Why is the closing of Will's Pub such a big deal? It's a question I've been wrestling with, and the answer is both simple and depressing.
There are lots of other bars in this city — bars with more elbow room, more high-tech sound systems, cleaner bathrooms and liquor at the bar. So we're down one. What's the fuss? There's no chance that Orlando's drinking class will have an excuse to be thirsty. And Will's isn't exactly closing. The building is being torn down, so it's more of a forced relocation, and owner Will Walker assures me that he's zeroed in on a new spot and now it's just about time and money.
Bars do close. Johnny's Rockin' Bistro closed. So did Fairbanks Inn and the Edge, and countless other "important" businesses in this city. That's just what happens. Will can take pride in the fact that his 11-year run at this location was almost twice the length of many successful but now defunct bars.
So what's the big deal about this upcoming last weekend of live music at Will's on Mills? Do the math. And bring the numbers down to a level more basic than "11 years" and "thousands of bands" and "gallons of beer." While the new Will's is on hold, the number of music venues available to present interesting local and national acts will be cut in half, from two — Will's and Back Booth — to one.
As of next Wednesday, Aug. 30, when Sam Rivers takes the stage at Will's for the absolute post-weekend finale, it'll be up to Back Booth to hold the scene down until Will's Two gets grounded.
Of course, other bars present local bands on a regular basis. But with the exception of AKA Lounge and Copper Rocket, none of them seems interested in taking chances on adventurous local bands. Instead, most of them settle for easily accessible dreck — cover bands, bands that might as well be cover bands — the kind that encourages middlebrow people to drink more Bud Light. And AKA, as much of a contender as it's likely to become, is still at a disadvantage: due mainly to a near-vertical load-in procedure, only the most athletic of local bands can play there. (That's a joke … but not really.) Plus, AKA hasn't emphasized its role as an option for local acts. Yet.
Certainly, the Social, Hard Rock Live, House of Blues and now Firestone book national acts. But none of those venues, except perhaps Firestone, seems interested in non-concert bar business. Worse, they largely ignore local music. Reading this, someone's head over at the Social just exploded, but their calendar for the next month shows only five local headliners — three of which are CD release parties. (Even the number of worthy local bands called upon to open national shows has diminished at these venues, a lamentable trend to be addressed another time.)
The local music "scene" comes about when people gather, drink, play, listen to music, socialize, generate ideas, refine ideas and experiment with ideas. Said scene cannot happen when local bands don't have a comfortable place to play that feels like home to scenesters of all varieties — electro geeks, dirty punk rockers, spoken-word artists, hip-hop lovers, metalheads, jazz fans, funkateers, twang-bangers. The kind of place where their friends' bands play, where their favorite out-of-towners play, where they can be surprised but seldom disappointed by the band on stage on any night. And if they are disappointed, it's a place where they can hang out anyway.
Will's Pub has been that place. This city's smartest (and dumbest) music fans have long considered it the premier venue for live music. Not because of the PA or the sightlines (although neither of those are too shabby), but because of Will's mind-set, which permeates the pub, an "it seemed like a good idea at the time" vibe that typically results in nights of quality music. (And when it doesn't … well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.) When Will tells you point-blank that he knows he's going to lose money on a show, but he booked it because he wanted to see the band — and he tells you this at least once a month — that's when you know you're in a music venue that's actually about music.
Fans and musicians picked up on Will's passion, making it easy to get booked there (once you got Will on the phone) and easy to get a crowd there. Adding to the popularity equation were the convenient "screw downtown" location, the sensible door between the music room and the bar, the casual outside patio, the smart beer selection, the cheap pool tables and a solid, friendly clientele of regulars. Whether the band was Sleepytime Gorilla Museum or Lucero, the Legendary J.C.'s or Bughead, a benefit for an uninsured punk rocker or the debut of another shitty garage band, Will's on Mills ran through (most of) the last 11 years as the most music-oriented and community-minded of this city's music venues, even when bands weren't playing. It wouldn't be an overstatement to assert that a significant amount of Orlando's music history is intermingled in the DNA of spilled beer and stale smoke at Will's Pub.
Now, these words may sound overly funereal for a bar that's merely relocating, but even after the venue moves, it won't be the same. It might be better, but it won't be the firstname.lastname@example.org