A DIY concert series held at a St. Pete Comfort Inn breaks the D.I.Y. mold

Henri’s Wong’s hotel is rockin’.

click to enlarge Concert promoter Henri Wong heads to the desk to attend to guests when they need assistance. - Photo by Adam Cole Boehm
Photo by Adam Cole Boehm
Concert promoter Henri Wong heads to the desk to attend to guests when they need assistance.

I ask a few background questions, and Henri Wong answers cordially. Halfway through listing a few of his favorite bands, the wireless phone in his back pocket starts to ring loudly.

“Thank you for calling the Comfort Inn in sunny St. Pete, this is Henri speaking. How may I help you,” Wong says in his best customer service voice. He hangs up, thinks again for a few moments, and pensively continues with his answer.

“I’ve been through a lot of different music phases. I’ve gone through old country,  ‘80s metal, ‘60s Bob Dylan and tons more,” he says. “That’s a hard question.”

Wong, a humble 45-year-old, was raised in Brooklyn by immigrant Chinese parents.  Along with his love for old country and metal, he has a firsthand appreciation for early hip-hop and rap, as he saw the culture develop before his very eyes in the 1980s.

Poisonville Songs Project w/Proud Miranda/Bangzz
Sat. Nov. 2, 7:30 p.m.-9 p.m. No cover.
Comfort Inn & Suites, 875 94th Ave. N., St. Petersburg.
(727) 563-9100. facebook.com/pvillesongs.

Wong’s wide range in music that he loves directly correlates with the range of genres that perform at his D.I.Y. music enterprise, the Poisonville Song Project, where he books musical acts to play at the Comfort Inn on 94th Avenue in St Petersburg –– where he also works full-time. Loud music like rap, metal, and hardcore plays outside in the car port, while quieter acts like country, singer-songwriters, and indie outfits play inside of the hotel lobby, just feet away from the front desk where Wong still works during his shows. Enjoying the music and watching over the crowd when he can, Wong heads to the desk to attend to guests when they need assistance. 

Surprisingly, Wong has yet to get a noise complaint from guests at the hotel; most of them find it interesting and unique that the Comfort Inn hosts local musicians –– whether they’re bluegrass or death metal. Most of them wander down to the lobby to check out the night’s Poisonville Song Project out of sheer curiosity. 

But why? Why hotel lobby music? 

“People see us in two different ways. Some people think we’re really cool and others think it’s kinda corny. People think hotel music, and they automatically assume cover bands. We wanted to break that stereotype” Wong says. 

Started in 2015 at a Sleep Inn in Wesley Chapel, Wong felt particularly inspired by the NPR Tiny Desk Concerts, and wanted to start in-hotel private shows for employees and guests. The name Poisonville Song Project is a dedication to the Tampa veteran musician Ronny Elliot,  who headlined the project’s fist show.  Eventually, Wong and the coworkers who helped him run the concerts decided to open Poisonville up to surrounding communities by moving to a Zephyrhills Ramada Inn in 2017.  Wong made his latest move last spring, has had over 20 shows since last May and plans on expanding Poisonville’s audience in upcoming months. The series’ momentum is picking up and has already showcased popular local artists like DEA & Saint, Blestian, and Sonic Graffiti. Tav Falco, a Memphis rockabilly legend who now lives in Europe, played Poisonville in June.

Wong’s 13 year old twins, who are fans of mainstream artists like Twenty One Pilots and Lil Peep, are indifferent towards their father’s hotel booking entity, but local musicians support Wong indefinitely. Christian Goins, guitarist for Tampa hardcore band No Code, played his second Comfort Inn set on October 12 and sang praises of both Wong and Poisonville Project. 

“These are really fun to play, and Henri takes care of us. We’ll always come back,” Goins says.  

The music showcased at Poisonville Songs Project consistently transcends genres, a characteristic that sets it apart from other music venues or D.I.Y. organizers in the Tampa Bay area. While bars and traditional venues monetize off of fans of a specific genre or bar sales, the Poisonville Song Project embraces artists of all ages, all across the musical spectrum –– and the shows are completely free.

Poisonville St. Petersburg got the ball rolling in 2019, but Wong is optimistic about the series’ sweeping plans for the future –– as long as the Comfort Inn management complies.  A liquor and beer license, food and drink vendors, donations from the crowd, and possible room discounts for tourings acts are all on 2020’s tentative itinerary for Poisonville. Along with expanding Posionville in St. Petersburg, another goal for Wong is a second branch stemming out of a Ramada Inn in Ocala. That location is run by Wong’s old boss,  Chelewa Springs, who helped the Zephyrhills Poisonville Project get its start; she wants to spread its success to other hotels in Florida. 

Springs drove from Ocala to help Wong with his last show on October 12, and Wong often drives to Ocala to help facilitate the blooming Poisonville chapter there.

“People gravitate towards Henri” Springs says. “He’s just that type of person. It’s what makes good at hospitality too.” 

The Poisonville Song Project is booked until January 2020, with both local and touring musicians playing music that one would never expect to hear in a hotel lobby. 

Wong is just trying to become grounded, and keep Poisonville’s motto of “artistic subversion in an unexpected place” alive with each and every show. But unlike the rather volatile nature of other D.I.Y. venues in garages and living rooms that eventually end because of leases terminating or legal ramifications, the concerts in the lobby of the Comfort Inn on 94th Avenue aren’t going anywhere any time soon. 

click to enlarge Blestian plays Poisonville Songs Project in St. Petersburg, Florida on June, 29, 2019. - Photo by Adam Cole Boehm
Photo by Adam Cole Boehm
Blestian plays Poisonville Songs Project in St. Petersburg, Florida on June, 29, 2019.

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