The crowd hovered in half of the converted church’s open area, sipping their favorite beverages. The stage took up the other side of the room, with guitars at the ready, mic stands, amps, stools, a full drum kit and other esoteric devices. Crook Stewart adjusted levels with a touch-screen tablet.
A sign-up sheet at the front door was full. Musicians got to play and sing two songs, tell a little about themselves and where else you could go to listen to them perform, then scoot out of the way for the next performer.
In between sets, Crook Stewart would remind patrons that the purpose of the show was to get out the word that “Music Matters,” that these performers were playing all over the county, and that we should go out to their venues to hear more and show our support.
It was all free, from entry to refreshments, and it was all for the sake of the musicians. In an hour’s time on Tuesday night, I heard covers of a Beatles song, an Elton John hit, and a Leonard Cohen standard, at least three original songs, two electric guitar solos by an 11-year-old, a rendition of “Stormy Weather,” and more. All genres, styles and levels of accomplishment were welcome, and the crowd was eager to applaud.
People swayed, tapped their feet, bobbed their heads. A few couples grabbed some floor space to dance. And everywhere I turned, I saw familiar faces — Scott Clemons, Pam Wiggins, John Russo, Bryan Taylor, Lauren DeGeorge, and more.
Crook Stewart, who has been a road manager for major musical acts including the Rolling Stones and Crosby, Stills and Nash, is a big supporter of local musicians. He promoted the downtown music scene, saying he hopes to see Panama City become known as “Music City F-L-A.” These open mic nights at his Ghetto Palace are one way he models how the rest of the community can get behind the music too.
The goal, Stewart said, is to offer an eclectic array of music at downtown shops and restaurants that would bring in more paying customers and revitalize the scene. Musicians play at no expense to the businesses, which would attract patrons, and in return musicians could collect tips, sell CDs, and build an audience for their music.
If it’s any indication of how badly people really want to hear live music: The street shoulders and parking lots for a block around the Ghetto Palace were packed with vehicles Tuesday.
“We had a feeling that it would be a good night, but even I was surprised when I stepped out to open doors and there was a line down the street,” Stewart said in a Facebook post. “We had some really great musical talent on stage, and we went past midnight to get everyone up to play. We had almost five hours of non-stop music.”
The Ghetto Palace
What: A gathering place to hang out and listen to or jam with musicians and singers
Where: 3128 E. Fifth St., Springfield
When: Check the Ghetto Palace Facebook page for open evenings
Who: Crook Stewart III and Victoria Ciccarelli Stewart
Details: (850) 481-0170 or email email@example.com