Playing It Back

Mo' Gravy plays for fun, charity — but definitely not for the money. See them at this Wednesday's Gourmet Feastival.

click to enlarge Mo' Gravy is (from left) Alicia Crawford Elliott, Michael Eggleston, Jeanette Gautier, Keith Koehler and Tanya Lewis. - James Ostrand
James Ostrand
Mo' Gravy is (from left) Alicia Crawford Elliott, Michael Eggleston, Jeanette Gautier, Keith Koehler and Tanya Lewis.

Keith Koehler and Michael Eggleston have made a habit of being charitable. Last December, the Tampa businessmen took part in CL's second annual Holiday Auction and helped us raise $19,000 for The Children's Home with a winning $805 bid that landed them a profile and photo of their band to be featured in Creative Loafing on a future date of their choice. The two are finally cashing in on their advance eight months later with a two-fold purpose — introducing their acoustic quintet, Mo' Gravy, to the public while promoting their performance at the biggest fundraiser of the year for The Centre and its free and low-cost independence-promoting programs: 20th Annual Gourmet Feastival.

"I think from the standpoint of business owners, we believe in giving back to the community, paying it forward," Koehler told me when I met with both men a few weeks back at the CL offices. "At the end of the day, we don't do this for money. It's nice to get paid as a matter of respect and recognition for what we bring to the table, but that's not what motivates Egg and I."

Not that either man needs the extra money. Both are owners of thriving independent businesses in South Tampa; Koehler is a CPA who started his practice, Koehler & Company, in 1996 while Eggleston (nickname "Egg") has owned and operated his neuro-muscular therapy clinic, Tampa Sports Massage, for nearly 25 years. Both work upward of 60 hours a week, and play for the love and fun of it.

"Being a professional musician is really hard work, it doesn't pay very much, and economically, compared to what our real jobs are, it'd never make sense for us," Koehler explained. "You wind up being a starving musician. We have the benefit of, we need it, we get it. Probably between the two of us, we play the most expensive instruments of any professional musician in town because we're not starving musicians. We're playing $20,000 guitars."

Both men have musical backgrounds; Koehler's parents owned a music store in Gainesville, and he's played fiddle since age 13. Eggleston landed his first gig before he'd graduated high school playing sax with an older group of musicians, and spent nine years touring with them on the R&B circuit and sharing the stage with the likes of Luther Vandross and Patti LaBelle. Both ultimately embarked on non-musical careers but continued to play on the side and met by chance three years ago at Chafin Custom Guitars. "We were both picking up guitars," Eggleston explained. "But he also plays mandolin and fiddle, and I was actually part of a bluegrass group called Traveling Campbells. We were looking for a fiddle player, he happened to mention he played fiddle, I invited him to practice on a Saturday, and boom, that was it."

After several practice sessions, the two formed Mo' Gravy in 2009 and started practicing for a live audience at Love's Grill. "It really helped us get used to playing out, and trying to figure out where we fit musically," Koehler said.

They naturally gravitated toward an acoustic sound; both played acoustic guitar, and Koehler also brought vocals, fiddle, mandolin and harmonica to the table. After cycling through various members, they determined the band worked best with two female vocalists. Once the positions were filled, they focused on the quality of the vocal harmonies in addition to how the songs were arranged rather than outstanding musicianship or instrumentation. "When we look at what makes us unique, it's those vocal harmonies."

Today, Mo' Gravy — which now includes vocalists and USF Music grads Jeanette Gautier and Tanya Lewis, and bassist Alicia Crawford Elliott — has built up a repertoire that includes acoustic arrangements of more than 150 pop, country, bluegrass and AC rock songs from the 1960s to today by artists ranging from Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, and the Beatles to Dixie Chicks, Sheryl Crow, Sister Hazel and No Doubt. "When I put together the setlist for an event, I'd like for everyone in the audience to be familiar with 75 percent of songs we play," Koehler said. "The idea is, you're gonna get something that you haven't heard before, you're gonna get a lot of what you have heard before, and if you're my age, there's gonna be songs that you like, songs that your parents like and songs that your kids like."

Last year, Mo' Gravy began working with agent Jane McKee and landed their first big gig opening for Sister Hazel's Ken Block and Drew Copeland at a Lyrics for Life benefit. It was Mo' Gravy's second unpaid charity gig (the first was Gourmet Feastival) and they were ultimately approved as the opener due to Koehler's connection to Block (the two went to school together in Gainesville for a number of years), but regardless of the circumstances surrounding getting the gig, the experience was not only exciting but supported a worthy pediatric cancer organization.

Koehler and Eggleston have connections all over the Bay area and regularly draw friends, clients and associates to see them play at places like Dubliner SOHO and Maloney's Westchase. In fact, the first time they played Maloney's – a place that seats about 85 people – people were waiting in line to get in. "They said it was the busiest happy hour they'd ever had," Koehler boasted.

"Their revenues triple, they're happy, we're happy, everybody's happy, and that's what it's all about," Eggleston explained. "And our friends have a place where they can gather, my clients know some of his clients, friends meet and become friends with other friends, and we get to see all of them having a good time together."

"When you look at our age range, people from 40 to 55, we don't usually go out for happy hour," Koehler added. "And all of a sudden, there's a reason to go out on happy hour."

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