I’ve heard the full range of musical abilities over those many years, ranging from guys who barely knew a half dozen chords, all played with the only strum pattern the player knows to absolute world-class musicians. I’ve tried to stick with an attitude I worked to embrace a decade or so ago: Hey, the guy has a gig, God bless him and good luck. Back in my younger days I was just the opposite. If a player was just plain awful I would quickly finish my drink and move on down the road. The change in attitude was brought about by not focusing on the player as much but by watching the audience. If people were buying food and drink and appeared to be having a good time, the player was doing his or her job so who was I to cast dispersion on their efforts? I usually succeed in holding onto that outlook these days although it might not seem that way after you finish this blog entry but please believe me, I wish only good things for ANYONE I hear performing. (One of the good things might be learning a few new chords, ha!)
This April I spent four weeks in town with my wife Kathy. We had some family and friends visit during that time, which was great because sharing experiences is an integral part of vacationing in my opinion. The spots we frequented for live music were, in no particular order: Two Friends, Blue Parrot, Little Room Jazz Bar, Smokin’ Tuna, El Meson de Pepe’s and Schooner Wharf. We totally ignored the places that are on most Key West visitor’s check list, especially the bars on what I call Vomit Corner on Duval Street (for obvious reasons): Sloppy Joe’s, Irish Kevin’s, Capt. Tony’s, others… Loud, loud guitar bangers who make it a point to spice up their acts by dropping the f-bomb as often as possible. In many cases the sound of the house PA systems actually hurt my ears. But hey, those places are always filled at night so who’s to say they are doing anything wrong?
We also heard lots of music while walking Duval and nearby streets and occasionally we would stop to listen for a little while. Sometimes we heard performers I might want to hear more of, but the places were either packed or the music was just too loud for my old ears. And then there is the subject of repertoire. It must be some kind of secret law that your set lists are required to lean heavily on the Holy Key West Music Triumvirate: John Mellencamp, Bob Seger and most importantly, Tom Petty. If you’re playing a place that encourages sing-alongs, “Take Me Home, Country Road” is an absolute must with “Sweet Caroline” a close second.
But hey, defaulting to my attitude described earlier, listeners appeared to be having a great time so score one for the guitar banger!
Look, I totally know that playing in a rowdy bar is about as far away from a concert experience as it possibly could be. If playing Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels” with the immortal line “So let’s get to the point, let’s roll another joint!” pumps up the crowd (who will surely be thirstier after singing along), again, the performer has fulfilled his mission.
On the other end of the spectrum are the upper tier musicians who play regularly in Key West. The best of the best in my opinion is a keyboard player named Ericson Holt. I discovered him about ten years ago playing in the best “adult” bar in town, Little Room Jazz Club. That room has a nice stage, excellent acoustics and most of the musicians they book are very talented. Despite the name, the Little Room features not only jazz but sometimes blues and Ericson’s bluesy, weathered voice, phenomenal playing (closer to New Orleans style than straight ahead blues), great originals plus tastefully rendered covers make him an absolute must if you are a music lover and are going to visit Key West. He has a new CD available called “99 Degrees” and it’s great. Recently, Ericson won four of the top six awards in the inaugural Key West Music Awards and they were richly deserved. He is also one cool guy without trying to be and over those ten years of hearing him dozens and dozens of times (sometimes as a soloist, sometimes with his regular drummer Mick Kilgos) I’ve come to know him quite well. To my mind, he is the definition of a super talented work-a-day professional musician: approachable, dedicated to his music and performing it, and keeping a gig schedule that would burn out a lesser talent. Buy his CDs, download his music, or better yet buy them from him at one of his many shows. You will not be disappointed, promise!
A few of the single guitarist/singers I heard were close to Ericson in the ways I just mentioned. And a few of the bands I heard were very good also. Live music is supported in Key West on a level that is extremely rare and I will miss that scene as this most likely will be my last visit to that town that holds so many great memories.
The reason I say that this will be the last time is quite simple. The prices of everything in Key West - especially accommodations - has risen to unheard-of, borderline absurd levels. Yes, it’s likely KW is not alone in this but the difference between what was available a few years ago and now reached the tipping point for me. There are many thousands of rooms available in the town including hotels, condos, guest houses and short-term apartments and houses but a new vibe - greed - has crept in to the equation. I understand that accommodation providers will always price their offerings at what the market will bear and there seemed to be no lack of visitors in town, even at the back end of prime tourist season. Slick restaurants seem to pop up at an ever-increasing rate and posh resorts line the waterfront in some areas of town. Speaking with locals you hear the same story again and again: I have to work three jobs to cover my expenses. I don’t know how much longer I can stay here…
One has to wonder if Key West as I’ve known it is quickly disappearing. Back when I started visiting, the unofficial town motto was: Keep Key West Weird! There is a serious possibility that the changes in Key West will destroy the very reasons people wanted to go there in the first place.
But you still have time, if your pockets are deep. You can still go to the free Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square and watch the jugglers and acrobats. You can still find great half-price apps and drinks at many places to keep your food bills down. And you can still find some great music at the places I mentioned above. So, go. And if you do and make a point to catch Ericson Holt at one of the many places he plays, tell him Gene says hi, and that he misses you killing “New Coat of Paint.”
Peace & good music,