Tomatoes Couldn’t Kill Keith Alessi, so Now He’s Killing it on the Banjo

CEO turned banjoist invokes pain and passion at New York Frigid Festival

by Jack Archambault & Noah Kotlarek

By his count, Keith Alessi once owned 52 banjos. He could not play any of them. In his one man show, Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me But Banjos Saved My Life, playing at the New York Frigid Festival until March 9, Alessi only needs two (and one banjitar) to tell a deeply personal and authentic story of his own life.

Growing up in Canada, there was one thing Alessi, the son of Italian immigrants, ate a lot of: tomatoes. Alessi had a strained relationship with his father, but he knew one thing: he had to get out. He paired an unflappable work-ethic with an insatiable appetite for the tomatoes of his childhood. A “turnaround executive” brought on to help struggling companies, Alessi quickly rose to prominence in the business world.

And then he received news that completely altered his perspective. He had a rare form of esophageal cancer, and was given a 50 percent chance of living a year.

“You get to a point in your life where you realize if you’re going to do something, you gotta do it now,” Alessi says. He opened his closet and saw 52 unused banjos, but he also saw a world of opportunity.  He started taking lessons and slowly began to play. Though it wasn’t easy, Alessi remained determined. Unaware of where these banjos would take him, Alessi ended up in western Virginia (not West Virginia, mind you) where he found a community of passionate folk musicians. He felt the energy of the music, most importantly he felt like he belonged.  Throughout his draining cancer treatment he felt alone, but there in the Blue Ridge Mountains he was at home.

“I’m looking through the windshield, not the rear view mirror.” This is the mantra Alessi abides by while driving down his road of life. Creating Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me presented a new challenge for him though, as it forced him to look back and unpack some of the most difficult moments of his life.  This reflection, however, may have been just as important on looking forward. It has allowed him to heal and has proved rewarding. Throughout his performances he has meet those with similar experiences.  He knows he is not alone.

show set

The result is an honest telling of one man’s journey.  Alessi’s performance manages to be warm, tear-jerking, and humorous all at once – a gem in New York City’s off-off-Broadway scene. Produced by Erika Conway, Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me is one of 30 shows at this year’s Frigid Festival, which runs in the East Village until March 10 and gives artists a space to tell their stories.

It has been over three years since Alessi was told he might not live one. He currently teaches at Washington and Lee University, and his advice to young people is reassuring. He says to remember you can always change the direction of your life, and, “No mistake is fatal.”  Whatever turns you encounter on your road, keep looking through the windshield. But remember: use what’s in your closet.  Who knows where it may lead you?

For more information about the show, Keith Alessi, and banjos, visit


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