Live Music Venues in Northwest Florida
By Kati Schardl
On Sunday mornings in Grayton Beach, the queue – more a loose grouping of people in sociable clumps than a strict line – begins forming at The Red Bar more than an hour before the doors open at 11 a.m. for brunch.
Savvy locals, hungover hipsters, sandy-toed beachcombers, families wrangling toddlers, tourists who cycled over from one of the beach communities strung along Highway 30A – they’re all lured to the funky, colorful Red Bar by the promise of delicious food (the crab cakes are legendary), extravagantly garnished Bloody Marys and live music.
Local newgrass band Dread Clampitt does a double-shift, from noon to 3 p.m. and again from 7 to 11 p.m., on Sundays. The Red Bar Jazz Band - featuring former James Brown drummer John “Jabo” Starks - entertains the dinner and after-dinner crowd from 6 to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. There’s no stage, as such – players are tucked right into the heart of the action. It’s kind of like listening to a band play in the grooviest rec room in the world.
Music has been an important ingredient in the Red Bar’s cultural gumbo ever since owner Oliver “Oli” Petit, a native of Belgium, opened Piccolo Restaurant and Red Bar in 1995 in a ramshackle building on the beach that once housed a country store.
Petit, who has been known to take a turn behind the drum kit himself, is also responsible for the wildly eclectic and colorful decor, which looks charmingly haphazard but is in fact a carefully curated mix of old movie posters, flea market finds, street signs and other whimsical pieces. It’s illuminated by strings of red Christmas lights, a rotating disco ball and crystal chandeliers that give the interior a New Orleans roadhouse feel. There’s never a cover charge, but visitors should bring cash - The Red Bar doesn’t accept credit cards (there’s an ATM on-site). It also doesn’t take reservations, hence folks lined up waiting to get in.
While the regular musical lineup focuses on local groups, nationally known artists have been known to stop by and, on occasion, sit in. Sheryl Crow, Willie Nelson, Steve Winwood, Sam Bush and other luminaries are fans of The Red Bar. Winwood introduced Dread Clampitt to a producer friend who helped the group record a CD, and newgrass legend Bush has gone elbow-to-elbow shucking oysters with the band.
The annual 30A Songwriters Festival also draws musicians to The Red Bar for legendary jam sessions after the other venues close down at night.
About those other venues - there’s no shortage of great places to hear live music along the 30A corridor, especially during the songwriters festival every January, when all available venues are pressed into service. For an up-to-date guide on where to find the tunes, go to visitsouthwalton.com.
The Red Bar
70 Hotz Ave., Santa Rosa Beach
Drive a bit farther west if you like your nightlife a bit more lively. The clubs of Panama City Beach - such as Club La Vela, which bills itself as the biggest nightclub in the U.S. - are jammed with college-age revelers during Spring Break. But even during calmer times, there’s live music to appeal to every taste at venues like Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge (an outpost of the famed Nashville honky tonk), Pineapple Willie’s, Schooners and Spinnaker Beach Club. Peruse the offerings here: www.visitpanamacitybeach.com/things-to-do/attractions-and-entertainment/nightlife/
In nearby Panama City, the Marina Civic Center perched on St. Andrews Bay hosts national and international touring acts, touring Broadway productions and local classical ensembles and orchestras. Other live music meccas include Little Village, a waterfront shopping and entertainment complex in St. Andrews where you can catch local singer-songwriters as well as the Ukulele Orchestra of St. Andrews. Millie’s Cafe in historic downtown Panama City is another popular destination for music-seekers. The Destination Panama City website has a more complete list of live music venues.
Pensacola boasts one of the most venerable music halls in the region with the Saenger Theatre, a gorgeously restored Spanish Baroque/Rococo-style theater known as “the Grande Dame of Palafox Street.” Big-name artists such as Norah Jones, Gordon Lightfoot and Stephen Stills perform there, as well as Broadway touring productions, musical tribute acts and the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra.
Elsewhere in the Pensacola, Vinyl Music Hall caters to the hard rock and alternative crowd, and no tour of Pensacola Bay nightlife is complete without a visit to the legendary Flora-Bama Lounge on Perdido Key. The nightlife listings at visitpensacola.com will lead you on to more adventures.