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Guitarist filled big tent on big lake with melody

On Saturday night, folks took the wind sled over the ice to Madeline Island to listen to the Blue Canvas Orchestra without guitarist Don Pavel.

Pavel, 60, died unexpectedly Wednesday of an apparent heart attack.

He had been the band director of the Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua since its founding near Bayfield in 1986.

Some 200 people stopped in at the Bell Street Tavern in La Pointe during the night, said Carolyn Sneed, former executive director of Big Top and now the show's coordinator.

"It was extraordinarily moving," said Sneed, who was ferried to the island with the help of the motor-driven boat that can traverse ice and water. "You could feel the love all of those people had for Don."

Donald Stanley Pavel was born in 1947 in St. Paul and began playing music at the age of 5. He was an expert at both finger picking and the flat pick.

Sneed said Warren Nelson, the artistic director and a founding member of the Big Top, believes the organization "will have to hire about eight guitar players to replace Don."

The Blue Canvas Orchestra was the musical underpinning of Big Top performances at its 900-seat canvas-tent theater.

The Big Top Chautauqua was recognized in 2006 by the Wisconsin Historical Society for its depiction of local history through music, drama, poetry and the use of historic photos.

For the "30th Star," written by Nelson in honor of Wisconsin's sesquicentennial, Sneed said Pavel "used his guitar almost like a baton" to direct the band.

Pavel began playing with Nelson in the early 1970s after serving in Vietnam. They were founding members of the Lost Nation String Band and Blue Canvas.

Pavel is survived by his companion, Therene Gazdik of Washburn; and two sons, Mason of Forest Lake, Minn., and Ira, a student at the University of Minnesota.

A memorial service will be at 1 p.m. today in Washburn at StageNorth with a reception afterward. Visitation begins at noon.

For a video of Saturday night's performance, another Blue Canvas performance and information on the Big Top Chautauqua, go to

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