I’ve been going down to the Keys for a week or more every year for the last eight or so. I’ve heard the widest array of music styles imaginable, from solo guitarist/singers to full bands to jazz groups to ukulele jam sessions to more exotic offerings such as steel pan players – one of whom was a world-class jazz player – and much more. There have to be at least two dozen places that host live music about 12 hours a day in Key West alone.
The quality varies widely. Some players have the same set list in use every day and its sure to include sing-alongs like “Wagon Wheel” and “Take Me Home, Country Road,” which the well lubricated crowds totally embrace. Part of me feels like this is taking the easy way out, but hey, there must be a reason they keep getting their gigs night after night. These are not places to go for a quiet drink and some good music, but of course that’s not why people go to Key West. Most of them anyway.
But if you take some time and do some exploring you can find some truly amazing musicianship on display. There were three highlights for me on my trip a couple weeks ago. All of these acts have websites and I urge you to check them out, or better yet, see and hear them if possible.
After watching them on the Sloppy Joe’s Bar live cam just about every Monday evening for almost a year I made a point to hear The Doerfels. I wrote a bit about them after last year’s trip but I spent more time with them this time. They are five of nine (!) brothers and one sister who play bluegrass and much more. Each is a superb player and singer. Their arrangements and showmanship are way beyond their years. Starting with bluegrass standards they branch out into acoustic arrangements of somewhat known pop tunes and then go over to all-electric instruments for part of their second set. Sloppy Joe’s was absolutely packed and my guess is that just about everyone there had come to see them. The crowd was jacked, they boys played with gusto and flair and a great time was had. I spent some time speaking with their mom who was selling t-shirts outside next to their equipment trailer. Their background is very interesting and she was a great lady and very proud of them. I think it’s safe to say that as long as they stick around that part of the world they will be the undisputed #1 band in Key West.
Down at the quieter end of Duval is my favorite bar, the Little Room Jazz Club. I discovered it a few years ago and have heard some great music there. My favorite this year was a guy named Ericson Holt who hails from Virginia but is absolutely steeped in classic New Orleans blues/jazz piano and has that perfect swampy blues singing style that brings to mind Dr. John and Lowell George. He plays with his regular drummer and they positively cooked.
Another high point came when I was heading for my rented truck in its “secret” parking spot near the courthouse (anyone who’s spent time in KW will know where I’m talking about – finding free, legal parking in that town is an art). At the Green Parrot, another of my favorite watering holes, an absolutely fantastic electric blues band was playing fronted by Jarekus Singleton. I found out later that Jarekus has won numerous awards at blues festivals all over the South. I used to LOVE blues bands, still do in fact, and this one was the best I’ve heard in 30 years. They are from Mississippi. And it shows. While their tight playing and raw emotion and true love and respect for the blues kept a smile on my face all night it was their showmanship that blew me away just as much. They just kept building and building the energy for a full hour and half set. I thought the roof was going to come off the ol’ Parrot!
Yes, there were too many guys banging on tiny sounding Takamines turned up way too loud and I can honestly say if I never hear “Wagon Wheel” again in my life it will be too soon. But hey, it’s Key West. The vibe is always happy, a bit drunk and sloppy but in all my years I’ve never seen anything like a fight. Maybe it’s something in the air? Or in the beer? Go. That’s all I really have to say. And next April you may just run into me.
Peace & good music,