A Local Life: Evan Bliss, athlete and musician with a promising future, dies at 35


Mary and Evan Bliss pose for a portrait with their dog, Tila. (Family Photo)
October 6, 2012

On Aug. 4, Evan Bliss flew from Washington Dulles International Airport to Amsterdam, where he caught a plane for Nairobi. He spent the week flying and driving throughout Kenya while working on an international HIV research program.

But that was only his day job.

More people in the Washington area knew Mr. Bliss for what he did at night. He was a singer-songwriter who had previously been the front man of the Low Life, a band that had toured nationally and regularly sold out the 9:30 Club. He played guitar, but it was his voice that made people stop and pay attention — a bright, soaring tenor that could caress a song and keep ringing in your ear.

Mr. Bliss returned home on Aug. 11 and spent most of the following week working at the Henry M. Jackson Foundation, a Bethesda-based nonprofit group that that promotes worldwide military medical research. On Wednesday, Aug. 15, he held a rehearsal to prepare for a performance three days later in Philadelphia.

The show never took place.


Evan Bliss poses for a lacrosse team portrait. Bliss played for the Kenyon College lacrosse team and still holds all-time scoring records. (Family Photo)

On Aug. 17, Evan Bliss collapsed at his home in Bethesda and died at the age of 35.

“There was absolutely no sign to me whatever that anything could be wrong,” said Jason Mattis, who played bass with Mr. Bliss for six years and had practiced with him that Wednesday.

An autopsy found that Mr. Bliss died from a pulmonary embolism, which has been linked to long-distance air travel. On Aug. 10 and Aug. 11, he spent 16 hours in the air, flying from Kisumu, Kenya, to Nairobi, to Amsterdam, to Dulles.

A blood clot had apparently migrated from his lower body and lodged in an artery in one of his lungs.

“The doctor said Evan was in perfect physical shape,” his father, Donald T. Bliss, said. “Nothing else was wrong with him.”

More than 700 people attended his funeral. Weeks after his death, those who knew him were still in shock that someone so young, talented and full of life could be taken from them so soon.

“I still don’t believe it in some ways,” said Alex Minard, a lawyer at the Federal Communications Commission who was Mr. Bliss’s lacrosse teammate at Kenyon College in Ohio. “Sometimes I just think I haven’t had an e-mail from him in a while.”

‘Parachutes and Ladders’

If there is such a thing as a young man of golden promise who could excel in everything, who was smart, athletic and well-liked — and who seemed cool to parents and peers alike — it was Evan Hale Bliss. He was born June 23, 1977, in Washington and grew up in Bethesda, where he attended the Landon School, a private school for boys.

“Evan was the pulse of his times,” his former mathematics teacher, Steve Sorkin recalled. “He was an absolutely terrific student. He was bright as a whip. You knew that he would have a future that would bear his imprint.”

Before graduating from Landon in 1996, Mr. Bliss acted in Shakespearean plays, sang in choral groups and played on the school’s soccer and lacrosse teams.

“He was a guy who would put down his guitar and pick up the lacrosse stick,” said Justin Fishkin, a fellow Landon student who later started a music label for which Mr. Bliss recorded. “It was just natural to him.”

At Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, Mr. Bliss majored in English and was a starting player all four years on the lacrosse team. As a senior, he was the team co-captain and led Kenyon to its first appearance in the Division III NCAA tournament.

He still holds school records for most goals in a season (59 in just 15 games) and a career (140). Minard, his former teammate, has nominated him for the college’s athletic hall of fame.

After Mr. Bliss graduated from Kenyon in 2000, he was offered a job as assistant lacrosse coach, but he turned it down to come back to Bethesda. He had led bands and written songs since high school, but after college he joined several former Landon schoolmates in a band called the Low Life. He was the band’s lead singer and principal songwriter.

The band had a lilting, hard-edged reggae kind of sound and between 2000 and 2005 released two albums, often appeared at the 9:30 Club and was the opening act for such internationally known acts as Wyclef Jean and O.A.R.

“They were about to become huge,” said Fishkin, who runs Holster Records, an independent music label. “Just as they had this massive swell, they broke up. There were people who thought they were going to be the next Red Hot Chili Peppers.”

The Low Life disbanded, at least in part, because Mr. Bliss was a reluctant rock star. He wanted to find his own direction in music and life, whether it made him famous or not.

“He wasn’t concerned with fame and recognition,” said Benj Gershman, bass player for O.A.R. “He really wanted to be doing something he loved for people who loved it.”

Or, as Mr. Bliss put it in his song “Parachutes and Ladders”:

I’d rather be asleep on the sidewalk

tucked out and cold in the pouring rain

than in a bed of fortune’s promises

I’m fortunate enough for me

‘Tell Her Goodbye’

Mr. Bliss He began a solo career and sometimes performed with a new group that he called Evan Bliss and the Welchers. Mattis, the bass player for the past six years, recalled when he first heard Mr. Bliss’s bittersweet breakup song “Tell Her Goodbye.”

“I thought, ‘Man, who is that singer?’ ” he said. “I loved the voice, I loved the lyrics, I loved the whole thing.”

They joined musical forces and became close friends. Mr. Bliss developed a distinctive, eclectic sound sound that blended pop, indie rock, world music and coffeehouse soul. He released three new albums and won a songwriting competition sponsored by Billboard magazine.

He worked at local clubs such as IOTA in Arlington, volunteered to teach music to homeless women at a D.C. shelter and, five years ago, began working as a data manager for the Jackson Foundation.

In March 2010, at an album-release party at the Hard Rock Cafe in Washington for Mr. Bliss’s recording “ShhhPOW!,” he met Mary Graham, a Foreign Service officer with the U.S. Agency for International Development. She was a pianist and music lover, and the two became inseparable.

Three months after they met, with friends and family gathered for what turned out to be a surprise engagement party, Mr. Bliss sang the Grateful Dead song “Jack-A-Roe” to Mary. The song ends with these words, “This couple they got married, so why not you and me?”

On March 19, 2011, exactly one year after they met, they were married.

‘Sweet Dog’

In September 2010, the couple moved to Nicaragua, where Mary had a posting with USAID. Mr. Bliss learned Spanish, put his music career on hold and worked remotely for the Jackson Foundation. He also found a new outlet as a blogger about the Washington Redskins in 2010 and 2011 for The Washington Post. Hundreds of would-be Redskins analysts applied for the job, but only two — Mr. Bliss and Stephen L. Carter, a best-selling novelist and professor at Yale Law School — were selected.

In Nicaragua, Mr. Bliss and his wife adopted a malnourished dog, which they named Tila. Mr. Bliss wrote a song, “Sweet Dog,” to draw attention to the problem of abandoned dogs around the world.

After the Blisses returned to Bethesda in May — with Tila — Evan Bliss resumed his music career, performing as far away as Nashville and New York City. Fans would drive from Montreal and Buffalo to catch his gigs in Washington, and he had 8,000 followers on Facebook.

“There’s a very intelligent listening community out there,” he said this summer in an interview with a Minnesota radio host, Cher Dial, “and you always have to treat them with respect.”

After Mr. Bliss’s death, a female fan wrote to Mary Bliss, saying she had spoken to him after one of his shows. When she mentioned that he hadn’t performed her favorite song — “Tell Her Goodbye” — Mr. Bliss did something that is the opposite of rock-and-roll self-importance. He stopped packing his equipment, picked up his guitar and, from the back of his car, sang the song just for her.

It’s that quality of one-to-one human kindness — more than his multifaceted talents, more than his ethereal singing voice — that people remember most when they talk about Evan Bliss.

“The first few times I met him, he was so nice and open and relaxed, I couldn’t believe he was genuine,” said Tom McBride, a Washington musician. “The more I hung out with him, the more I realized he was such a nice guy. It was almost unsettling because you don’t often see that in musicians.”

“Evan was the best friend I ever had,” said Justin Fishkin, who was in the seventh grade when they met. “He cared. He always had time for anyone who needed it.”

“He was the kindest and nicest kid that I’ve worked with here,” said Mr. Bliss’s choral teacher at Landon, Tad Cavuoti, “and this my 36th year.”

‘I’m Fine With It’

Evan and Mary Bliss were planning to move to Haiti this month for her new posting with USAID. That assignment has been canceled, and she is unsure what her future will be.

Evan Bliss’s parents, Donald T. Bliss and Nancy A. Bliss, live in Bethesda, as does his younger brother, Bion Bliss, a Foreign Service officer.

“You’re always kind of in awe of your older brother,” Bion Bliss said. “He was completely unparalleled in how true he was to himself. Evan, as my father says, was the least phony person you would ever know.”

It’s hard for many of those who knew Mr. Bliss to contemplate a world without him.

“We made a pact to play music together for the rest of our lives, whatever that meant,” his bass player, Jason Mattis, said. “We never thought the rest of our lives would be till we were 34, 35.”

Some people have pored over the lyrics of the more than 100 songs that Mr. Bliss wrote, searching for solace. These words from his song “I’m Fine With It” were read at his funeral:

I want to dive in a river, splash around and pretend to drown

I want to climb up a mountain and stare at all the specks on the ground

I want to run through the forest and lay in the shade till the sun goes down

And if that’s all there is, and there’s nothing else, I’m fine with it

And I don’t need to know what’s next because I’m here now and I’m fine with it.

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.