo.

“It’s sad what happened, but the show is all about getting together to celebrate him,” former band mate Rodney Sellars told me via phone before flying from California to Philly this week. “It’s not like we can bring him back, but we can remember him in a really good way.”

“Instead of everybody just on our own feeling sad, we can all get together and sing his songs and remember all the stuff he did that made us feel good.”

The first benefit was an enormous show out in California, just a few weeks after Bunch’s death. Sellars called that show “a little overwhelming.”

“I knew Jon had a lot of influence over people,” he said, “but I guess I didn’t realize how much. The first show was nuts. There were so many bands who hadn’t played in like 20 years getting back together. It’s kind of a monumental thing, with people wanting to get together to pay their respects.”

One of those people was Jeff Caudill, the front man of California-based outfit Gameface, who performed at the show in California and will be on stage for the Philly show as well.

“It was heavy,” Caudill told me. “It was heavy. I looked up to him just about every way. Early on, when Gameface was just starting to be a band, I just loved Reason to Believe in the late ‘80s, and when Sense Field started they blew me away. I kind of put Sense Field and Jon Bunch on this level above anything my band would ever do, and it kind of always stayed there.

“Although we were peers,” he continued, “Jon was just this fucking voice and this glowing figure. He was one of those guys I just really, really looked up to.”

At the time when bands like Sense Field, Gameface, Texas is the Reason, Farside and Lifetime — Garrett Klahn, Popeye Vogelsang and Ari Katz from those last three bands, respectively, will also be performing with Sense Field at the Philly show — a lot of us were still just trying to figure out life.

Sometimes when I think back on those nights driving to dank clubs, church basements or reconditioned warehouses to see these bands we only got to see every year or two on tour, the memories are less about the music and more about the shared experiences, the post-set conversations, the teary-eyed is-this-all-there-is-to-life moments you had with people you barely knew, yet felt — through their music and words — there was no one on the planet who knew you better.

It’s hard to think back to how many times one of the people who will be at the TLA on Saturday saved my life without even knowing it. And I’m not the only one. There were thousands of people just like me — in Philly and all over the country — just looking for somewhere to fit in; searching for some place to go where we felt like we belonged, to forget about everything else and just live in that moment.

Jon Bunch helped many of us live in that moment. This Saturday, it’s going to hurt that he won’t be there to live in this one with us.

“At the California show, the Sense Field set went by in five minutes,” Caudill recounted. “My thing for this show in Philly, knowing it’s going to be the last one, I really want to try to remember every moment. It’s a shame, but pretty incredible when these types of things happen that people can rally together and do something really cool.”

In my conversations with both Caudill and Sellars I mentioned that I feel like I have to go more than I want to go. There’s an obligation, not just to raise money for Bunch’s son, but to pay respects as well.

“Bottom line is,” Sellars answered, “Jon wouldn’t want us to get all bummed out and sad. He’ be stoked, so I try to keep that in mind, because you start to feel guilty for being excited but then you’re like, ‘but he wouldn’t want us to feel guilty or sad; he would just want you to be excited and have fun.’”

I asked Sellars why they chose Philly. Of all the places to have an East Coast pay tribute to Bunch, why here?

“East Coast fans were really supportive. In the early days, the East Coast shows were some of our best show, where we would have more people than anywhere else in the country. I remember Philly being some of the best show we ever played in terms of so many people and everybody really excited.

“Real early on, before anyone knew anything about us, Philly was always really supportive.”

It helped to have good support on the ground, too. Jeremy Weiss has been tour-managing bands for nearly three decades. He runs CI Records, a recording label and store out of Lancaster, with a shop in Center City for years as well. Weiss is the one who put Saturday’s show together, spending much of his own money to fly in some of the performers.

“Jon and I were very good friends,” Weiss told me via phone. “I tour managed the band from 1999 through 2003 when they called it. I owned a company that tour managed Further Seems Forever and they were making a singer change and we connected Jon with Further… Jon and I stayed very close up until the time of his passing. We spoke at least weekly for the last 10 years.”

Weiss said that after the California show he reached out to friends at LiveNation who were excited to be a part of an East Coast event, either at the TLA or at Irving Plaza in New York. As Weiss told me, “we felt that Philadelphia was one of those really special places for Sense Field.”

“The central purpose of this show is to raise money for Jon’s surviving 12-year old son. I’ve stayed in contact with his son since and we actually play fantasy baseball together and he rips on me about the Phillies recent losing streak and I have to take it from a 12 year old.”

He stressed — seriously he could tell by the tone of my voice when asking the question — this is not going to be a sad affair. It’s a fundraiser for a young boy who lost his father and, more than anything, it’s a rock concert.

“This is by no means a funeral,” he reassured me. “This is very much a gathering of people who admired Jon personally, sure, but the lion’s share of which admired his body of work. This is a rock concert. This is fundraiser. Yes it’s a benefit and a memorial, but we aren’t rolling tape or eulogizing at this. This is very much a show and a celebration.”

Weiss stressed the performers are there out of admiration for Bunch’s work, and to do their best to pay homage to his beautiful memory.

In addition to Sense Field songs, at least one Further Seems Forever will be getting the celebrity cover treatment too. (Try to get through that song without crying. I dare you.)

“After Jon recorded ‘For All We Know’ he called Rodney and it had been maybe a year since they’d spoken extensively and Jon said, ‘Hey Rodney, I needed to call a friend. I just did the performance of my life on a song. It’s my favorite thing I’ve ever done.’” Weiss recalled to me. “I immediately knew that Further Seems Forever could not play this song. It’s a crazy Jon Bunch range and Jon Bunch tone and very soft and beautiful and three octaves wide and whatever — and I thought of Richie (Birkenhead) from Into Another…

“So one of the secrets of this show is that Richie is not only going to sing a Sense Field song, but he’s actually going to be performing with Further, singing this song that they could seldom play live after Jon’s departure. It’s a beautiful song.”

The show is going to be incredible before that, too. Klahn will be performing an acoustic set of only Texas is the Reason songs. Dave Smalley is going to be there with his band, playing Dag Nasty and Down By Law songs. The list goes on.

Doors open at the TLA at 4 p.m. Weiss and I joked that since we’re all much older than back when we’d drive six hours for a show in some old rented out VFW hall somewhere, he promises this show will be over by a reasonable hour, probably before 11 p.m. when, as he put it, “a bunch of really cool people will descend upon South St. for the rest of the evening.”

He also made sure to punctuate the importance of the event.

“This is the very last time the band Sense Field will ever play. For obvious reasons, it’s not with Jon, but it’s still the last time Sense Field will play. The line-up is kick ass. No matter what anyone thinks, 100 percent of their ticket from this day forward is going directly to the cause.”

“You can sleep well knowing that this is absolutely 100 percent going to the task at hand that is to raise money for his son.”

Tickets are available at the TLA on Saturday, or in advance. If you can make the show, please do find me to come share a moment. They really do matter.

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