His left hand bears calluses that reveal his chosen trade. On the pointing-tip of the fingers, each thick, white callus has a groove through it from over five decades of work.
With his long hair pulled back into a ponytail and dressed in his work clothes of blue jeans, plaid shirt and cowboy boots, he settles onto a barstool and takes the tool of his trade in hand.
The grooves in his calluses match perfectly to the strings of the acoustic guitar as the notes roll off of it with a lilting ease to drift, along with nothing else but his voice, on the breeze flowing through the open-air restaurant.
John Lowbridge does more than entertain the happy-hour crowd with the classic music of the 60s through the early 90s. While he is an accomplished musician, he does more than just sing and play the guitar.
“I love to talk to the crowd, joke with them and find out who they are,” Lowbridge says. “That’s part of the show and making people when they leave say, ‘Gee, that guy was great, and I had a really good time here tonight.’ If you get some people who at this table who have by the end of the night made friends with people at that table, that’s even better.”
He has a rapport with the audience few performers have, joking with the crowd and chatting them up as he meets the challenge of requests. With an encyclopedic repertoire, few patrons have ever been able to stump him. He brings the style of a British pub entertainer to his performance, telling stories and playing sing-a-long music to bring the audience to experience more than passively listening to his show.
“The biggest thing is the difference between playing to audiences that are listening to you and playing in a restaurant where you’re just part of the furniture,” he says. “I don’t want to be background music.”
As Lowbridge starts performing his gig at Riverwalk in Tin City, people at the bar and tables perk up and take notice. A newlywed couple who arrived early to claim the table right in front of Lowbridge chats with him between songs and he replies over the microphone, bringing all the audience into the conversation. They are regulars who come to see him every week. He sings “Fields of Gold,” and then he spots a woman drinking white wine at the bar.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in Texas?” he asks her over the mike.
“I was,” Diana Garrison replies. “I got in a couple of hours ago.”
“And you came to see me?” he asks.
She laughs and nods, and then she asks him who originally performed “Fields of Gold.”
“That was by Sting,” Lowbridge answers. “He was with The Police, but now he’s just Sting.”
Then he adds, “I was with the police, too, but fortunately they let me out on bail.”
As a sunset cruise boat pulls out from the dock and goes past the restaurant, Lowbridge tells the audience, “You’ve got to wave to the boat when he rings the bell.”
Garrison, from Whitesboro, Texas, says that her family comes to Naples twice a year and Lowbridge’s show is one of her first stops once she gets to town.
“He sings everybody’s songs,” she says. “He sings such a variety, and he’s just easy to listen to. It’s a nice live music show. He can sing anything – rock, country – it’s just a nice mix, and he’s a lot of fun. He’s just easy.”
Lowbridge performs every Thursday evening at Riverwalk in Naples’ Tin City, but he also rotates through other venues in Naples, Marco Island, Goodland and Ochopee. Occasionally, he plays in Bonita Springs, and he says he would love to have more opportunities to perform in Bonita.
The heart of Riverwalk is the live entertainment, and Lowbridge keeps the beat lively yet mellow. He takes the singer-songwriter, rock ‘n’ roll, folk and blues music of his youth and young adulthood and makes them his own. Singing solo with his acoustic guitar as his only accompaniment, he takes familiar songs and interprets them to skip between the different harmony and instrumental parts such that the backup singers or backing band is never missed.
“I’ve done three kinds of music,” Lowbridge says. “I toured Europe in a folk duo with an Irish guy, and we did tons of busking (street performing). I’ve been with a five-piece band, playing Beatles music, where we were trying very hard to recreate the original arrangements, and that’s one kind of music. When it’s just you and a guitar, it’s impossible to do that – totally impossible – so you by definition have to become at that point an interpreter of the song.”
Lowbridge says he hasn’t any fixed arrangements or formulas for interpreting the songs for solo guitar. Sometimes he has to change the key to lower the song to fit his vocal range. Then he looks to capture something distinctive that makes the song recognizable, especially for hard-driven electric rock songs that he is playing in the more laid-back style that the acoustic instrument necessitates.
“Every song has a hook,” he says. “If you can find somewhere in your rhythm of playing an acoustic piece that little hook, people then recognize the song – that and the vocals – and they’ll say, ‘OK, I know this song.’
“If you listen to the way I play Tom Petty’s ‘American Girl’ and the way he plays it, it’s nothing the same,” Lowbridge says. “But I retain that rhythmic ‘do-do-do…DAH-do-dah’ and people instantly recognize it’s ‘American Girl’ even before I start singing it because they recognize the guitar part, but it really isn’t the same guitar that Tom Petty is playing. I’m just fooling them, but playing solo guitar, it’s the only way you can do it.”
What you don’t hear are the typical tunes sung by most local happy-hour singers who only know three chords to strum along with karaoke backing tracks.
When he moved to Florida, Lowbridge realized he would have to add a little Jimmy Buffett to his repertoire in case an audience member made a request, so he learned a couple lesser-heard ones rather than the usual “Margaritaville.”
“One of my earliest influences was Gordon Lightfoot,” he says, “but at the same time, so were The Beatles. My favorite rock ’n’ roll band of all time is The Who, and that’s the loudest, rockiest band ever. I love the Who and play them with an acoustic guitar. Now there’s a trick — arranging The Who on an acoustic guitar, but you can do it.
“The music stands on its own,” Lowbridge says. “I do a few country songs, but I’m not a country singer. If you want to hear a Johnny Cash song or a Willie Nelson song, I can do that. These are the greats to me, and that’s what I play – all the greats.”
What makes Lowbridge’s musical abilities even more impressive is that he has no formal education in music. He studied history and political science in high school and college. He picked up the guitar at the age of 12 in an era when other young lads in England were doing the same, and by age 14, he and his mates from school had a band that played local pubs on the weekends.
“We were playing what was then-current pop music, which was The Beatles, Brian Poole and the Tremeloes and whatever else was popular in 1963 or ’64,” he says. “It started in the glorious tradition of garage bands getting together and banging out some rock ‘n’ roll.
“Then I realized I was good enough at it that people would pay me to do it, and that was my downfall because it ended any chance I had of having a serious career or a real job or making a lot of money,” Lowbridge says. “In high school, everybody had a paper route to make pocket money, but I bought my first car with money we made from band gigs. When you’re 16 years old and getting the equivalent of $50 for two hours work on Saturday night, the little light bulb goes on above your head.”
Lowbridge has spent most of his life as a professional musician. Moving to his wife’s hometown of Boston, he also taught after-school guitar lessons and started a carpentry business after the couple had a family. His accent now sounds more New England than old Britain. He moved to Naples eight years ago after his divorce.
“I said I’m going back to playing on a barstool, but I’ll do it where the sun shines. I had musical friends in Florida, so I knew I could come down and get some gigs. It’s what I’ve done all my life and I love doing, so as long as they’ll prop me up on a barstool, I’ll keep doing it.”
Connect with this writer: @LauraTichySmith (Twitter)
If you go
Who: Pub singer John Lowbridge
Contact: Search Facebook for “John Lowbridge” and select the one with guitar singer photo
See: Riverwalk in Tin City
When: 5:30-9 p.m. Thursdays
Where: 1200 5th Ave. South, Naples
Restaurant info: riverwalktincity.com, 263-2734
Note: Check Lowbridge’s Facebook page to find postings of additional performances or to send a message to hire him for bar, restaurant or private party gigs.