ST. PETE BEACH — With a cool breeze drifting in from the Gulf of Mexico behind him, John Barney strummed out a little Tom Petty, a little Bob Marley and a little Otis Redding on the dock of Jimmy B’s Beach Bar. The afternoon crowd of maybe 30, plus a steady trickle heading to the shore, sipped drinks beneath umbrellas, tapping their toes, nodding their heads and soaking in the music.
“Oh man, we got a wild crowd here today,” said Barney, who performs under the name Johnny B.
Laid back or not, any audience these days is a welcome one.
“It’s good to be out of the house, I’ll tell you that,” he said.
While the concert industry remains a long way from normal — bars and venues are still closed, and large gatherings are still barred — live music has begun trickling back into everyday life around Tampa Bay. Restaurants, especially those with outdoor seating, have resumed booking shows.
Jimmy B’s started booking daily performances in early May, around the same time Ka’Tiki in Treasure Island started weekend shows. Salty’s Beach Bar at the TradeWinds Island Grand has been hosting live music from 6 to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays, with performers lined up until mid-June.
“I don’t want anybody to get sick,” said Barney, 43, of Largo. “But man, we have to live. People have to live their lives. If we do what we need to do and keep to ourselves, wash our hands and aren’t stupid, I think we’ll be alright.”
The closest thing to a normal, ticketed concert came May 16 at St. Petersburg’s Hideaway Cafe, a studio and event space that sells food and drinks. The cafe hosted Shaun Hopper and Christopher Barbosa in what was billed on Facebook as an “exclusive semi-private all-inclusive show, complete with nibbles and sips" — a dozen tables for two set at a safe social distance, with all staff in face masks and gloves. They’ll do it again Saturday, with table packages for Rob Tyre priced at $100. The show will be streamed live on Facebook.
“I think it’s a very safe way for us to attempt to get some people in,” said Hideaway Cafe owner John Kelly. “I’ve gotten, so far, really good support for it. People feel it’s a safe environment. The shows are quality, with these artists that we’re putting on. For getting back to it, it’s a really nice way to spend an evening.”
Other places that regularly host local artists aren’t jumping back in yet.
The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, which hosts local musicians at several bars around its property, will not do so when it reopens to the public on Thursday. Some popular restaurants with stages, including Skipper’s Smokehouse in Tampa and Whistle Stop Grill and Bar in Safety Harbor, have no immediate plans to bring back live music.
“I think about music every day, as you can well imagine,” said Tom White, co-owner of Skipper’s Smokehouse, which reopened for limited business Tuesday. “A lot of musicians need dough, and I will try to help the best I can, but don’t want to create some situation where we have to have social distancing bouncers.”
From what Barney has seen in his first three weeks back on stage, audiences these days don’t act quite the same as they were before the pandemic. At Jimmy B’s on Tuesday afternoon, despite plenty of signs urging patrons to keep a safe social distance — including one on each side of the stage — three people came up to Barney to make a request or take a photo.
“I’m not going to lie to you, the people that are out are the ones that aren’t worried, if that makes any sense,” he said. “I don’t want to use the word ‘crazy,’ but they’re the ones that are ready to go. I really just try to play nice, easy, relaxing music for people sitting, that don’t get up and dance.”
St. Petersburg country singer Aubrey Wollett has shows Saturday at Hog Island Fish Camp in Dunedin and May 29 at the Tiki Tavern in Safety Harbor. She expects most of her gigs for the foreseeable future will likely be in spaces that can thread that narrow needle between restaurant and performance space.
“All musicians are kind of scrambling for gigs right now,” he said. “We’re all in the same boat, trying to look for gigs and make money. But I’ve realized the schedule that I already had planned is not happening the way it was in my calendar."
Still, she needs the gigs to pay her bills — even if she’s only playing for tips.
“From what I’ve heard from other musicians, people are being really generous — which I realized through my virtual shows, and people tipping generously,” she said. “It doesn’t hurt to just put a little guitar case out and suggest, ‘If anyone wants to donate...’ That’s our livelihood.”
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