Giving back to a Juneau musician

Posted: Thursday, June 04, 2009

Tag Eckels, longtime piano player at the Red Dog Saloon, is a well-known figure in the Juneau community, and he also holds a unique place within the state as a whole.

David Sheakley / Juneau Empire
David Sheakley / Juneau Empire

"I'm the No. 1 man-made attraction in the No. 1 man-made attraction in Alaska," Eckles said.

The musician has been forced to take a leave of absence from his role as Phineas Poon, Red Dog entertainer, due to his recent cancer diagnosis. A fundraising event this Sunday has been organized to help raise funds for his medical treatments.

"It's a community fundraiser, everyone is invited," said Jenny Dawson, one of the organizers.

The event runs from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the Hangar Ballroom, across from the Hangar on the Wharf restaurant. The Hangar will offer an optional Jambalaya dinner for $10 during the event. The fundraiser itself is free.

Live music will be provided by various musicians including Moses Kane, Jay Caputo, Dave Dowd, Tom Locher and Beatrice Caujolie, and Bobby Reynolds, otherwise known as the Great Baldini. Reynolds is filling in for Eckles at the Red Dog this summer.

Jeff Tassin, a three-time Emmy-award winning musician from Washington, will also perform on Sunday, and again the following Friday, June 12, at the Red Dog Saloon.

A silent auction, held from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., will include items from some of Juneau's best-known creative minds, including a painting by Dan de Roux, prints by Rie Munoz and a Johnny Ellis bracelet from Raven's Journey, as well as a fishing trip on the Dawson's boat, catered dinners, and many more items.

Eckles has decided to pursue an alternative course of medicine to treat his pancreatic cancer, working in conjunction with the Optimum Health Institute in San Diego, the Seattle Cancer & Wellness Center, and his local health care provider, Dr. Emily Kane.

"Its pretty much based on the Optimum Health Institute's program of raw organic vegetables, the object being to detoxify the body and strengthen the system to fight the cancer rather than putting in poisons," Eckles said. He started the program six weeks ago, and said he feels good but a little weak.

"Its rabbit food, and I'm not used to this kind of stuff," he said. "I'm used to more substantial intake."

Eckles first came to Alaska in 1971 while on tour with the rock band Ben Roe. While in Juneau, he and several other band members fell in love with Southeast and decided to stay. After a few years living his dream as a honky-tonk piano player behind Soapy Smith in the "Days of '98" show in Skagway, Eckles moved back to Juneau and began playing with local musicians at the Red Dog Saloon, while sidelining with rock bands.

Phineas Poon, the character Eckles assumes when playing piano at the Red Dog, was born about 20 years ago. The persona came about over time as Eckles realized the tourist audiences weren't engaging in his music.

"I wanted to make an impact and illicit a response," Eckles said in an Empire interview last May. "So I threw out all the rules of, 'This is a cool song that I like,' and 'This is a cool song I think they'll like' and I just got to the point where, I'll do whatever it takes to wake 'em up and play whatever song engages them."

Through a process of elimination Eckles came up with a repertoire of songs he noticed worked every time.

"What it came down to was the nostalgia point - songs that they knew when they were kids, that they hadn't sung in 30 years, or 50, that they could just let down their hair and irresistibly had to sing." He never gets tired of it, he said, because it's different every time - a new crowd, a new mood, a fresh bond.

Eckels has been missing his role as Phineas Poon this season, but is staying in touch with his music while he's on leave.

"I'm doing a little composing - and lots of sleeping," he said.

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