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Local poster child Andrew Slay is the inspiration behind a benefit concert to be held on Brown's Island Saturday. 

"Banding Together" for Andrew

Andrew Slay has some high-profile friends. Among them are the members of Richmond-based music veterans Cracker.

Along with a slew of other bands, Cracker is helping to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Andrew's Buddies/Fight SMA — a nonprofit organization devoted to finding a cure for a genetic disease that affects roughly 20,000 young Americans.

On Sept. 8, Brown's Island will host "Banding Together," a benefit concert with the goal of raising awareness and funds for spinal muscular atrophy (SMA).

Andrew — the namesake of the Andrew's Buddies foundation — is a 14-year-old Richmonder with the devastating disorder.

Soon after Andrew's birth, Martha and Joe Slay noticed that his movement didn't seem normal. Shortly thereafter, Andrew was diagnosed with SMA.

"It was very shocking to discover that there was something horribly wrong with my child's health," says Martha Slay. "After you get over that, the worst news was that there was no treatment and no medicine — really nothing going on to help your child."

The condition, which attacks neurons responsible for relaying messages to muscle cells, is the leading genetic cause of infant death. The result is muscular atrophy, or progressive loss of muscle tone. At its most severe, SMA can lead to paralysis, respiratory failure and possibly death. At a minimum, it causes chronic weakness and makes mobility difficult for the affected.

So the couple took matters into their own hands. In 1991, they founded Andrew's Buddies with the intention of accelerating research through ample funding. Within the first 30 days of its existence, $100,000 was raised to purchase a DNA sequencer. Ten years later, the organization has raised over $2 million. The good news is that the defective gene that causes SMA has been isolated by scientists and drug trials are underway. The hope is that an effective treatment will eventually be discovered.

Recently, the buddy system has taken on a whole new meaning for Andrew and his longtime buddy, bassist Brandy Wood of Cracker. "I got involved with the event because Andrew is a neighbor," says Wood. "I grew up on the North Side and his family is just a block away from where I grew up. My father is involved with Andrew's Buddies."

A huge happening such as the Brown's Island concert is no easy endeavor to coordinate. Wood, however, was up to the challenge. "I thought I may be able to help them at least figure out who to call," Wood explains. "I just started calling radio stations and asking who does these events. It slowly got back to a couple different source people, to the point where the event was becoming a reality."

It makes sense that her band would serve as a musical focal point and ringleader for the event. Cracker frontman David Lowery was immediately warm to the idea. "Brandy has been associated with this charity for a while, and I have always promised to help out with a benefit. She had organized one in New York previously," Lowery says. "Andrew's Buddies wanted to do one down here, and because of her connection, it was natural that Cracker would be part of it."

With that, the effort was underway. Martha Slay was ecstatic. "Historically, we have done these auction events. These were held in venues where no more than 700 people could attend and were usually high-dollar. We wanted to do something on our 10th anniversary that would be much more inclusive in terms of price and venue," she explains.

Andrew Slay is managing these days. Although he is confined to a wheelchair, according to Martha Slay, he is doing well. "He excels at school and is an avid sports fan — a great all-around guy. But he operates from 200 pounds of steel."

Andrew is relatively fortunate. Others affected with the crippling defect aren't so lucky and often live more restricted lives. By no means is the battle over. Andrew, and all those struggling with SMA, still need a little assistance from friends.

The all-day, two-stage music festival on Brown's Island will feature performances by Cracker, Earth to Andy, The Jangling Reinharts (members of BS&M), Jimmie's Chicken Shack and a solo appearance by John Bell of Widespread Panic. The second stage will host Tabula Rasa, Gary Gerloff, Used Carlotta, Modern Groove Syndicate and Regan.

A multiband concert at the spacious venue with a river view seems appropriate. "It just seems like the right place for a day that is music- and family-oriented," Wood says. "We didn't want it to be at a club where certain people wouldn't have access because of their age, and also we wanted it to be a wheelchair-accessible location. We had thought about just starting off small and doing something in a club, but we couldn't really find one that fit our needs. This event is special because all are welcome."

Brown's Island is, indeed, the ideal setting. And because it is a public arena, Andrew's Buddies hopes to create a more across-the-board awareness of SMA. "We're trying to reach a different audience," Wood says.

What exactly is the ultimate goal? Slay expounds: "The idea is that people come out and have a good time, hear great music, and we can get the message across about the disease and raise money for research."

Wood adds: "Basically, we want to cure SMA."

With any luck, the Brown's Island benefit concert will become the first of many annual musical events associated with the SMA cause. "We would like to do this every year," says Slay. "Hopefully, we can build on this and make it recurring. We would love to be able to repeat this on an annual basis." S



"Banding Together" comes to Brown's Island Saturday, Sept. 8, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 in advance, $15 at the gate and can be purchased at Plan 9 or at Little Caesars locations; by phone at (800) 594-TIXX; or online at www.bandingtogether.musictoday.com

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