An hour before taking the stage Sunday night, the bald 18-year-old hunted for a good couch to nap on at Water Street Music Hall. The month before, Charlie Coté lay in a hospital bed at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, uncertain if he would respond to a last-resort treatment for malignant melanoma --- the most difficult skin cancer to cure.
The singer carried the latest Harry Potter and a Ziploc bag of various medicines as hewaited for his band Fivestar Riotto play for more than 700 people at a benefit concert in his honor.
"When I don't feel well, I ask, 'Why?'" Coté says about the cancer he was diagnosed with in February 2004. "But seeing all these bands come together, I see it's part of God's plan. It brings out the goodness in people."
Those close to Coté, a musical savant who plays seven instruments and won a composition award from the Eastman School of Music, say he has never wanted to use his battle against cancer to promote Fivestar. However, when more than 20 bands responded within two days to 17-year-old musician Jordan Curran's request to play the benefit, it demonstrated Coté's band is no charity case.
The band formed more than four years ago when its original members --- including Coté, bassist Ethan Waddell and guitarist Zach Milne were in eighth grade. Shortly after Fivestar recorded its first album in ninth grade, the drummer quit. The band practiced at the Cotés' house, so Coté taught his 9-year-old brother Alex to play drums. Within the year, Coté's parents, Barbara and Charlie (Big C to the band), assumed the role of roadies and bussed Fivestar to gigs. Big C chuckles about seeing his boys playing the Bug Jar at such a young age, and says the late Uncle Rog of WCMF's homegrown show became a big fan.
Around the same time, the Cotés took both Charlie and Alex to have moles removed from their heads at the family doctor's recommendation. A surgeon told the Cotés the moles were benign. Yet when watching the Super Bowl two years later, Charlie's girlfriend felt a bump behind his left ear. Within weeks, doctors diagnosed Stage III malignant melanoma that had already reached Coté's lymph nodes.
The Cotés see no point dwelling on the missed diagnosis, and Coté simply wants to keep doing what he loves. "If I'm going to die," he says, "I don't want to live like I'm going to die."
So Fivestar began scheduling its shows and studio time around Coté's treatment schedule. Paul Guck, who replaced the band's former guitarist in the fall, marvels at his bandmate's endurance and attitude. "He's a trooper," Guck says. "He'll come home from surgery and be up two weeks later [performing]. He could be sitting down sulking."
After losing one of his salivary glands during surgery, Coté learned to raise and lower his voice an octave to hit certain notes. John Bagale, who taught Coté music at Penfield High School, called Fivestar's 2005 album Unfamiliar Sky the best student-made recording he has ever heard, and the song "Better" earned Fivestar fourth place in a WBER contest of more than 50 bands.
While Coté's poignant lyrics have brought many to tears, fans eagerly anticipated seeing his colorful stage antics again Sunday. The cancer and treatment had kept him from performing since a benefit concert for Golisano Children's Hospital in early April.
The cutting-edge cell replacement therapy Coté received in June has reduced tumors that have spread to his lungs, yet he still fights pain, nausea, and exhaustion daily. Fortunately, he says the pain and nausea disappear when performing. So as the crowd cheered and yelled his name when Fivestar took the stage, Coté smiled, laughed, and stuck out his sandaled foot for a girl to touch.
His fingers soon walked the keyboard to the contemplative "Unfamiliar Sky," and though his voice choked on the opening words, he calmly restarted and sang, "Look up. It just might surprise you. I think we've found your cure. / Don't know where we're going; itdoesn't matter. Why do we have to be so sure?" Coté wrote this before his diagnosis, and now sees the lyrics as his life's creed.
After the opener, the pop-punk band kicked into high gear with its signature driving yet melodic songs. Coté danced and acted out the lyrics as fans clapped and sang along. While his bandmates whirled around him, Coté sometimes used his keyboard and mic stand to support himself. He gulped water between verses, yet still managed to deliver enough power to spark a mosh pit. Between songs, Coté thanked the crowd and club owner John Chmiel, who offered the venue for free and later announced the show raised more than $8000 for Coté's medical costs.
"Thank you to all the bands," Coté said. "I invite you to come over and sign my head. I'll wash it off, but I'll take a picture first."
After Fivestar finished and unplugged its amplifiers the crowd chanted, "One more song." Coté's bandmates wondered if he had the energy. "Give us a second, and pretend we weren't on stage," Coté said before dashing off and then returning to sing "Through the Rain," a song he wrote about finding the strength to overcome life's obstacles.
After the performance, he walked into the embraces of fellow musicians who autographed his head in magic marker.
For information on upcoming shows, or to buy a CD, visit www.fivestarriot.com.