I polished off more margaritas during a recent trip to Florida than I have in the last five years. I credit the staffers at Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville Cafe in Key West's Old Town. Mixed strong, garnished nicely, and served swiftly at nearly every turn, the tequila-powered cocktails were almost too delicious to deny. I even washed an actual Cheeseburger in Paradise down with one of the fruity concoctions.
The sweet stuff fit the over-the-top tropical/Caribbean atmosphere of Margaritaville — one of dozens and dozens of theme bars and restaurants along Key West's Duval Street strip. I got my fill of cheesy, tourist-pleasing, burp-inducing classic rock, too, which was really the heart of the trip.
Charleston bar band Spunjwurthi invited me to keep time with them on the drums during a week-long residency at the venue. It's a semi-annual gig they've done for a few years. I signed on to play drums all week, one two-hour set per night. Since lead singer and tambourine shaker Larry Strickland had recently relocated to Key West, it was almost like a farewell tour.
Spunjwurthi did the cover band thing with the same old setlist in Charleston for more than five years. Strickland, guitarist Chris Barrineau, and bassist Ben Polk were a talented bunch of weekenders. Strickland learned to sing and carry on as a frontman on the job. Barrineau and Polk, veterans of Live Bait and other local rock bands in the old-school local scene, had chops and tons of hands-on band experience. They all looked like stunt doubles in low budget action flicks.
What Spunjwurthi lacked in finesse and technical flair, they made up for with humor. They've never been afraid to mention Cheech & Chong in a verse of Santana's "Evil Ways," add suggestive lyrics to Georgia Satellites' "Keep Your Hands to Yourself," or sloppy up the psychedelic breakdown in Zep's "Whole Lotta Love." There were always more than a few cheap tricks up the band's collective sleeve.
Even with an amusing, fun-loving bunch, cover band gigs can easily become monotonous and tedious for the musicians. It's easy for them to go through the motions, crank out the same old stuff, and lose steam and pep from show to show.
At Margaritaville last week, I half expected some of the usual onstage monotony, plus tourist antics and bar fly behavior typical of any beachy tavern setting. I found cool inspiration within the experience, however — not from anything we plowed through on stage, but from special guest Chris Hambrook, a longtime bartender at the venue. His generosity, humor, optimism, and genuine rock 'n' roll enthusiasm fired us up all week.
Hambrook was a pretty good drummer, too. He was kind enough to lend the band his vintage Tama drum kit as part of the backline. Custom painted by his wife, Trish, the kit looked as tropically psychedelic as the stage's neon-painted backdrop. Spunjwurthi invited Hambrook to sit in on a few songs each night. Practically ready to pop with childlike excitement, he treated each little performance like a dream come true, dashing on stage with a burst of nervous energy, banging through rough-but-lively versions of The Who's "Squeeze Box" and Van Halen's "Ain't Talkin' Bout Love" in steady tempos. He did his best every night, hugging the bandmates and running back behind the bar, with a wide grin on his face.
By the end of the visit, Hambrook beamed that he had the best week ever, getting to play drums six nights in a row with and in front of his friends at his own bar. His unadulterated enthusiasm affected me more than any of the tequila buzzes of the week. Now I have an enhanced appreciation for the opportunity to perform anywhere at anytime.
Thanks, Hambrook. You turned what could have been a tiresome, cheesy gig into a surprisingly encouraging mini-adventure. I'll never cover Van Halen or The Who quite the same way again.