On Thursday, Sept. 20, Uncle John?s Band invigorated an eclectic audience of old, young and in between under the sprawling oaks of the Skipper-dome. The positive energy permeating the late-summer air was a palpable mist.
Perhaps it was the wooden dance floor, the sand, benches and picnic tables; or the aluminum roof kitchen and washroom shacks, or the intoxicating aroma of catfish frying. Maybe it was the Ken Kesey disciple donning the tie-dyed T-shirt in front of the stage juggling, or the shirtless children climbing from the canopy poles or the 20-year-old hippie girls dancing barefoot in homemade patchwork dresses ? sans brassieres. The abundance of Red Stripe and Newcastles bottles might have something to do with the magical atmosphere, also.
A bearded gentleman in his mid-40s dressed in Birkenstocks, cut-off khaki shorts and a green polo told his female companion half-way through the show that he hadn?t missed a Thursday night at Skipper?s but twice in the last year. Pointing his 32-ounce monster can of Foster?s at the stage he said, “These guys are great, never play the same song the same way twice ? just like the Dead.”
The band switched from a smoking rendition of the Grateful Dead standard “Jack Straw” to “Raise the Roof,” a bouncy original by lead vocalist/guitarist Rich Whiteley. A crowd of neo-hippies rushed the stage, and spun around one another like specters just freed from their dusty graves and given a second lease on life ? no two people danced the same, but the entire group of 100-plus beaming faces appeared completely united.
After nearly four hours of music, Uncle John?s Band was forced to abandon the stage at precisely midnight due to a strictly enforced noise ordinance. The 250-plus in attendance showed their appreciation with a long outburst of cheers and hand claps.
Every Thursday the same strange blend of dirty toes, dreadlocks, unshaven cheeks and Dockers return to Skipper?s for another dose of jam-intensive rock.
Fans will travel to North Dale Mabry Highway next Wednesday to O?Brien?s Pub to catch the Rich Whiteley Band (formerly known as Magnolia Creek).
For the dozens of Skipper regulars and Uncle John?s Band diehards, Rich Whiteley is somewhat of a local celebrity.
Ben Ernst, a graduate student at USF, said after the show, “I kinda look at Rich as a celebrity even though I know him. I?ve been watching him (at Skipper?s) for 2 1/2 years. I watch him at O?Brien?s, too. The solo disc (A Dog or a Bicycle) he put out is phenomenal.”
Mike Edwards, bassist/vocalist, said after the show, “UJB is a wonderful little thing we?ve had going on here for 13 years. We?ve probably had 20 guys play with us (since the bands inception).”
Whiteley joined the band 21/2 years ago.
“I?ve never had one single problem working with Rich,” said Edwards. “We haven?t had a cross word in this band since, God knows; since my brother Tim left.”
Edwards also plays bass on Whiteley?s CD Dog or a Bicycle.
Every other Wednesday night, Whiteley does an all-acoustic set focusing on more of his self-penned material. His band includes members from UJB in addition to others such as ace mandolin strummer Ralph Famiglietti.
“(The Rich Whiteley Band) does a lot more diverse stuff than (UJB),” said Edwards. “But it still has that Grateful Dead feel and spirit to it.”
Whiteley, 31, has been playing guitar and singing since he was 10. At age 6 his parents had him rocking to the “King,” and from Presley, Whiteley went to the Beatles and then to the Kinks before discovering Led Zeppelin and the Grateful Dead, whom Whiteley has seen perform 35 times beginning with a Spectrum show in Philadelphia circa 1985.
“In the 1990s I got into Phish a lot, Widespread Panic, Lyle Lovett, John Prine and (jazz artist) George Benson,” said Whiteley as he stood by his car after 1 a.m. in the near-empty Skipper?s parking lot smoking a cigarette.
Whiteley spent the past seven years honing his skills grooving on a steady diet of Grateful Dead covers; however, A Dog or a Bicycle rises above the murky waters of derivative wannabe fodder with a solid identity of its own.
Whiteley?s self-penned compositions range from dance-inducing, sing-a-long ditties such as “Raise the Roof” to intimate pain-soaked ballads such as “Nocturnal,” wherein Whiteley uses his rich vocal chords to give the lines “I?m listening to you breathing / Wondering what it is you?re dreaming / maybe best I don?t know” a chilling quality that commands attention.
“The best (songs) come to you in the middle of the night. My favorite song is ?Nocturnal.? (Songs) usually don?t come when you try. But you got to try in order to get them to come when you?re not trying (laughs). That?s the way it seems to be,” said Whiteley.
On “Broken Bird” and the title track, Whiteley addresses life?s pathos with a witty, John Prinean sense of humor that is both hilarious and, at times, telling. Whiteley?s lyrics tend to be much more figurative then literal.
“I like the style of songwriting that is ambiguous ? that leads you places where you might not always go, and the meaning of the song might not appear until later. (That way), everybody can glean their own meaning from (the song).”
Whiteley flashed his shy, youthful smile, “You can?t let your thinking mind get in the way of your creative mind.”
On A Dog or a Bicycle, producer/multi-instrumentalist Steve Connelly makes sure that Whiteley’s brand of roots-rock steers clear of redundancy. The guitar-bass-drum foundation is fleshed out with a stirring fusion of pedal steel, slide-wah and electric guitars as well as mandolin, dobro, fiddle, wurlitzer and the occasional keyboard.
Whiteley described the album as “a kind of cross between Americana (John Prine, Lyle Lovett) with jam band (Grateful Dead, Phish) ethics.”
Whiteley views the album as a book.
“Dog or Bicycle is about being in your 20s and growing and finding out who you are,” said Whiteley.
Cuts from the album can be heard on WMNF 88.5 during the Morning Show and Traffic Jam. The Bay 107.3 also features Whiteley?s music during their Sunday morning acoustic show.
Whiteley said he was happy with the results of his first album.
“It was a fantastic experience working with people like Steve (Connelly), Mike (Edwards) and Ann Van Atta.”
Whiteley is back in the studio working on his sophomoric release. Steve Connelly is again producing and Whiteley plans on using as many as the same musicians from the last album as possible. However, he is taking a different approach to recording the new album.
“I definitely want the new album to have a more ?live? feel to it,” said Whiteley.
Practicing his craft in front of a live audience is what keeps Whiteley “plugging away.” At Skipper?s and O?Brien?s, he enjoys an enthusiastic crowd each time he performs. However, that has not always been the case.
“Tampa?s a tough (music) scene because there aren?t that many venues to play ? Skipper?s, Jannus, we did have Club More. A lot of restaurants and (drinking establishments) have music as a side bar. It?s hard to play places where music isn?t the main focus,” admitted Whiteley.
“Playing live is what it?s all about,” he said. “Just having fun with the band and the crowd. The energy ? there is no feeling to match it,” said Whiteley.
Whiteley quit his sales job (“I?m not great at sales”) and became a full-time musician last November. Whiteley?s chief concern as an artist is “to keep writing songs,” he said. “My biggest fear is for me to run dry creatively. My goal is to be able to keep writing music that amuses me and that other people can connect with as well.”