In July 2017, Benjamin Kushner got sick. Really, really sick.
The guitarist of Josh Hoyer & Soul Colossal had discovered a lump under his arm the previous September. It was diagnosed as stage 4 leukemia. "It’s not curable and it’s in 78 percent of your bone marrow," is what Kushner said he was told by doctors.
But he was also told to go on living his life and playing shows with Soul Colossal and with The Mezcal Brothers until the disease really hit him.
He did that — until the late July day last year when was taking his daughter to camp.
“I got sick, really sick on the drive,” Kushner said. “Imagine having the worst upper respiratory you’ve ever had, cycling fevers, rashes. It was the first time I’d ever said in my life, 'I can’t play a gig because I’m sick.' I called Josh from the camp’s office.”
Hoyer and the band played a handful of Colorado shows without Kushner, but he managed to return for an August 2017 gig at Omaha’s Horseman’s Park.
“I was so sick, but I wanted to play it,” Kushner said. “They were, 'Don’t lift the heavy stuff, don’t carry anything.' They got me a chair to play from. We did it, they’re like my brothers.”
Even though Kushner was able to play that show and those that followed, Hoyer thought they would likely be some of his last with the band. That would have meant the end of Soul Colossal.
“My opinion at the time was if there’s no Benny, there’s no band,” Hoyer said. “I was looking at going back to college, throwing in the towel. At this time last year, I didn’t know if we were going to have a band anymore.”
Enter Dr. Julie Vose, a cancer specialist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, who, according to her online biography, is an internationally known expert in the treatment of patients with lymphoma and does research in novel therapies for Hodgkin's disease, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma and chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
For Kushner, Vose prescribed a medication that, while it doesn’t cure the leukemia, directly attacks and eliminates the cancerous cells.
“I’m going to be married to that pill for the rest of my life,” Kushner said. “It was scary and kind of depressing. But it didn’t stay that way. Within two weeks, all the swelling was gone. What I had would have killed me in 1988. “
While Kushner was in the early stages of the pill’s attack on the leukemia, bass player James Fleege was leaving the band to concentrate on his production and engineering work.
Veteran bassist Mike Keeling, who had played with Kushner in The Millions, the Self-Righteous Brothers, Thirst & Howl, and Wondermonds, was available to step into Soul Colossal — which buoyed Kushner and the group.
“I was getting better day by day,” Kushner said. “We got the new bass player, who happened to be a good friend as well. Things started to feel good.”
The band, which also includes drummer Larell Ware, had one more personnel change after saxophonist Mike Dee landed his dream gig, playing with the United States Air Force Band of Mid-America.
Enter trumpeter Blake DeForest, who’s kept Soul Colossal multi-generational and added new punch to the soul/funk mixture that the band has been working since Hoyer put it together in 2012.
“It’s a new vibe for the band,” Hoyer said. “It’s a new group of brothers who believe in what we’re doing as a group. I don’t feel like the guy in front who everybody supports anymore. It’s a band, man.”
As Kushner battled cancer and the band was working in its new members, Hoyer started writing songs. “That’s Hoyer for you, he keeps pushing and pushing,” Kushner said.
Among the new compositions is “Love Song,” a touching horn-tinged soul ballad inspired by Kushner.
And among the lyrics Hoyer sings with heart: “Thank you for teaching us how to carry on” and “You want to know how to live forever, from the dusk to the dawn / You live your life like a love song / Thank you for living your life like a love song.”
“Having Josh write a song about me ... It’s very moving,” Kushner said. “I have to let go of that (what the song is about) when we’re playing. Otherwise, I get choked up.”
“Love Song” is one of 10 tracks on “Do It Now!”, the band’s fourth studio album, that was recorded in March 2018 at Silver Street Studio in Ashland and Omaha’s Make Believe Studios, and mixed by Fleege at Silver Street.
“It’s an affectionate record,” Hoyer said. “It’s a record about being positive, trying hard. I wrote a lot of songs about my kids and Lincoln, and the one about Benny.”
It’s a certainty that Hoyer and company will play some of the songs from “Do It Now!” when they present “An Evening with Josh Hoyer & Soul Colossal (Official European Tour Send-off Show!)" at Blue Blood Brewing Co. on Friday. The album, set for wide release in a few months, will be available at the show.
Next week, Hoyer & Soul Colossal will return to Europe, where they initially toured in March 2017. “I was watching myself on ‘The Voice’ from Europe,” Hoyer said. “That was a trip.”
They played 30 shows in 31 days on that tour. Now the promoter is bringing Soul Colossal back to Europe for a six-week tour, with 35 shows in 45 days, beginning Aug. 16 at a festival in the Netherlands.
Then it’s two nights at Blues au Chateau, a long-running festival that showcases groups that don’t frequent French stages, like the “soul funk sensation from Nebraska.”
“That festival is in a castle in Brittany,” Kushner said. “They’re putting us up in a castle. That’s really cool.”
The tour will criss-cross Europe for shows in Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and Slovakia and wrapping up in Bruges, Belgium, on Sept. 29.
“It’s great to be representing Lincoln over there,” said Kushner, who has toured in Europe with The Millions, The Mezcal Brothers and Soul Colossal. “They’re like, 'Where?'"
“Every time I’m asked about Lincoln, I say we’ve got a bunch of great bands,” Hoyer said. “I love the scene here. I’m so proud of the scene. We kind of make sure they know we’re from Nebraska, from Lincoln.”
Kushner, who requires infrequent treatments to deal with side effects of his medication, is not just happy to be going back to Europe. He’s thankful that he’s been able to hold the cancer at bay and live his life, despite what he learned a year ago.
“For anybody out here who finds out they have cancer, don’t lose hope,” Kushner said. “It’s natural to be scared — my first prognosis was super scary. But keep a positive attitude and advocate for yourself.”
And, Kushner said, know that if you’ve got a cancer diagnosis, you don’t have to fight the disease alone.
“I felt an outpouring of love I’ve never known,” he said. “I’m humbled by it, from Josh in particular and the band and, of course, my family, Karmin Stanosheck, who drove me to every appointment and still does, my mother Marcia and daughters Marina and Neva and my friends. They’ve been so there for me.
“Another part of this is, when you’re getting through that, you appreciate stuff more — family, friends, your band, your music. I know it sounds corny, but I’m playing with more emotion now, putting that feeling into the music. You really feel it, you really do.”