By Helen Anne Travis
Gale Trippsmith adjusted the tuning on her 1970s Guild guitar and smiled at the crowd gathered on the deck of RumFish Grill in St. Pete Beach. On the other side of the venue, the Gulf of Mexico sparkled in the late afternoon sun.
“What a beautiful day,” she said to the dozen or so diners feasting on fish tacos and conch fritters. They put down their forks and mojitos to applaud as she started to play.
“Your love keeps lifting me,” Trippsmith sang, “higher and higher.”
The St. Petersburg-based singer/songwriter has released three albums of original recordings, opened for acts like Leon Russell, Al Stewart and Pat Benatar, and even penned lyrics for Nanci Griffith.
But like so many local acts, this is how she paid her bills for years.
In Pinellas County, and throughout Florida, there’s good money to be made playing cover songs in beach bars and restaurants, hotel patios and tiki huts. Musicians support themselves singing “Margaritaville” and “Son of a Son of a Sailor” while writing and recording their own music on the side.
“It’s a fun day job,” said Trippsmith. “People love to hear songs they know and sing along. But I don’t do Jimmy Buffett covers unless I have to.”
Trippsmith moved here in the 1980s. Since then, she said, the local music scene has evolved. Big time.
Especially in downtown St. Petersburg.
Locals and visitors could always catch a good show at venues like Jannus Live or Emerald Bar. But the past few years have seen a deluge of restaurant, bar and brewery openings. And it seems each one has a stage set up in the corner.
“Every new opening is another opportunity for local musicians,” said Trippsmith. “St. Petersburg used to be called ‘the land of newlyweds and nearly deads,’ but that’s just not the case anymore.”
Among the new openings is the Hideaway Cafe. In 2009, the recording studio moved to the Grand Central District near downtown and expanded its offerings to include food, drink and live music.
The venue is dubbed “St. Pete’s original listening room” and has featured regional acts like Rebekah Pulley and Dean Johanesen. But you’ll also catch solo sets from people like Emerson Hart, lead singer of the alternative rock band Tonic, and Paul Stookey, AKA the “Paul” in the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary.
For owner John Kelly, a personal highlight was when Glen Phillips, singer/songwriter for the band Toad the Wet Sprocket told the crowd: “Make sure you take care of The Hideaway. This place is a gem.”
Kelly spent time in New York City, Nashville and Los Angeles, areas that have always been known for their local music. It was cool to come to St. Petersburg, he said, and watch as the music scene took root and grew.
“So much has changed,” he said. “Over the past 10 years the local music scene has exploded.”
It’s not just in the bars and concert halls. Throughout Pinellas County you’ll find stages in converted warehouses, art galleries and public squares. Even in the neighborhoods you can catch the muffled cymbal crashes of bands practicing inside their homes.
Several members of the local act Redfeather built a recording studio in their home in Roser Park, an area just south of downtown St. Petersburg.
Lead singer Mark Etherington, who also performs in bands like Set and Setting, Mountain Holler and Loose Talk, said what makes the area’s music scene such a success is its strong network of local promoters, artists and venue owners.
People here support each other, he said.
“I don’t know if it’s because St. Pete is such a little secluded peninsula that makes it such a concentrated area of creative minds,” Etherington said. “It’s really spectacular what this area has become.”
The growth is great for local musicians like Trippsmith who, after playing covers on the beach, can come into town and record her original work or perform it at any of the city’s new venues.
It’s also great for visitors.
“If you’re staying along St. Pete Beach it is a beeline to downtown,” said Kelly, whose Hideaway Cafe is located 15 minutes due east of the Gulf of Mexico.
“You’re minutes from everything.”
Including the musical offerings in the north half of the county.
About 30 minutes from downtown St. Petersburg, Ruth Eckerd Hall has hosted international acts, Broadway shows and musical lectures since 1983.
Head west from there and you’ll hit Coachman Park, home to regular concerts and a host of festivals, including the annual Clearwater Jazz Holiday. The four-day and four-night celebration started as a series of shows held on the back of a flatbed truck. Fast forward nearly 40 years and the internationally-acclaimed festival has featured everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to the Avett Brothers; Tito Puente to the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
“I remember going there as a kid with my parents,” said Etherington. “You don’t have to be a huge fan of jazz, just excellent musicianship from around the world.”
In a way, he said, jazz could be a metaphor for Pinellas County’s approach to music. Jazz is always evolving, he said. It’s based upon improvisation. You take what’s special, what’s working, and build upon it to create something new.
“There are a lot of special places in the world and in this country for music,” said Etherington. “I’m not going to say there’s no place like St Pete. But to be honest, there isn’t.”
6000 Gulf Boulevard
The Hideaway Cafe & Recording Studio
1756 Central Avenue
200 1st Avenue North
550 Central Avenue
Ruth Eckerd Hall
1111 McMullen Booth Road
Clearwater Jazz Holiday
Held annually in Coachman Park
Other Pinellas County spots to consider…
658 Central Avenue
(727) 424 -1809
Live music venue and beer hall featuring DJs and R&B and punk acts.
687 Central Avenue
(727) 895 -3045
Beautiful, historic venue featuring a diverse collection of local and national acts
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