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Labor Day sandbar concerts might be nearing the end of an era

Every Labor Day and Memorial Day, Hal Hammer Jr. and his Cross Creek Blues Band load up a pontoon with musical gear and perform a floating concert for thousands of boaters and swimmers on a sandbar in Riviera Bay, between Weedon Island and St. Petersburg's Tanglewood neighborhood.  Photo: Hal Hammer Jr.
Every Labor Day and Memorial Day, Hal Hammer Jr. and his Cross Creek Blues Band load up a pontoon with musical gear and perform a floating concert for thousands of boaters and swimmers on a sandbar in Riviera Bay, between Weedon Island and St. Petersburg's Tanglewood neighborhood. Photo: Hal Hammer Jr.
Published Sep. 3, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — The first time Hal Hammer Jr. and his salt-washed buddies played the blues on a barge in Riviera Bay, some 40 curious neighbors floated out to watch — not many more than your average Labor Day block party.

Flash forward 10 years to May, when thousands of boaters and swimmers filled the bay's shallow waters for Hammer's annual free concert on Memorial Day weekend. You can't get there by car.

"By the time it's going," said one of Hammer's comrades, guitarist Ken Keller, "it's a sea of boats as far as your eyes can see."

Such is the appeal of the sandbar party, a Florida tradition wherein boaters kick back in shallow tides and pop a cold one. If the sun is shining, you'll find a sandbar party somewhere just off the Gulf Coast, especially on three-day weekends like Labor Day.

And for a decade now, no one has thrown a sandbar party like Hammer. On Sunday, he and his Cross Creek Blues Band will once again haul an entire free live concert — instruments, amplifiers, soundboard, generator and all — hundreds of yards out toward Weedon Island for a day of waterborne blues.

There's talk this show might be Hammer's last, potentially ending one of St. Petersburg's quirkiest holiday traditions. He's nearly 73, and the expense is too great — more than $6,000 some years, all out of pocket. This summer, he launched a GoFundMe campaign, gofundme.com/sandbarconcerts, to help defray costs; at last count, it had more than $1,400 in donations.

But it takes more than cash to keep these concerts afloat.

"Anybody that knows me will tell you it's never, ever been about the money," he said. "It's about the applause."

• • •

Hammer grew up the son of a torch singer and big-band drummer in St. Louis, performing alongside both by age 5. When he was old enough, he picked up a guitar and drumsticks and joined the house band of a club owned by Chuck Berry, where he played with B.B. King and Ike and Tina Turner.

Touring took him to Florida, where the seeds of a dream took root.

"I used to tell all my friends, I want to move to the Tampa Bay area and have a big white boat," he said.

When he finally moved to Florida, he formed a contracting company, Riviera Bay Builders. He and his wife, Terri, a real estate agent, raised a family.

In 1995, after a hiatus of more than two decades, he resumed gigging at blues clubs all over Tampa Bay, even recording a few CDs. He built a wood shop where he crafts and repairs guitars, as well as a basement bar complete with a small stage. And he made fast friends with other musicians.

One was Gary Phillips, a harmonica player who shared Hammer's love of boating. He was working at a boating business and had the idea to use a flat-bottomed pontoon as a parking-lot stage for live performances. Hammer raised the obvious question:

Why not actually take her out in the water?

That first boat, dubbed The Flagship of The Red Neck Yacht Club, was a ramshackle creation, topped with unfinished wood and palm fronds. A couple of years later, they upgraded to the more subtly christened Band Barge II, improving and tweaking it each year. Hammer called in favors and relied on the kindness of neighbors to make repairs and additions.

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It wasn't long before word spread well beyond Riviera Bay. Forty fans grew to 100, 500, 1,000.

"There's people from Tampa, Sarasota that's heard about it," Phillips said. "Friends tell friends. One person tells another. And it grew."

This last Memorial Day, Hammer said, 16 boats dropped anchor the day before the show just to stake out a good view of the stage. By day's end, he estimated more than 5,000 people had passed through, filling the musicians' tip jar with more than $1,000.

The logistics of each show are as tricky as you'd expect. Musicians can test their equipment before shoving off, but the acoustics on the water are different from on land, so there's a bit of guesswork. Wakes from passing boats rattle their stage, and saltwater spray wreaks havoc on their instruments and equipment.

"We lost a microphone overboard," Hammer said.

Still, the sound is surprisingly good, with amplifiers projecting the music hundreds of yards across the bay. They recorded this year's Memorial Day concert in HD video and 16-track audio. Hammer said they might even mix it into an album, something he never imagined a decade ago.

"None of us figured we were good enough to get paid for it," he said. "I had retired from professional music. I quit playing for 25 years."

And now?

"As long as I'm on this side of the grass and breathing, and my hands will work, I will play."

• • •

Like his friends and neighbors, Hammer doesn't want the party to end. But the organizational workload has just become too much. He's on the verge of retirement and needs to fill his shoes.

"It'll take a group of people," he said. "One person can't do this."

Keller might be the guy to lead. A Largo native, he was gigging almost every night aboard a dinner cruise in Clearwater Beach when a friend told him about this waterborne concert he had to see to believe. Finally, one year, he wrangled the day off work and checked it out. Within hours, he was pulled up on stage, grabbed one of Hammer's guitars and ended up jamming for 45 minutes. He hasn't missed it since.

Keller is eager to keep Hammer's original laid-back vision going, provided they figure out how to manage all this unexpected growth.

"I don't ever want it to turn into something where you're bringing out a semitruck-sized boat and concert rig out there," Keller said. "That'll take away from the atmosphere."

Despite their growing size, the Riviera Bay concerts have never been a nuisance, said Mike Puetz, a spokesman for the St. Petersburg Police, whose marine unit monitors sandbar parties there each weekend.

"They do issue citations for speeding and equipment issues, but that seems to be the bulk of it," Puetz said. "They feel like their presence in the group is enough to keep things under control, and so far, it seems to have worked."

The events' neighborly vibe and mostly clean record is a point of pride for Hammer and his pals.

"It's a family deal — neighbors and family and kids and dogs," he said.

Of course, anytime you mix beer, bikinis and live music, there's a chance things can get a little crazy. There are times when the concerts feel like real rock 'n' roll.

"There was a gal that had big bazooms," Phillips recalled. "She flashed us."

It's a party, all right. There's not another one like it.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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