by Kevin Mims | August 25, 2016

Best Little Music House(s) in Fla.

Tiny venues drawing BIG talent and live-band fans

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With each long, dark mile that passed, and with a turn onto a dirt road, I was starting to realize the description “blues club 20 minutes outside downtown Tallahassee” didn’t quite fit. Finally, the headlights brought me to a hill topped with live oaks and a nondescript block building with a bonfire outside and life pulsing within. Even from there, I could tell something special was happening.

VENUE BBC.960

Doug Deming & The Jeweltones featuring Dennis Gruenling on harmonica at the BBC in Tallahassee. Photography by Jeremiah Stanley

You see, I’d been a fan of the blues since I was a teenager, when I’d borrow (and usually not return) cassette tapes from my uncle’s stash. He had some good stuff—Big Bill Broonzy, Charley Patton, Muddy Waters and Bukka White. I didn’t know then that I’d eventually happen on a club where the world of those old greats is alive and well.

Photography by Jeremiah Stanley

On the Blues trail, BBC has hosted the greats of African American blues, jazz and R&B. Photography by Jeremiah Stanley

But here I was, at a juke joint out in the middle of nowhere, transported back in time. This place, the legendary Bradfordville Blues Club (BBC), is the only Florida location on the Mississippi Blues Trail. A well-obscured treasure, if not a secret one, the BBC shows us what it was like to hang out at a low-key, authentic blues club over 50 years ago—without pretense, bright lights, flashy signs or highway frontage.

“There is a magic in the air,” says owner Gary Anton, who’s run the spot for 14 years. “Many of the old players, when they walk in there, they walk in the door, put their guitar cases down, look around and pretty much say the same thing: ‘This is the type of place I cut my teeth on, and there don’t seem to be many of them left anymore.’ It has a great vibe to it with all the music and everything that has transpired through the years. That’s something everybody knows—the musicians and the customers—it just has a feel to it.”


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For decades, the club operated without any written records, so oral history is all that remains for long stretches of the club’s existence.

Photography by Jeremiah Stanley

Photography by Jeremiah Stanley

“Depending on who you talk to and how much you’ve had to drink—or how much they’ve had to drink—you’d be surprised to hear who played here,” Anton says. Among the past performers: Johnny Winter, Pinetop Perkins, James Cotton, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Jimmy Rogers, Clarence Carter and Percy Sledge.

“Legend has it B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles and Fats Domino may have sat in during the after-hours weekends,” Anton adds.

What’s at the BBC can’t be found in most places. The focus is on the music, and it unites people from all walks of life.

“It’s a pure music venue and both the bands and the customers feed off that. You get the older folks and the younger folks dancing together,” Anton says. “When it comes to that dance floor, it’s like everybody’s family. It’s palpable.”

The BBC is one of a kind, but it’s far from being Florida’s only hidden music gem. In my travels across this diverse state, I’ve gone on roads less traveled, and have discovered other foot-tapping treasures, making sure I’ve talked to the musicians and patrons who make them what they are.

 

MIAMI’S LATIN MAGIC

Hoy Como Ayer (translation: “Today as Yesterday”) might not be the biggest venue in the Magic City, but that is part of the appeal of this Little Havana nightspot on Calle Ocho. It’s a must-visit for any fan of Latin rhythm, especially Cuban music and culture. A local favorite rather than a tourist stop, Hoy Como Ayer is “a place you can leave and say, ‘Wow, Miami is freaking awesome,’” says writer and Miami native Vanessa Garcia. Just pull your car up to the valet and let them take care of your wheels while you get lost in the music.

Photography by Hoy Como Ayer

Photography by Hoy Como Ayer

Hoy Como Ayer’s atmosphere is energetic and cozy, thanks to warm wooden paneling and a few small tables and chairs, putting patrons and musicians in close proximity. “It’s smaller than you think it’s going to be,” says Garcia. “It’s like a big living room. It reminds me of Christmas and my family bringing out instruments and playing. I like that they haven’t torn down walls and made it this huge thing.” To Garcia, who has Cuban roots, this place feels authentic, and that’s why it draws others with similar backgrounds. “There are new waves of Cubans that come in, and there are bands playing that they’ve heard in Cuba,” she adds.

Photography by Hoy Como Ayer

Photography by Hoy Como Ayer

Garcia’s family members are also hooked on Hoy Como Ayer, not just for Cuban bands and musicians, like Amaury Gutiérrez; they recently enjoyed rocking out to Spam Allstars, a nine-piece hip-hop, Latin, funk and electronica band from Miami.

Regardless of who’s jamming, you can sit back and listen or you can get up and dance. Garcia digs that flexible attitude. “I’m not the type of person who’s going to get up there and dance, but I love this music,” she says. “Whether you are one type of person or another, you can participate in this place.”

 

MORE RITZ IN YBOR CITY

Distinctly Yborian, it’s hard not to love the classic Ritz Theater, from the bold ruby-trimmed marquee sign out front to the crush of people dancing inches from the stage and performers. The shows and music have changed at the Ritz through the years. But the place still evokes its glory days in the early 1900s, when it first opened, and you can feel that history as you make your way to the Theater Ballroom across the building’s original terrazzo floors in the main foyer. The ballroom has a classic black-and-white tile floor, with a big R insignia in the center, and lush red velour floor-to-ceiling curtains flank the stage.

The crowd at Ritz Ybor; Photography by Ritz Ybor

The crowd at Ritz Ybor; Photography by Ritz Ybor

The century-old, 17,000-square-foot theater has seen Ybor through many stages of development, from its beginnings as a cigar-manufacturing town occupied by Cuban and Spanish immigrants to what it is today—a vibrant historic district full of arts and culture, restaurants and entertainment.

“Ybor City has always been a time capsule for the history of that area, and that’s somehow magnified at the Ritz, due in part to the renovation several years ago, converting from the grungy rock venue feel of the Masquerade, to the classy and historic feel of the Ritz today,” says Matt Reisinger, a Tampa-area sound engineer, composer and musician.

Reisinger began his musical career at the Ritz, but before that, he was attending concerts such as the Reel Big Fish show in 1996, when the Ritz still went by its former name, the Masquerade Nightclub.

“I must have gone to more than a hundred shows there by now,” Reisinger says. “I literally grew up in that place.”

The theater has hosted everyone from megastars such as Lady Gaga to local bands.

“There have been so many great acts throughout the years, it’s hard to rank them,” Reisinger says. Pressed to name his favorite shows, he includes Underoath, Deadmau5, Passion Pit, Manchester Orchestra, RX Bandits, Feed Me and Gwar.

 

Photography by Vinyl

Photography by Vinyl

PENSACOLA
ROCK ’N’ ROLL-A

Who wants to rock out inside a converted circa-1900 Masonic Temple located on Palafox Street in the heart of storied downtown Pensacola? Vinyl Music Hall fans do. This spot attracts a diverse mix of patrons hailing from the beaches of Florida, Georgia and Alabama—and music that is even more varied. Since opening its doors in 2010, Vinyl has booked regional bands and national artists such as Chris Thomas King, The Supervillains and Diplo.

Acts often draw standing-room-only crowds, but not every performance results in a hip-to-hip mosh pit. More mellow musicians, such as native Floridian Laney Jones, a folk rocker and Vinyl first-timer when she opened for Cowboy Mouth in 2015, have brilliantly entertained the audience.

Standing room only at Vinyl. Photography by Vinyl

Standing room only at Vinyl. Photography by Vinyl

“The crowd was awesome. I got to talk to some people afterwards and it was really exciting,” Jones recalls of the show. “It could be easy to get intimidated. You sort of have nothing to lose and everything to gain, and you have a great time. That’s what makes the best performances.”

Vinyl has a large, high stage, overlooking the audience pit, but the setting retains a somewhat personal atmosphere. Vinyl fans get that big-show feel while being in relatively close proximity to the performers. “The stage—it’s cool from the artist’s perspective,” Jones says.

 

PONTE VEDRA REVIVAL

Not far from the northeastern coast of the Atlantic Ocean, there is what appears to be an ordinary, contemporary sanctuary, sitting back from scenic State Road A1A on a manicured lawn. However, in 2011, the building metamorphosed from a Baptist church into the Ponte Vedra Concert Hall. Now, it’s a place to worship musical talent, entertaining up to 900 people at a time. This small beach box has the bandwidth to attract big names, such as Anders Osborn, the North Mississippi Allstars and the Robert Cray Band.

Metamorphosis of church to rock'n concert hall; Photography by Ponte Vedra Music Hall

Metamorphosis of church to rock’n concert hall; Photography by Ponte Vedra Music Hall

Music buff Chad Pearce recently drove two hours from Orlando to see Foals, an indie rock band from England, at the Ponte Vedra Concert Hall. “The atmosphere was pretty mellow, and it was a large enough space that the show didn’t get too crowded, even though I believe it was sold out.”

Though it’s not as legendary as the BBC, this destination has made quite an impression with concertgoers so far. “The lighting and sound were great,” says Pearce. “There’s a bar, parking was cheap and easy, the staff seemed friendly, the performance was stellar.” The salt air and beach breeze is refreshing as you exit the hall, savoring the reverberations of the night’s music.

Back in Tallahassee at the BBC, hungry fans head outside to wait in line at the fish fry, where a crackling bonfire casts an orange glow on a canopy of ancient oaks, and the smell of smoke and seafood hangs heavy in the air. You can still hear music pulsating from the one-room cinderblock dive—not loud, but audible enough to tap your toes while swapping stories and waiting for a meal. Plugged into something deeper—history, music, food and easy kinships—that blues music gets into your soul, and so does the BBC.

Contributed photography by the music venues featured in the story


MUSIC VENUE CHEAT SHEET

What to know before you go

Bradfordville Blues Club

Friday and Saturday nights mean fried mullet, catfish or sausage from the outdoor fish-fry shack. Upcoming acts: Little Boys Blue on September 10 and Katy Guillen & The Girls on October 1. Advance tickets go for $5 to$60. If bought at the door, tickets start at $10. bradfordvilleblues.com

Hoy Como Ayer

Wear your dancing shoes, expect to pay a cover charge ($7 and up, depending on the show) and order tapas and drinks. Don’t get tongue-tied—brush up on your Spanish (the website is en Español). Check online listings for upcoming acts. For reservations, call (305) 541-2631.  hoycomoayer.us

The Ritz Ybor

Head upstairs to the balcony for a perfect view of the show. (Bonus: a private bar with very little wait time!) Upcoming acts: Ja Rule on September 8, the Foals on October 26 and Tegan and Sara on November 15. Tickets run around $15 online or at the box office. theritzybor.com

Vinyl Music Hall

Park in the lot behind the venue on the cheap. Check out the adjacent 5 1/2 Bar for bartenders shaking up creative cocktails. All events are standing room only. Upcoming acts: The Ataris on September 14 and For Today on October 4. Tickets start at $15 online or at the box office. vinylmusichall.com

Ponte Vedra Concert Hall

Plan to pre-show at the beach. Mickler’s Landing Beach offers public access about a mile away. Bring cash for snacks, local beer and spirits from concessions (there’s a $10 minimum for credit cards). Upcoming shows: The Dandy Warhols on October 4 and Henry Rollins on October 9. Tickets start at $20 online or at the box office. pvconcerthall.com

by Christina Cush