, Salem, MA

December 6, 2012

At shelter, band plays on

Former partners start group after meeting up at River House


---- — Ken Smith was walking through the River House homeless shelter in Beverly in October when he spotted a familiar face. It was Max Zdyrko, his former partner in a local band.

Smith, a 52-year-old house painter originally from Chicago, had become homeless when his apartment building was turned into condos. Zdyrko, a 37-year-old native of Czechoslovakia, was a self-described “starving artist” who also needed a place to stay.

The former bandmates began jamming together, Smith on keyboards and Zdyrko on drums, amid the shelter’s basement bunk beds.

They were soon joined by Bruce Crivello, a 52-year-old former Marine who served in Desert Storm and had also moved into the shelter.

“There was no music, no nothing, when I first got here,” Smith said. “Once music entered into the River House, I was like, wait a minute. It helps. Music is a personal thing. It helps.”

That music is now spreading beyond the shelter. Joined by two others, the shelter residents have formed The River House Band. It has performed at a luncheon for military veterans at the shelter and at a Thanksgiving breakfast at the Italian Community Center. On Saturday, the band is scheduled to play at the Emmanuel Community Church.

“It can be a bit humiliating to be homeless,” River House Executive Director Kate Benashski said. “They wanted to show people what you can do when you come together as a group. It’s really quite inspiring.”

Music has always played a role in the lives of the band members. Smith, who has long dreadlocks and wears a gold cross on a chain around his neck, said he once played in a reggae band that toured Boston, New York and New Orleans. Zdyrko is the son of a retired professional opera singer who performed across Europe.

Crivello, who worked as a plumber before a heart attack left him disabled, said music has always been his “passion.” After losing his job and going through a divorce, playing in a band has given him renewed confidence.

“It makes me feel happy sometimes,” he said. “A lot of times, it’s self-rewarding.”

The other members of the band are Sam Benashski, Kate’s son and a shelter volunteer, and Jim LaFontaine, the pastor at Emmanuel Community Church in Essex.

LaFontaine has donated a drum set, a public address system and a couple of amplifiers to the band. He has also opened up his church to allow the band to practice in a larger space than the cramped shelter.

LaFontaine, who used to run talent shows and other activities at a large drug and alcohol treatment center in Michigan, said the band provides a great outlet for the shelter residents.

“There’s often a lot of musicians that have been involved with addiction, a lot of talented people in general,” he said. “It’s very therapeutic for the guys to be able to have that to focus on. It’s a good quality thing they can do and keep their mind off some other things.”

The band members also give credit to fellow shelter resident Tony Monaco, who calls himself the “godfather” of River House, for encouraging them to perform as a group.

The band members said they would like to keep practicing and making appearances. They’ve even adopted a tagline given to them by Kate Benashski: “We put the ‘funk’ in dysfunctional.”

“It’s fantastic,” Zdyrko said. “It’s more than I can ask for. It’s amazing they let us play here. They’re very supportive.”

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or