Allen Stone will be in Ybor City on Thursday night, when he'll play for at least 1,000 fans at The Ritz. The show is part of a songwriter-in-the-round type of variety show that was born when he, Andrew McMahon and some of of McMahon's Jack's Mannequin bandmates (Zac Clark and bob oxblood) decided they would build a Mister Rogers' Neighborhood sorta stage set, do skits and play some songs (maybe the boys will check out the Mr. Rogers block party happening in downtown Tampa).
The 31-year-old singer-songwriter is a seasoned, sensational vocalist and no stranger to the road, but the 85 folks who assembled in front of him inside of a little multipurpose room somewhere near Tyrone Boulevard this afternoon gave Stone something that award shows, sold-out venues and accolades can't.
"I've been on tour for three months," Stone told his new friends at PARC. "This is my best audience yet."
PARC is a nearly 70-year-old St. Petersburg nonprofit whose mission is to provide opportunities for children and adults with developmental disabilities to exercise their independence and experience life to the fullest. More than 800 clients get to experience over 40 different programs, and Stone was on campus to sing for some of the adults in a program called Lifelong Learning. Shannon Burton-Fernandez and Andrea Castaneda — PARC's marketing manager and community relations manager, respectively — told CL that the room stays busy with choral, theater and musical performances.
This, however, may be the first time a Capitol and ATO Records recording artist has played a six-song set of covers and originals for PARC. Castaneda is personal fan of Allen's so she cold-messaged him on Instagram, figuring the worst thing that could happen is nothing.
"To my surprise he agreed to come play a short acoustic set for our adult clients," she said. "He’s been great at communicating, personally making arrangements with me on where and when to show up."
The show was not open to the public due to the strict rules regarding media attention on clients, but it is safe to share that PARC — essentially home to the organization's clients, employees and volunteers — is the kind of place where hugs are always on deck. Smiling faces catch up with each other like they haven't seen in other in years. It's a place where hope gets dealt and little miracles happen daily.
Stone — for his part — looked even happier than his audience and flashed his trademark, toothy grin throughout the entirety of a six-song set where he played two originals ("Love Where You're At," "Bed I Made) and several covers including John Denver's "Country Road" plus The Eagles' "Take It Easy" and "Jingle Bell Rock" by request.
"You better buckle up — it's Christmas time," Stone exclaimed before launching into an improvised take on the Bobby Helms holiday classic. At one point, an adult client joined Stone on the mic for a rambunctious, indescribably fun run through Terry Gilkyson's "The Bare Necessities," which was made popular thanks to Disney's 1967 animated classic The Jungle Book.
It goes without saying, but music is pure joy. That could not have been more evident in that moment where two people got to just look into each other's eyes and sing their hearts out. Still, it looked like Stone had more fun than anyone.
He literally introduced himself to everyone at a post-performance autograph session and even regrettably turned down a playful offer to perform a birthday show gig. Listening to him interact with the clients was a heartwarming reminder that gracious rock stars still exist and do nice things with no expectations of a reward.
"You really made my day," he could be heard telling one adult client. And it was believable. The kind of therapy and emotional exercise that music provides is hard to scientifically quantify without a study or deep analysis, but the idea of Stone playing a show inspired by Mr. Rogers brings to mind something that Fred Rogers — a kind-hearted pop culture icon, much like Stone — once said about the word "disabilities."
"Part of the problem with the word 'disabilities' is that it immediately suggests an inability to see or hear or walk or do other things that many of us take for granted," Rogers, who died in 2003, said (check out episode 1389 for more on his take). "But what of people who can't feel? Or talk about their feelings? Or manage their feelings in constructive ways? What of people who aren't able to form close and strong relationships? And people who cannot find fulfillment in their lives, or those who have lost hope, who live in disappointment and bitterness and find in life no joy, no love?"
"These, it seems to me," Rogers added, "are the real disabilities."
Stone literally wore rose-colored glasses on Thursday. Ironic considering how happy he looked onstage, but the eyewear made complete sense after hearing the way he once talked about the subject matter on his 2016 album, Radius, where he intentionally wanted to open up and let listeners know that he, too, deals with depression along with love and other emotions.
"In order to fully impact people with your words and thoughts, you have to give them something they’ve already chewed on," Stone told Billboard during the run-up to the album. "Depression and cyclical dark emotions are things that we all go through."
Life can certainly get tough, and some of us won't be able to overcome, but there is — and always will be — song to give us something to latch on to.
Sometimes those songs create smiles, and every now and then they deal out hope, too. That happened at PARC on Thursday, and you didn't need to have a pair of rose-colored glasses to see it.