Brian Ray and Sam Gomoll

Sam Gomoll, of Sun Prairie (right), performs "Don't Let Me Down" at the "Joey's Song" benefit concert on Dec. 16 at the Barrymore Theatre with musician Brian Ray (left), a guitarist in Paul McCartney's band.

Michael Gomoll watched his son Sam from the wings of the Barrymore Theatre stage Friday night, nearly a decade after Sam’s younger brother, Joey, died — just shy of his fifth birthday — following a battle with a rare form of epilepsy.

It was 17-year-old Sam’s first time singing and playing guitar onstage — and his second performance that night — but you wouldn’t know it. Before him stood about 1,000 people. Beside him stood Brian Ray, who plays guitar in Paul McCartney’s band.

The performance came a few hours after Sam — joined by singer-songwriter Freedy Johnston — closed a performance of John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy” with the line, “beautiful Joey.” Side by side, Sam and Ray strummed and sang their way through The Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down.”

“It's a love that lasts forever /

It's a love that had no past /

Don't let me down, don't let me down”

Michael Gomoll and his family have made it their mission, since Joey’s death, to raise money to fund research, treatment and respite care for individuals and families affected by seizure disorders. The mission started with Gomoll contacting artists, asking for help after Joey’s death — an effort that resulted in a few CDs featuring songs donated by artists including Neko Case, Slaid Cleaves, Rosanne Cash and Robbie Fulks.

It has transformed over time into a benefit concert anchored by Johnston and the Madison-based super-group in which he sometimes performs, The Know-It-All Boyfriends (which includes Garbage’s Butch Vig and Duke Erikson and Madison musician Jay Moran).

Friday’s sold-out “Joey’s Song” benefit show raised about $75,000, Gomoll told me Sunday. Not including the most recent earnings, since 2010, the Joseph Gomoll Foundation has donated nearly $100,000 in cash and goods to organizations including Citizens United in Research for Epilepsy, Gio’s Garden and the Epilepsy Foundation of America.

“What I tell people is, I’m convinced that when we read the press release that some smart lady in a white lab coat has found an effective treatment for Dravet’s (syndrome), I will tell myself that we bought that test tube — that somehow $25 that we raised went to that test tube and Bunsen burner,” Gomoll told me, pausing for a moment. “The answer to every problem isn’t to throw money at it, but when you’re fighting a disease that takes lives, you can’t throw enough money at it.”

There are times when you know in the moment that you are experiencing something special, and Friday’s show was one of those times for me. I didn’t know it was Sam’s first time onstage. But I did know that Miguel Cervantes (the lead of Chicago’s “Hamilton” production) was there — just weeks after losing his own three-year-old daughter after her epilepsy diagnosis — singing a song for her and inviting local high school students onstage to live out their dreams of singing “Hamilton” tunes for a crowd.

I knew that this call to fight epilepsy and support families affected by it had drawn world-class musicians from near and far to Madison year after year, not one of them taking a penny for their performances. And I knew I was so proud to live in a city where this could happen — and not just happen once, but become the sort of benefit that takes on a life of its own over time.

The format that “Joey’s Song” has settled into allows for a great deal of flexibility — members and friends of The Know-It-All-Boyfriends serve as the house band, showcasing guest stars from near and far. You wouldn’t know it from watching the show, but most of the rehearsals happen just one day before the event — and sometimes, last-minute collaborations happen in those rehearsals that come to steal the show in the ultimate performance, like Sam’s “Beautiful Boy” rendition and a cover of The Cars’ “Drive” led by Appleton’s Cory Chisel.

Two years ago, Gomoll thought the show would be the benefit’s last live performance — at least for a while. He didn’t want to take advantage of the musicians who had donated their time and energy year after year. But those musicians — Johnston and Vig in particular, he said — had other ideas. Joey’s Song would live on.

And this year — for the first time, Gomoll said — the show sold out.

“I think we kind of went over a hump in a good way,” Gomoll said. “I just feel like maybe now we’ve got a little more momentum in the right way. I can’t tell you that we’re going to do this forever, but I do feel like if we get a little bit ahead of the curve, we can keep moving this forward until it naturally runs out of steam.”

That means plans are already in the works for next year’s show.

Gomoll has noticed, over time, that this world of musicians and people who strive to do good for others is a small one. I have found the same to be true. One of the earliest “Joey’s Song” headliners, Rhett Miller, is one of my favorite musicians (and people). A dear friend of mine, Trapper Schoepp, was on this year’s bill. And Gomoll has his own share of “Hey, I know him (or her), too!” stories.

In a world full of unfairness and disappointment and heartbreak, these little fibers that connect us to each other — that show us the goodness of humanity — are hard to come by, and precious when we find them.

My wish, thanks to Joey’s Song, is for all of us to recognize them and celebrate them in the coming year.

“It's a love that lasts forever /

It's a love that had no past /

Don't let me down, don't let me down”

Jessie Opoien is opinion editor of The Capital Times. jopoien@madison.com and @jessieopie

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Jessie Opoien is the Capital Times' opinion editor. She joined the Cap Times in 2013, covering state government and politics for the bulk of her time as a reporter. She has also covered music, culture and education in Madison and Oshkosh.