On Dec. 4, the band Black Pumas, along with acclaimed artists such as Phosphorescent, Langhorne Slim, Rayland Baxter and others will command the stage at the newly renovated Parade Grounds at Fort East Martello. But to understand how an elite, ascending band such as the Black Pumas, recently nominated for four Grammy Awards (including Album of the Year in 2021) were booked to headline this year’s Coast is Clear Music and Arts Festival — one must first appreciate the rigorous journey and beautiful collaboration between Billy Kearins and Michael Gieda — and how the completion of one of Key West’s most historic venues is about to be reborn.
When the Black Pumas and other celebrated artists take the stage on Dec. 4, they will be the first to do so within one of the most historic venues in the U.S.— culminating an eight-year project to repair the grounds and create a marquee event space for Key West.
The Parade Grounds at Fort East Martello, managed by the Key West Art and Historical Society (KWAHS) and located along the Atlantic side of the Key West airport, was once the cultural epicenter of the local arts scene dating back to 1949. The Civil War-era fort, now turned art gallery and museum, was dedicated as East Martello Park in 1983 and funded by donors such as Margo Golan and Ross McKee.
However, after the KWAHS shifted its focus to properties like the Key West Lighthouse and Custom House, much of the Parade Grounds fell by the wayside in the ‘90s.
“We started using the fort again about 10 years ago,” said KWAHS Executive Director Michael Gieda, who took the position around 2012. “We started having concerts and events again, but when it rained it would drastically flood.”
Yet seven years ago, fate unapologetically fueled a movement to bring art and music back to the Parade Grounds.
“The Zombie Bike Ride had outgrown Stock Island and Evan Haskell approached us about using the fort as a new starting point,” said Gieda. “Not long after, he and Marky Pierson started talking about using the grounds for shows and concerts.”
From there, outdoor concerts featuring acts like JJ Grey, Donavon Frankenreiter and Amy Helm took place, showcasing the fort’s unique appeal for concerts, festivals and events.
“Historically, the property has been a center for festivals, community events and concerts,” said Gieda. “So we are continuing on with several of the aspects of the operation we were not doing for years.”
That will change when KWAHS, which manages four museums (including the Key West Lighthouse, The Custom House and Tennessee Williams Museum), rolls out the newly renovated Parade Grounds at Fort East Martello at the Coast is Clear Music and Arts Festival in December. As of now, the venue, which is owned by the county, has newly repaved parking lots and drainage systems, and will soon boast various seating capacities for events and concerts —funded by the Monroe County Tourist Development Council.
Billy Kearins — COAST: Founder and Creative Director
When Billy Kearins, founder of COAST in Key West, created the Coast is Clear Festival in 2017, he never imagined the symbolic meaning behind his music festival would transcend hurricane relief for his hometown. At the time, Hurricane Irma had devastated much of the Keys and like most, Kearins had evacuated to safety.
“The idea for the festival arose from the devastation of Hurricane Irma,” said Kearins. “I was far away and watching the disaster back home in Key West and wanted to do something to lift spirits.”
Kearins wanted to offer his Keys family a way to “celebrate after a tough time,” but he was also weary of another storm occurring on the heels of Irma.
“I had to go back and refresh my knowledge of hurricane season,” said Kearins. “I realized it didn’t end until Dec. 1, so that date became a fitting way to weave our COAST brand with the ‘Coast is Clear’ theme to celebrate a moment of rebirth and new beginnings.”
Kearins, who previously produced concerts at COAST’s previous home in the rustic confines of Stock Island, utilized his relationships with names like G Love and Rayland Baxter to produce shows in Key West at a time when larger names were scarce in the Southernmost City.
“Ultimately, we got some major shows under our belt in 2013,” said Kearins. “Mason Jennings was one of our first and then G Love in 2013. It proved there was a demand for live music in Key West.”
However, COAST relocated from Stock Island in 2018 to its current home on Whitehead Street in Key West. Without a permanent venue, Kearins was forced to rent concert spaces at locales like the San Carlos Institute, but was in need of a partner.
“In 2019 I asked Michael [Gieda] if we could use the Lighthouse grounds for the Coast is Clear concert,” said Kearins. “We weren’t necessarily partnering, but it got the dialogue going. That got Michael and I talking about live music moving forward. And then COVID happened.”
Michael Gieda – Executive Director: Key West Art & Historical Society
Michael Gieda says the faucet turned off in March 2020. After years of success, COVID and shutdowns threatened the existence of the 65-year-old KWAHS. Ask anyone in the know, and they’ll quickly tell you Gieda and his staff of about 25 employees had rejuvenated the organization into one of the most respected organizations in the Keys.
In addition, Gieda had placed a renewed focus on the organization’s mission to steward four museums, while educating the local community and visitors with art exhibits, architecture and history.
Gieda also had another idea, which was to recall the days of the Cayo Carnival, which showcased art and music at the Parade Grounds at Fort East Martello.
“It was our responsibility to take care of the grounds and it wasn’t happening,” said Gieda. “We don’t own these properties, we are caretakers and these locations are meant to be used by the community as educational centers. So whether it’s a concert, event or educational program for kids—we want them to learn something about the culture and history of the Keys.”
So in March 2020, when Kearins approached Gieda about collaborating on the Coast is Clear Festival at the fort, Gieda saw an opportunity to bring more attention to the mission of KWAHS.
COVID & Cancellations
Gieda says the pandemic pushed KWAHS to the brink of bleak outcomes, but he credits his dedicated staff and community support for persevering through the organization’s greatest challenge to date.
“We went from a high point to the lowest of lows,” said Gieda of KWAHS. But we salvaged and persevered. We reevaluated and reprioritized from the darkness…more than anyone could have ever predicted.”
Billy and Michael both wanted to revisit the Coast is Clear Festival, so at some point around June of this year, the two brought the conversation back up.
“I knew there was some work going on out at the fort and we decided it was best to be patient,” said Kearins. “Shows were coming back and there was this huge pent-up demand for music. I just didn’t want to jump back in and compete with everyone and felt a concert in December would be better.”
The Black Pumas
By June, Kearins and Gieda decided to partner up for the first time on the Coast is Clear Festival as a way to introduce the new space and collaborate on an upscaled production. And with a bigger space and collective resources, a plan was taking shape.
As far as who was going to play, Kearins had five or six artists that he was familiar with and had booked over the years. From there, he and Gieda collaborated on the scope of a larger concert.
“We knew this was not just another Coast show capped at 250 or 500, so that’s when we got into talks about who else might be a headliner,” said Kearins. “That’s a new space, because you’re dealing with artists who are going to demand more in every aspect of the production.”
At the time, Kearins used his contacts to reach out to the Black Pumas. He admits he didn’t think they would land the band. After all, the Black Pumas were coming off four recent Grammy nominations and had just performed at the inauguration before tens of millions on live television around the world.
“They were at the top of their game so it was no surprise it wasn’t going to happen,” said Kearins. “And for a while, it wasn’t.”
Gieda says he was in a board meeting when Kearins texted him from Copenhagen. The text was simple. It read, “The Black Pumas are in.”
“I’m still in disbelief,” said Gieda. “The hardest part was keeping the cat in the bag. We already had bands who could easily headline, like Phosphorescent. And now we had the Black Pumas.”
Billy and Michael are both quick to point out the sensitivities surrounding COVID, but admit the “Coast is Clear” theme will hopefully take on an entirely new meaning this December. For both men, the concert and show symbolize much more than ticket sales and money.
“One of the things I love about Key West is we are sort of sheltered from what I call mainstream influences and style,” said Kearins. “I always say Key West is a time warp where ‘cool’ is not a thing, which is awesome, but it’s also tricky when you’re trying to introduce bands that are relevant and hip right now. But at COAST, we are trying to introduce people to new styles of music and art — and that transcends money or ticket sales.”
Gieda has a similar, grounded approach to the festival, saying the evening is a celebration of the KWAHS mission.
“This isn’t just a concert venue. This is a community space,” said Gieda. “Our mission and purpose differ from those who just promote shows. The new space is to be used for the betterment of this community, whether it’s a concert, special event, fundraiser or children’s educational activities.”
Gieda and Kearins both emphasized they have great appreciation for others who produce shows around Key West, but added, “We aren’t going to do a concert just to do a concert. There has to be a meaning and a mission, which brings people to the property and exposes them to the arts.”
NOTE: Limited tickets for The Coast is Clear Arts & Musical Festival can be purchased at Coastisclearfest.com.
From now until the end of October, those purchasing tickets can use one of 10 promo codes on the site and 20% of the ticket sales will benefit the corresponding local non-profits (all can be found on coastisclearfest.com.)