Ah, so this is live music.
I’d almost forgotten. On a recent Friday night, a friend and I were sitting 12 feet from the low-slung stage at The Hideaway Cafe in St. Petersburg, taking in the first flesh-and-blood show we’d witnessed since March. We were as amped as Trump scarfing his 1 a.m. Big Mac. Singer-guitarist Kirk Adams and his three-piece band were elated to be there too, although it wasn’t their first go-round. On Sept. 5, Adams started doing Friday night gigs at the living-room-style venue using a rotation of superb guest guitarists, including Steve Connelly, LaRue Nickelson, Matt Walker of Someday Honey and John Holt III of Danfield.
Fridays, 8 p.m.-10 p.m. Tips accepted.
Hideaway Cafe & Recording Studio
1756 Central Ave., St. Petersburg
Adams cased the joint first. “The Hideaway had been having the Kid Royal Band on Wednesday nights, and I observed the way John was handling the safety stuff,” Adams said, referring to Hideaway owner John Kelly. “He’s keeping the amount of people to 50%, opening up the doors so people can hang outside. It’s all very clean and organized. I figured I had to get back on the horse at some point, and this is an environment I’m comfortable with and feels safe.”
The Hideaway on Fridays is Adams’ only regular gig at the moment. (Free admission, by the way.) Pre-pandemic, he was working three to four nights a week. On this Friday, he and his sidekicks showed the kind of kid-in-a-candy-shop exuberance that washed over the audience and made for a memorable night.
Two long sets brimmed with spirited playing, singing and banter. The guitar guest was Connelly, a local legend known for his intensity and complete oneness with his instrument. The quartet played mostly songs from Adams’ catalogue of originals, whose recorded versions skew toward power-pop. But with no backing vocalist, and Connelly uncaged and in rare form, and Adams strutting his own considerable lead-guitar prowess, and the bassist and drummer fluid and locked in, the performance emerged as an Americana-tinged rager, with a bounty of guitar battles.
As is always the case at the Hideaway, whose official name is the Hideaway Cafe & Recording Studio, the room sound was pristine and expertly calibrated by Kelly to fit the energy of the space. Which is to say, it got louder as time went on, but we never felt bludgeoned.
“Kirk brings a great scene, and we got a big, awesome night of music,” Kelly said with a tinge of pride a week after the show. “He’s a special talent. A damn good songwriter. I think the Hideaway gave him a home to dig into his own music and put it out there for fans.”
“Because I’m hired to play original music,” Adams added, “it allows me to make it sound different for everyone from week to week. I couldn’t do this job with just anybody. Everyone I work with is hugely talented. They have giant ears, so we don’t have to go through rehearsals. I’m lucky that when I call and ask them if they can play, they usually say yes.”
Along with originals such as the infectiously catchy “Hindenburg,” the Mark Knopfler-esque “How Black is the Night” and “Alien Implant,” with its Graceland-era Paul Simon flavor, Adams and his cohorts slayed with an electric cover of The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” which built to a goosebump worthy guitar crescendo. As an example of the spontaneity he can bring to a show, Adams broke out The Police’s “Bring on the Night.” He had to spend a few minutes on stage going over the chord changes with bassist Ashley Galbraith. She was tentative at first, but soon enough was lacing the song with fleet, rubbery lines.
One tune that Adams did not perform was his new single “Here & Now,” which he released in June but wrote and recorded before COVID-19. It’s a brilliant helping of lush melody over a loping, mid-tempo groove decorated with gently swirling guitars. Evoking equal parts rue and hope, he languidly sings, “All we have is here, until we disappear / All we have is now, until we take a bow / And there’s so little time, so little time.”
A fitting sentiment for this year of upheaval and uncertainty.
“That song started as a conversation between me and someone else, and evolved into a conversation with myself, the continuation of an idea,” Adams explained. “It has several layers of meaning to me.”
Suspecting that he’d written something noteworthy, Adams enlisted the services of an outside producer, his friend Andrea Perry in Austin. Adams tracked a version of the song in his home studio, then sent the files to her with instructions “to do something special with it.”
That she did.
• • •
When I asked Adams his age—standard journalistic stuff—he’d only say that he’s in his 40s, and that was after I pressed for a ballpark number. “I have a weird relationship to space and time,” he said by way of explanation, “so age means nothing to me.” That probably explains why he couldn’t cite release dates for his two very worthy albums, Little Elevator and Undertown, which after some quick research he determined came out in 2005 and 2015 respectively.
Adams, bespectacled and rarely seen without a porkpie hat, is guarded on some topics. For instance, when asked how long he’s had a live-in relationship with singer/songwriter Gale Trippsmith, he replied, “I’m not saying,” then quipped, “I don’t want my female fans to be disappointed.”
But he’s an open book on other issues that might seem far more personal. For instance, he freely discussed being “plagued by anxiety” in his earlier years. “It got to the point where I needed therapy,” he said. “I needed to talk to somebody ‘cause I thought I was losing my mind. I did it for two years. It really was the greatest thing. It was because of Obamacare that I could do it, but alas I ended up having to quit going.”
He still grapples with anxiety issues, but now has the tools to effectively deal with them. Adams is somewhat surprised that anxiety didn’t resurface with a vengeance when the pandemic hit. “I also was surprised that I didn’t find myself drinking as much as I thought I would,” he said. (Most anxiety-laden people, myself included, will tell you that alcohol provides surefire relief and we have to be aware to not overdo it.)
Adams also added a new ritual to boost his mental health. “I started taking midnight walks, which is more exercise than I was getting prior to the pandemic,” he said. “I put my earbuds in and walk for a couple miles. It releases anxiety and helps me sleep.”
Ultimately, Adams’ go-to coping mechanism over the last seven months has been immersing himself in music, be it recording in his home studio or writing new material. After a cursory count, he determined that he has about 30 songs in varying stages of development. Adams explained that his songwriting process is organic, not premeditated, so he has not consciously sat down to write tunes thematically tied to life during pandemic time. “I’m sure there are people writing the ‘Pandemic Blues’ and cabin fever songs, and I’m not putting that down, but it’s just not the way I work,” he explained. “I usually look back on a collection of songs two years later and get a better sense of where I was at at the time. So my guess is that some [pandemic] themes are bound to show up.”
In one case, Adams broke his general rule and penned a decidedly political statement. He cut all the tracks himself, without adding much in the way of polish, and uploaded it to Soundcloud. The tune is titled “King of All the Rotten Things.”
Kirk Adams says his first memory is sitting on the floor listening to the Beatles with his older siblings. He was a toddler. “I learned a lot about music from my brothers and sisters through osmosis,” he recalled. “I remember one of my brothers said, ‘let’s write a song.’ I was a little kid. I didn’t know how to write a song. But we came up with a chord progression—it was just play—and we wrote a little ditty. We laughed and laughed.”
But all was not bliss for the family that consisted of mom, dad and five children in a Pompano Beach home. “I have this reel-to-reel tape from when we were kids of me playing an upright piano, this kind of minor-key melody, and in the background you can hear my parents arguing,” he said. “I think that explains a lot how I got to be the way I am. But I don’t want to give the impression that I had a terrible childhood. My parents weren’t June and Ward Cleaver. In times of tension between them I would retreat into music.”
Three of Adams’ four siblings ended up being professional musicians: Brothers Brent and Douglas play together in Ocala, and sister Liz Adams is singer/guitarist who’s a solo act based in St. Pete.
Adams never considered a path other than that of a professional musician. He quit high school during his senior year, then went back and earned his GED to please his mother. “I was disappointed for my friends who didn’t know what they wanted to do,” he recalled. “I pushed myself into the fire fairly young.”
His early career included solo gigs that mixed tunes by Elvis Costello—his primary influence—XTC and the like with a lot of hits and requests. It didn’t suit him. “I don’t do solo or duo gigs anymore, haven’t for a long time,” he asserts flatly. “I did some when I was younger to make money. But ultimately it was a lot of work and I had a lot of anxiety doing it. Playing in a band is what I do.”
Trippsmith grew up in Scotland, so in 1995 the couple spent six months living in St. Andrews and gigging together regularly in Edinburgh. While there, a simple encounter with a club manager had a profound impact on Adams’ career. “Sometimes in between songs I’d ask the crowd if there was anything they wanted to hear,” Adams recounted. “On a break, the young manager says, ‘You don’t have to [ask for requests]. They’re here to listen to you, to listen to what you do.’ It was such a refreshing thing to hear. When I got back to Florida, I thought, ‘Yeah, I’ll concentrate on what I think is good, and play my original music.”
After returning, the couple moved to St. Petersburg because Trippsmith, who’d lived here before, had connections to score some gigs. Adams found the local scene extremely welcoming. At Ricky T’s on Treasure Island, he sat in with the Shark Attack band, which included local luminaries Rob Tyre and Dennis Wallace. Adams formed a trio with bassist Patrick Bettison and drummer Craig Benson. Some time later, Adams formed a group called Lords of the Ringside, which played at the original Ringside Cafe on Thursday nights. Out of that came a band called The Honeybadgers.
Adams has steadily built his career, playing most of the live-music rooms in and around St. Pete, including Ruby’s Elixir, Ricky T’s, Saltwater Hippie, Middle Grounds Grill, Flute & Dram, the Ale & the Witch, The Toasted Monkey and others. (Adams says he much prefers indoor performances.)
Unlike many artists, he never seriously pursued next-level recognition, let alone stardom and riches. He’s done a few short tours around Florida and played a handful of gigs in neighboring states. “I’m not sure why, but I never thought about going to L.A. or making it big,” he explained. “A lot of guys say they took up music to pick up girls. With me, it really was the music first. I got the insight pretty early that the business of music was not something I was going to be good at. I spent a little time in the musical hellscape. You learn what you do and don’t like. I never wanted to hate what I was doing.”
The coronavirus shutdown took its toll, of course. “I made an effort to work with the right people in different musical outfits and structure my life in a way that made it pretty darn close to a perfect gig world,” he said. “So it was very disappointing when it all came tumbling down. My income stopped immediately, but I got some help from the government. Bandcamp lets people pay what they want for music and some were very generous, paying more for songs than they should have.
“We never came close to getting evicted, though. My brain works in a way that told me, ‘everything’s gonna be alright.’ I guess I don’t worry about things the way I should.”
Kirk Adams and band play Friday nights, 8-10 p.m. (give or take), at the Hideaway Cafe, St. Pete. Admission is free, although the right thing to do is bring some cash and drop a few bucks in the tip box. Adams regularly posts new songs, song sketches, ideas and random ramblings on his Soundcloud page.
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