John Bartus

There’s no place in the world like the Florida Keys, and there are few better places in which to ply one’s trade if one plays music for a living. Luckily for me, I love the Keys and play music several nights each week.

An online musicians’ forum I sometimes cruise by had an interesting topic the other day: “What’s the weirdest gig you’ve ever played?” Some of the replies were strange but common (performing on a parade float — done that), and some were just strange (performing in Carlsbad Caverns — sorry, I’ve got a thing about bat poop on my guitars).

The forum topic got me thinking about some of the somewhat abnormal musical engagements I’ve performed at throughout the years, and how those gigs would never have happened anywhere else but the Keys.

I’ve played a couple of small boat gigs, which are much more “fun” and “entertaining” than the larger cruise ship gigs. I’ve done a couple of the larger boats, however, and I have to tell you that there’s nothing quite so challenging as trying to perform without falling on a small cruise ship with dysfunctional stabilizers in 30-foot seas. Then there’s that unique cruise dichotomy where a passenger or musician finds himself walking to the midday buffet, down halls where the railings are gaily festooned with barf bags.

Anyway, back to the small boats. There used to be a small gambling boat out of Marathon called Mr. Lucky’s; the musician always had to set up on the covered upper deck. For those who know about boats, this particular vessel was a Great Lakes-type boat, with a broad rounded bottom. This means that it didn’t handle ocean-type waves very well. The best performing position was leaning with one’s ass against the rail, holding down the microphone stand with one foot so that the microphone wouldn’t fall away or come back and smack the musician in the mouth, all the while staying out of the way of the passengers who ran up from below decks to heave off the side.

Another time, I was paid a princely sum to take an acoustic guitar with me on a rather small boat as we went 20 miles offshore to fish for dolphin. It was a beautiful (if hot) clear and calm summer day… I remember there being a lot of Jimmy Buffett songs and copious amounts of cold beer with very little shade and no head (just hang it over the side).

Here in the Keys, there’s every kind of outdoor gig one can imagine. None, however, compares with the annual Seven Mile Bridge Run. For those unfamiliar with this annual ritual, perhaps an explanation is in order. One Saturday morning each April, they actually close down the Seven Mile Bridge — the only link between Marathon and the Lower Keys—for an internationally famous running event. I have performed at this event each year for more than 30 years. The stage is a flatbed trailer, which in years past was parked in front of a gift shop inside a railroad car adjacent to a campground. (It’s now parked in front of the Gulf of Mexico at the end of 33rd Street when events become safe again.) 

One of the strange parts is having to arrive at the gig at 5:30 a.m. to be able to access the staging area before the road is shut down—which is not necessarily that fun after a rockin’ Friday night gig. The performance time is usually from 9 to 10 a.m. as the runners return from their seven-mile journey. There are usually more than 2,000 runners, friends and volunteers in attendance, as well as a fully stocked beer truck. That’s right, there’s nothing like enjoying a springtime Saturday morning with thousands of healthy runners and friends guzzling low-carb Michelob Ultra not long past sunrise.

Though they may be sweltering and sweaty, musical gigs in the Keys are rarely boring. And if I ever start thinking about how routine things in the Keys may seem, I just remember that Saturday morning that happens each April, and how it really gives that old adage special new meaning in my life: Beer — it’s not just for breakfast anymore!

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