It could have been a slow night at the Old Marco Pub & Restaurant, before the 22 ladies in the bachelorette party showed up. It was August on Marco Island, and the rain was coming down, sometimes in a drizzle and sometimes in slashing windblown sheets.
Up on the stage, Jeff Hilt was playing a single, just him, his guitar, and the “band in a box” accompaniment of electronic backup players and singers. Restaurant co-owner Susan Ackerson pointed out that Hilt was playing for about the third time on Marco in the last week, and people had already had several chances to catch his performance.
But, like the rain, patrons started to trickle in. Bonnie and Scott Gibbs, owners of Cocomo’s, came in and sat down to have dinner.
“We heard you were here, but we decided to come anyway,” Bonnie called out to Hilt as they entered. If that wasn’t enough to tell you they were old friends, she made it explicit, when she was done giving the singer a hard time.
“We love Jeff we’ve been listening to him for 20 years,” she said. Bill Carlson, bringing a family group in for a variety of veal dishes, including parmesan, rollatini, and Milanese, had a similar take.
“He gives the Islanders some island music. It’s not all Jimmy Buffett, but nice and tropical. He does a good job,” said Carlson.
Saturday night, in addition to the obligatory Buffett if you don’t play “parrot head” tunes in Southwest Florida, the Buffett police will issue you a citation Hilt delivered a mix of classic rock, current country hits, oldies from Sinatra and Elvis to the Eagles and the Doobie Brothers “something for everybody,” he said. “I like to call it adult music, or middle of the road, not oldies.”
Hilt has been playing on and around Marco Island for almost 30 years, and appears basically everywhere, either as a single or as part of his band, Stampede. With the band, Hilt plays electric bass, but on his own, he plays acoustic guitar, and fills the sound with MIDI backing tracks and a vocal “sweetener.” Nobody minds that most of the “band” is invisible.
Currently, Hilt is playing at the Marco Island Brewery, the Crazy Flamingo, and CJ’s on the Bay, in addition to the Old Marco Pub. He has been a regular at the Snook Inn, and at Stan’s Idle Hour during the season, Hilt not only plays, but takes on some of the emceeing role that Stan Gober used to fill. Last season, that was Hilt, along with Billy Oliver, running the Buzzard Lope contest during the Mullet Festival.
So Hilt stays busy, playing out “three or four times a week,” even in the summer. And that’s just the evenings. Like most musicians locally, he has a day job. Hilt has worked for Century Link for 33 years, back to when they were United Telephone, then Sprint, Nextel and Embarq. In “my other life,” as he puts it, he is a data technician, working with Cisco routers and helping to keep the county’s 911 emergency telephone system working.
On the personal side, Hilt has reunited with high school sweetheart Sharon Lawrence, after both of them spent decades apart. When they do have free time, they like to get out Hilt’s 28-foot cuddy cabin Pursuit.
“Islanders love him, and we love to feature local talent,” said Ackerson, adding that many restaurants on Marco close during the off-season, and it’s important to have a place for the locals to go, and a way for the employees to earn a living.
“I understand the business part, too,” said Hilt. “I watch tables. If they’re leaning over because they can’t hear, it’s too loud. And you have to judge when to take a break.”
The girls of the bachelorette outing are in a mood to party, so it is not time to take a break as they get out on the dance floor, under the pulsing stage lights at Old Marco Pub. Jeff Hilt doesn’t get much of a break, but if you’re out and about at Marco Island watering holes, you are going to run into him.