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This Little Underground: The 20-year legacy of Will’s Pub



The week's local music conversation has been monopolized by the 20th anniversary of Will's Pub (Sept. 11-13). This Orlando nightlife pillar was already a local institution before this long-running column existed and, over the years, it's given me frequent cause to register its cultural and historical weight. That its name appears here almost every week is testament to its vitality to this music scene yesterday, today and into the foreseeable future. Though I wasn't a regular during the nascent days, I've been one for about 15 years and have seen Will's Pub go from a scrappy rebel outpost at the original location to as it is now: a small complex that's the epicenter of a vibrant indie scene finally catching up to the Mills Avenue pulse for which it helped lay the very foundation two decades ago.

The finale and main event (Sept. 13) was a full block party that took over Will's and Lil Indies and turned the parking lot into a festival village with stage, drinks and food trucks. Although it was a big blowout, the affair was distinctly familial, with staff alumni returning to celebrate, some from out of state.

Musically, it was pride-inspiring to see O.G. heritage bands like the Legendary JC's rock alongside new-school torchbearers like Wet Nurse and the Woolly Bushmen. Some of my personal highlights include seeing the new-look Sh-Booms, the unofficial mini-set by Jim O'Rourke (serenading a couple ladies between sets in the back booth of Lil Indies) and the return of notable Jacksonville songbird Christina Wagner, who holds a special page in the venue's history book as a guest performer at the 2006 benefit show that former OW music editor and columnist Jason Ferguson and I held during the somewhat uncertain final days of the original Will's Pub to help ensure its speedy return. Her music's been on pause since she's now a bar owner herself, but seeing her coming out of hibernation just to play the big anniversary was especially fitting.

However, probably the night's biggest individual deal was rising Puerto Rican garage-punk stars AJ Davila y Terror Amor, whose album Beibi made our top releases of 2014 and whose exceptional performance here validated it. They're not a Florida band and they were rolled into the otherwise native event because of a scheduling hiccup, but the frequent and sustained booking of vanguard underground bands like this is the main reason Will's has remained shiningly relevant generation after generation in not just this city but on the national circuit. There are other neighborhood bars that are special in socio-personal ways. But the true greatness of Will's Pub is that it's both a place of deep local authenticity and a place we can legitimately brag about to even our snobbiest out-of-town friends (those fuckers). And almost no other place in the area can boast that miraculous duality. Happy birthday, Will's.

The Beat

Rocketed into the pop-culture consciousness via his association with Tim & Eric, David Liebe Hart (Sept. 14, Will's Pub) is certainly one of today's premier outsider artists. Although it's hard to affirm exactly the proportion his out-there persona mix is between mental tilt and showmanship, it's clear that it's far more actual than affected. At a certain point, however, it hardly matters when the view is this much of a fun-house mirror.

Proof of his size as a character is how he can keep a crowd engaged simply as a topic. The start of the Orlando event was delayed by some technical video issues. But the full house hardly minded the stall because Hart's current collaborator – electronic artist Jonah Mociun (Th'Mole) – fielded audience questions about Hart with insight that was enlightening and humorous.

Once Liebe finally took the stage, it was a dizzying multimedia and interactive carousel of music, video, comedy and puppets – all framed in a subversively modern way. Although fairly well-known for performing with a punk-rock band, his new duo arrangement takes an electronic angle. Regardless, Hart's spirit translated without seam. Across rock, electronic or gospel, it's not like his curious musings belong to any music genre anyway. Nothing, thankfully, can box that personality.

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