Hitting a sour note: Pandemic has changed life for local musicians

Lance Shearer

Living with the coronavirus has been a challenge for everyone on Marco Island, Florida and the world. But some people’s livelihoods have been specifically and spectacularly yanked away, and their lives upended. Among those are gigging musicians, along with servers and other employees at the places they played.

Back in March, in what would normally be the height of the season, the restaurants, bars, and clubs where live music happens went suddenly dark, with the shutdown stretching on into the heat of the subtropical summer.

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For music lovers and fans of hitting the town, the cutoff of performing arts has meant they couldn’t get out and enjoy the performances. But for performers, it meant they saw their income cut off. We checked in with some stalwarts of the Marco music scene to see how things have been going.

J.Robert is perhaps the dean of island musicians, a prolific songwriter, multi-instrumentalist known for fiddle and steel drum, among others, and a producer of musical pieces for shows including a PBS-TV special on Rookery Bay. He was performing regularly at “industrials,” shows for visiting convention groups, but those came to an abrupt halt with the tourism business. He has been using the enforced time off to explore back into his catalog of material.

“I’ve got hundreds of songs I haven’t recorded,” and has been cutting those tracks, performing most or all of the instruments himself. “I can knock out a song in a day – a video takes a little longer.” If he needs outside help, “I can invite friends in from all over the world,” and lay down individual parts remotely.

With health concerns for both him and his wife, J.Robert says he’s being very careful about potential virus infection. “I’m playing by the rules – a lot of people aren’t.”

Jeff Hilt has played all over the island for decades, at venues including the Old Marco Pub, the Crazy Flamingo, CJ’s on the Bay, and the Marco Island Brewery. He has taken over emceeing

duties for the Buzzard Lope contest at Stan’s Idle Hour on Goodland, and plays guitar as a single (with invisible backing band), or bass with a variety of bands.

Having had some serious health issues, Hilt said he was “very leery about playing inside.” He said he has “stepped back from playing out,” waiting for the COVID situation to improve. Just returned from a trip to Key West, Hilt said that while the music scene on Marco is starting to come back, Key West is a different story.

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“Duval Street is shut down. The clubs are closed, including Sloppy Joe’s, and there’s a mandatory 11:00 closing. And of course no cruise ships. You have to wear masks everywhere – the police are enforcing it.”

Hilt said he will be back on the outdoor stage at Stan’s this fall. “First weekend in October is when we’re slated to reopen. I’m looking forward to it.”

Raiford Starke, who took his stage name from that of two Florida state prisons, is a singer, songwriter, and rock band leader who plays around the area a lot, notably at the Little Bar in Goodland each year for Spammy Jammy – which didn’t happen this year. Starke has been affected by more than the loss of gigs due to COVID-19. He actually caught the virus, a mild case, he said.

“I got it a month ago. I have no idea how. I kind of lucked out – I had a fever for a couple of days and I recovered. Basically, I’m doing good.”

Starke is back to performing, and will be playing – outdoors – at the Crabby Lady on Goodland, this Saturday from 1 to 5 p.m. He said if nothing else, he is working on a pandemic anthem, “Have You Heard About the Herd Immunity,” with apologies to the Little River Band.

Mitch Peters, asked about how the pandemic was affecting him, said briefly, “I’m unemployed.”

Then he extensively modified that curt pronouncement. Largely “kinda almost retired,” as he said, he is not playing the piano bar gigs he performed for many years, notably at the Hilton hotel on Marco. But he is the organist every Sunday at Everglades Community Church in Everglades City, where the congregation sings but the choir is on hiatus.

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He has written background music for national television shows including “The Big Bang Theory” and “Madame Secretary,” which J.Robert produced. “We get a check twice a year – it’s not much,” he said, and plays private house parties, at homes in Port Royal among others. Peters also works as a funeral director, so “unemployed” is a very relative term.

There is live music reported to be happening on Marco, at venues including the Snook Inn, the Crabby Lady, the Sandbar, and the Speakeasy. If locals’ and visitors’ wishes come true and the pandemic dies down, soon you’ll be able to hear the strains of Jimmy Buffett