Featured photo: Band photo from 1998 (from left to right: Todd Berozky, Curt Meinhold, Justin Burmeister, Deep Chinappa)
Though everyone thought he had a year, it was only three weeks.
“He never told me why he wanted to call it Denouement,” Curt Meinhold says. “I never knew if it was because he knew he was dying.”
Meinhold is speaking of Justin Burmeister, the passionate lead guitarist and a core songwriter for the band Sift, who passed away suddenly from esophageal cancer in 2020. Brandeis-educated and constantly absorbed in his craft, he helped Sift form into a hard-charging underground East Coast band that transcended rock boundaries. Burmeister and Meinhold were bandmates in Sift for almost three decades.
Sift’s final album, Denouement, is set for release this fall. A documentary about the band of the same title by local filmmaker Tumaini Johnson is set for its first public exhibition in Greensboro on Aug. 19 at The Idiot Box.
Johnson came to the project after Curt responded to a Craigslist ad for his video services. At the time, pandemic and budget restrictions meant this couldn’t be a traditional documentary. A graduate of UNCG and owner of Ephex Media, Johnson took on the project to expand and grow as a filmmaker as well as to support Justin’s legacy as a fellow artist.
“We can do this,” he says of his first discussions with Meinhold. “We can rise to the challenge and tell this story in a unique way.”
Across a thousand miles, former band members like drummer Todd Berozsky, guitarist Kimon Greenland, and singers Deep Chinappa and Rebecca Tognacci gave Zoom interviews and proffered long buried footage of live performances and music videos. Meinhold and his wife Serena both appear, as well as several longtime friends of Burmeister and fans of Sift.
The group evolved from its original iteration in the early ’90s as the four-member Speeny Bowl Wagon through various members and a change to the name Sift. Burmeister came in after Greenland left the band.
“Justin [Burmeister] was definitely the one,” says Beorzky in the documentary when speaking about Justin’s initial audition for the band. His addition would go on to shape both the way the band created and the way they performed.
“So creative,” shares Chinappa. “He was a terrific guitar player and he had this amazing ear.”
Over the course of the late 90’s and through the turn of the millennium, lead singers like Chinappa and gospel-grounded Godjivah added their distinct flavor to the group and brought in new audiences. Through highs and lows and across varied styles, Burmeister, Meinhold and Beorzky held tight to their vision of uncompromising creativity.
“He was incredibly hard working,” lead singer Tognacci remembers of Burmeister. “He never rested…. Any moment that he wasn’t at his job he was writing music, he was playing guitar.”
With Burmeister’s musicality and songwriting skills at the core of the group, the band recorded albums including Yellow, If There Was A God, The Desperate Hope and others through the mid-2000s. They played all over the Southeast and throughout New England, back to Burmeister’s native Ohio, and including the legendary CBGB in New York City. Though they continued to pursue their music, life pulled everyone apart; Burmeister landed in Jamestown with his wife Judy. After many years of making music from afar, Meinhold eventually moved to Greensboro, and Sift continued to evolve. Playing locally and recording, they were as committed to the music as ever.
Sift whittled down to the eventual duo of Burmeister and bassist Meinhold. Straddling Boston and Greensboro, the group’s focus on the music made them emphasize joy and self expression rather than the business side.
“If we do good work and it creates good art, that’s the best way to grow an audience,” Meinhold says. Without a clear business sense, the band struggled to vault to the next level of success, but they kept pushing anyway.
Their last live show was Leap Day in 2020 in the Old Mill Building at 503 Washington St. in Greensboro, a building that Meinhold and Burmeister had hoped to transform into an event space. The pandemic had other plans.
Once everything went indoors in March, the two took the solitude as an opportunity to keep writing. Each of them had the habit of working on music in a dark house, allowing them to focus on the sound. Throughout the next few months, they sent tracks back and forth as they wrote and edited pieces.
Burmeister had a full studio in his house. He spent hours perfecting each piece.
“You’d hear the same three seconds over and over,” Judy McCourt says with a laugh during a phone interview.
The new album is darker than their previous work, but Meinhold says it’s also deeper. Relying on metal and doom-metal influences, it includes a seven-minute piece inspired by an exorcism as well as lighter songs like the earnest “Heartstrings.” The partially sampled, experimental title track is a striking study of mortality that’s imbued with hauntingly beautiful echoes of voices mixed with long guitar riffs.
A devastating blow
In August of 2020, while COVID-19 raged across the world, Burmeister came to McCourt and complained of stomach pain. Never one to go to the doctor unless it was emergent, plus given the strictures of going out at that point during the pandemic, Burmeister told her that it was probably something that he ate and kept on going. A week after the pain started, he finally went to the doctor.
His doctor told him to take some Miralax and go home. After another week with no reprieve, he went back for more care. Burmeister had missed his annual physical because of pandemic closures, so the doctors he saw put off further tests until routine bloodwork was completed. In the meantime, he was given a round of antibiotics.
“One of the frustrations is the healthcare system in NC,” McCourt says. “It’s horrible.”
After another week lost, he was finally given further tests, and the doctors immediately admitted him for a biopsy. On the day he received his diagnosis, McCourt had to sit in the car because of COVID protocols, so her husband spoke to the oncologist alone. He had stage-4 esophageal cancer. The doctors gave him one year, maybe two with aggressive treatment. For a healthy man in his forties who seemingly had decades ahead of him, the blow was devastating.
His wife calls it the absolute worst-case scenario. She immediately set about finding other options.
After chasing potential doctors at the Mayo Clinic and Massachusetts General in Boston, Burmeister was admitted to the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. Interestingly enough, it was in his and McCourt’s hometown where they finally said goodbye.
The cancer progressed much faster than anyone could have imagined.
A month after that original stomachache, Burmeister’s doctors in Cleveland were adjusting high levels of pain medication to make him more comfortable as they worked on a plan. The medication caused increasingly frequent episodes of delirium, some of which McCourt recounts with laughter, but his lucid periods dwindled. McCourt, the only family member allowed to see him due to COVID protocols, finally had no choice but to give in to the doctor’s counsel and move him to comfort care as his health deteriorated significantly.
They planned to take Burmeister to their home back in NC, which was being outfitted with hospital equipment so that he could spend what time he had left near his studio and with his friends able to visit.
McCourt and her parents got in the car in October and headed home. When they hit West Virginia, she got a call from the hospital that he wasn’t stable enough to move any longer and that she needed to hurry back.
After sitting at his bedside for 27 hours, giving him the chance to talk on the phone and Facetime friends, family and former bandmates, Judy ran home to take a quick shower. In the few minutes she was gone, Burmeister passed, leaving behind a legacy of music and love.
Of her journey through loss and the music that her husband loved so dearly, McCourt is still raw and emotional. She calls his last album the best he ever recorded.
“I’m really bummed he up and left before they could release it,” she says.
But it’s also what he would have wanted, she says.
“Curt [Meinhold] would always joke around, but it’s true,” McCourt says. “Justin’s priorities were music, then work and then everything else.”
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