For a certain, decidedly large New London demographic, the Dutch Tavern has always been the go-to spot in times of joy and sorrow. Over the years, dozens if not hundreds of wedding, graduation or sports-related celebrations — and wakes and memorial gatherings — have spontaneously combusted in the narrow, familial bar where Eugene O’Neill, a fine observer of the scope of human emotion, is reputed to have drunk.
Yet it perhaps surprised folks that the Dutch opened for business Tuesday. After all, the Tavern is owned by Reducers guitarist/vocalist Peter Detmold and his wife, Martha Conn, and early Tuesday the band’s bassist, Steve Kaika, passed away after a fight with cancer.
Detmold asked, “What am I going to do, sit at home and feel sorry for myself and the band over the loss of Steve? He was very sick, and it had been rough for him and his family, and I’m glad he doesn’t have to suffer like that anymore. And it just felt right to be here.”
For almost 35 years, The Reducers — comprised once and forever of Kaika, Detmold, drummer Tom Trombley and guitarist/vocalist Hugh Birdsall — have been an iconic civic treasure whose solid international following was achieved almost in spite of a longstanding and steadfast policy to nurture their New London roots rather than hit the road full-out in pursuit of likely stardom.
Over their career, the band released several albums, including 2010’s “Guitars, Bass & Drums.” They toured extensively, including in Japan, where they have a raging following, and were the subject of a 2006 full-length documentary called “The Reducers — America’s Best Unsigned Band.”
Kaika, 57, grew up in Montville and graduated from Waterford High School. In addition to The Reducers, he worked for years at Robertson Paperbox in Montville before starting his own construction firm. Kaika lived in Quaker Hill. He is survived by his wife, Charlene.
Arrangements are being handled by the Byles-MacDougall Funeral Service in New London, and a complete obituary will appear in Thursday’s edition of The Day.
Reaction from across the city and musical community started to trickle in as the news of Kaika’s death began to spread.
“All day, there’s been a flow of people who just wanted to offer Peter their condolences,” said Ellie Corey, a bartender at the Dutch, early Tuesday afternoon. “This is where you go, right?”
Rich Martin, managing director at Hygienic Art and also a bartender at the Dutch, was in the tavern at lunch Tuesday. Martin, who played bass in a number of local bands, said he was instantly drawn to Kaika as a musician.
“There was something about the way that he played,” Martin said. “He played these charging, melodic bass lines that always had everybody moving.”
“A Benefit for Steve Kaika,” a multi-bill event scheduled for Friday in the Hygienic Art Park to help Kaika and his family with substantial medical bills, will go on as scheduled, Martin said.
“We want to put on a celebration of someone who’s been part of the soundtrack to our lives for three decades,” he said.
James Stephenson, a Dutch regular and Reducers fan who teaches at Mitchell College, briefly dropped by the bar to make a donation for the benefit.
“I can’t be there Friday night, but I wanted to make a gesture,” he said. “This is a sad, sad day.”
Detmold sat at the far end of the bar and spoke for a few minutes about Kaika. He described a Sunday afternoon a few months ago when the four Reducers gathered at Detmold’s home just to sit and talk. Kaika had been undergoing rigorous treatment and it was nice, Detmold said, to see him up and about.
“We had a great hour together just talking about old times and what we’d accomplished and wanted to do, and Steve’s spirit was really strong. He said he was going to fight this, and he said his goal was to not only live but certainly play again,” Detmold said. “But the disease didn’t care that he was a good guy or a fighter.”
Detmold said he couldn’t imagine the band would continue without Kaika.
“That’s certainly my feeling,” he said. “We were incredibly lucky. I have a lifetime’s worth of wonderful memories about Steve and about Steve in The Reducers.” He paused and thought for a moment. “One of the last things I told him was that we had more fun than anyone deserves. We had an incredible 35-year run and now, well, something’s come up.”
Condolences came from outside the tavern, too. Detmold said he’d been receiving phone calls all day from as far away as Florida and heard from an old fan he hadn’t spoken with in 20 years.
Ben Parent, leader of New London Americana band The Rivergods, who are described by Detmold as “extended family,” said, “Steve was the backbone of a band that played together for more than 35 years. Incredible — an elder statesman for the local music community, as all The Reducers are. When the Rivergods released our first CD back in 2000, he was there at the bar, sitting with a Bud and watching us play. He was always very supportive of other people’s bands and music, at least with us.”
And Meghan Killimade, drummer in the Paul Brockett Roadshow Band and Bedroom Rehab Corporation, who also regularly takes photographs of local musicians, said, “I will always remember Steve and feeling so incredibly happy at Reducers shows — whether I happened to be dancing or photographing. His passing is a tremendous loss for our music scene.”
Music writer Stephen Chupaska contributed to this story.