Page 10 of 10
- Photo by Rob Bartlett
Will WalkerVenue owner, culture catalyst
Orlando Weekly music columnist Bao Le-Huu makes no bones about Will Walker's contributions to the cultural fabric of the City Beautiful: "Will Walker is as real as it gets, as important as all of the artists he's given a stage to combined. Will is Orlando music." But right now Will Walker, owner of the Will's Pub, Lil' Indies and Dirty Laundry venues on Mills Avenue, is too busy modifying the main stage at Will's in time for a Thomas Wynn show to really think about his effect on music and creativity in Orlando. And he shows no sign of stopping.
"This year will be the 23rd anniversary of Will's. I was 23 when it opened, so officially it's half of my existence," says Walker, with a mix of a knowing half-grin and wide-eyed disbelief.
Walker opened Will's Pub in 1995 a little further down on Mills Avenue and started throwing shows about a year in. Confesses Walker, "It was really makeshift – we'd slide pool tables out of the way and then it went from, we're doing shows every so often, to ... getting fed some really cool shows as soon as we were legitimate enough to have an actual PA." Things seemed to snowball quickly, with the bar becoming a go-to stop for artists up and down the alternative spectrum. Walker remembers a one-two punch from avant-thrashers At the Drive In with particular relish: "It was right when In Casino Out was coming out so no one had heard of them. The first time they played I swear it was me and like 15 other people in the room, it was amazing. And when they came back the following week, we sold it out by word of mouth alone."
The original location of Will's lasted for about a decade before some bad luck torpedoed the operation. Walker downplays what would have caused most music entrepreneurs to throw in the towel: "I don't think not doing this ever came into play." The current location opened in 2008 with a raucous Rich Evans-booked engagement by the Black Lips. Walker remembers the rushed opening with humorous self-deprecation: "The luxury that some people have to finish a project – I've never had that. 'We have to open or I'm gonna be broke! OK, let's do this.'"
Initial worries about operating a venue in an otherwise sleepy stretch of what is now known as Mills 50 soon gave way to shows nearly every night, and crucially, expansion with the opening of the Lil' Indies cocktail bar (named after his daughter) and the more gritty metal/tiki hybrid that is Dirty Laundry.
One of the secrets of the success of Will's Pub is bringing in new people and taking chances on new ideas. "Orlando is in constant change," Walker says. "You have to start branching out and depending on other people."
One of the "new people" Walker brought into the fold was local film evangelist Joshua Martin, whose Uncomfortable Brunch screening series launched at Will's Pub after a casual conversation. "He gave me the tools to not fail miserably right out of the gate," remembers Martin. "He is always like that, though. Always down to try something new."
Going into 2018, Walker is enthusiastic about what's next for Will's Pub. "We've got some alliances with people and are diversifying a little bit," he says. He's looking forward to shows by Agent Orange and Big Freedia alike. He's appreciative that Will's, Lil Indies and Dirty Laundry each have their own distinct audiences. And he's optimistic about the upcoming launch of the Uncontrollable Urge indie dance night, where he gets to right old wrongs. "DJ nights are something I've failed at for 20 years. We have never been able to make that work," he smiles. "But we're gonna."