"I don't know if you're lucky or not..." were some of the first words spoken by a musician on a major Tampa Bay venue's stage since COVID-19 pretty much took over the world.
Last week, reps at Ruth Eckerd Hall announced that local rock legend Greg Billings would headline acoustic shows at the given location's new cabaret theatre, with some other local guests—demand was so high that Billings ended up getting booked for five gigs. And his guests were not set to be members of the former Stranger vocalist's current band. The first gig took place Thursday night and was set to have two other locals—McLean Mannix of Jeriko Turnpike, and Robin Taylor Zander—co-headlining with Greg. The shows, which cost showgoers $40 per four top table, sold out.
For more reasons than one, these shows are not affairs in which it's just some band playing for your entertainment while you try to eat. It felt more like the other way around. People from all over Tampa Bay not only wanted to get out of the house—they wanted their damn live music back. First off, Zander's family, including his Hall of Fame inductee dad, were sitting at the table next to me. Oh, and Clearwater's new mayor Frank Hibbard welcomed everyone to the show.
"Isn't it wonderful to feel just a little bit normal and hear live music?" he asked.
Generally, each act in a co-headlining show plays everything they want to in one set, followed by the next artist, and so on until everyone has been checked off. That wasn't exactly the case onThursday. Billings was on and offstage all show long. He opened the show with a few remarks about how though he was alone tonight, and how heand the Greg Billings Band have mainly been a "sideshow" that usually plays on the Hall's outside stage out back before a major concert there begins.
"It's fun, but it's not as fun as tonight's gonna be," he promised before launching into a non-raunchy cover of Chris Stapleton's "Friendship." Immediately after, he called up his young friend, who was, much to the crowd's humor, in need of a pick.
Robin Taylor Zander, who recently moved back to Tampa Bay from Nashville, decided to stick to all original compositions, other than harmonizing with Billings for an on-point version of Neil Young's "I Believe In You." A move like that earned him a ton of respect, in my opinion. Not only was he sporting a massive white hat like his father normally does onstage, but it was uncanny how similar he sounded to the Cheap Trick frontman. With that said, he clearly has enough confidence in himself to not live off of what got his father famous, and is comfortable with being his own person with his own music. Kind of a Duncan Jones (Zowie Bowie) situation, if you think about it. Though only three originals were presented at first, and one closer to the end, there was one that stuck out: The poignantly penned "The Distance," described by Zander as "apropos for what's going on in the world right now."
"So many things have gone wrong, we seem to forget when things have gone right," he sang.
Very few other originals from any of the three artists on the bill were thrown into the mix. Billings gave us a sneak peak of some new material, though. "Broken World" was another one that got you thinking: It's literally centered around a couple who live together that disagree on most things. "We're All In This Together" was, believe it or not, written three-or-so years before the novel coronavirus was discovered, and Billings admitted that he doesn't remember playing it anywhere other than Facebook live.
"Did you all get the message?" he asked an instant after he strummed the song's last chord.
Only when Billings got offstage so Mannix could have his turn, did Jeriko Turnpike's original material pop up. But that doesn't mean that the band's lead singer wasn't in top form throughout his whole set. The duo brought out breathtaking harmonies on Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Who'll Stop The Rain." After Mannix's brief solo set, Billings hopped back up to duet on an audience approved, slowed down rendition of Aretha Franklin's "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman."
"Times have changed, and a man can sing a song a woman originally did, right?!," they asked.
For nearly the rest of the show, the acoustic covers did not stop from Billings and Mannix. But was that a disappointment? Hell to the no. Among these were tributes to fallen Florida boys Tom Petty ("You Got Lucky") and Gregg Allman ("Soulshine"), and later, with Zander back onstage, an "Angel From Montgomery" tribute to the more-recently fallen John Prine.
"What a treasure that guy was," Greg remarked.
A few songs later, folks full from their complimentary charcuterie tray, Cubans, and Bud Lites, were receiving their receipts, and would slowly but surely disperse.
If I'm being honest, having these shows in the cabaret theatre was a sensational idea. Not only do you get to be closer to the artists, but it's also a great opportunity for the venue's management to experiment with what they can do with the new area in the future. For now, though, think of it as a baby step towards opening up the actual hall again.
How soon will it reopen? Even with all the shows booked for the remainder of this year, all that can be promised is that we shall see.
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