If you've never met Wil Walker -- the "Wil" of Will's Loch Haven Pub -- he's easy to envision. Just cast your mind back to the last big-screen teen comedy, in which a shaggy-haired slacker fought to save his local youth center from certain demolition. Remember how his snickering sarcasm couldn't disguise our hero's heart of gold? Now you've got him.
There's one difference, of course: Wil Walker isn't acting. In the three years he's been operating his pool-hall-turned-music-den off Loch Haven Park, he's made as genuine an effort to "support local music" as anyone else in a community that throws that term around with shameless capriciousness.
With that understood, mandatory attendance at Walker's 27th-birthday party last Saturday was a no-brainer. I'm not surprised that Mayor Hood hasn't yet declared the occasion a citywide holiday (she's too busy with that late-night thing), but the least the rest of us could do was to pay the cover and file into Will's to give props to the prop-worthy.
The night before the big bash, I sat down with Walker to get a bead on where he's been and where he's going. With shy pride, the lifelong Orlando resident told me he had "fallen into" the business of beer-pouring entrepreneurship in 1995, when he went into business with his dad (who runs the neighboring Loch Haven Motor Inn). Since then, Will's had become a home away from home to several of the key acts in the burgeoning rock community and had effectively positioned itself as an alternative to the high-cover, high-gloss atmosphere of the downtown scene. No matter how much success he might enjoy, Walker joked, he could never see himself standing outside his club with a microphone, shouting enticements to potential customers as they zipped down Mills Avenue. "Hey, you in the 4-by-4! Domestic longnecks, only $1 till midnight!"
I didn't ask about the urgent plea he had posted the day before on his website, in which he had hilariously dispelled the rumor that his ascendant profile had allowed him to become something of a Lothario among the younger, prettier members of his constituency. "THERE IS NO ACTION," he had stressed. "Remember, ladies, Wil is your friend." His staff, however, confirmed my suspicion that this was sheer fiction in the name of carnal self-advancement. Smart boy.
He's also smart enough to be dumb when stupidity equals a good time. On Saturday, an old business associate set the party ball rolling by bringing the birthday boy the gift of the year: a Jerry Springer doll. "I watch Springer every day," the tickled recipient said, with white-trash zeal, adding that he shows up early at his own club to tune in to the latest chair-throwing melee.
No such antics were to be seen on the Will's Pub stage, though alterna-huckster Bing Futch had previously warned Orlando that the party's centerpiece would be "The Thrilla in Willnilla," a wrestling match that would pit allegedly warring musicians against each other.
"Ignore Bing," Walker chuckled, "If there's any wrestling on my birthday, I'll do it -- and not in the club."
Wrestling with a very loose rendition of "Happy Birthday to You" was the first order of business for Korsican Opera, who took the stage to pay tribute to their host while promoting their own just-released CD. The initial jazz-funk of their set eventually made room for forays into ska and goofy pop, all heightened by the soulful sax playing of the frighteningly talented Anthony Cole. Lead singer/guitarist David Schweizer ended the band's "Sorry (I Slept with Your Sister)" by reciting the profane spoken outro from Van Halen's "Everybody Wants Some!" which somehow strikes me even funnier now than it did when I was 16.
As the band tore down, I realized that it was past midnight (making it my birthday, too). I was hoping that Walker's co-workers had planned something really big for the evening's finale. Perhaps they had enlisted some newly cash-strapped Rachel's dancers to smear a coconut-and-vodka cake all over his flannel-shirted frame.
No dice. The evening's momentum came to a screeching standstill when the four-man band Rudy stepped up to spew some lame hippie funk, complete with cheesy, Woodstock-era organ sounds and conga drumming (an instrument that should not be allowed to exist outside of Santana, or at least Umöja). Their first number sounded the way the soundtrack to "Blacula" would sound in a world where the soundtrack to "Blacula" is not good. The crowd thinned out considerably, and the only motion on the dance floor came from one of the band's own roadies. Soon, even he had given up.
The party was really over when word circulated that Walker himself had left the premises. Some friends, it seemed, had spirited him away to another soiree, one located (ready for this one?) DOWNTOWN.
So I made my way out the front door, disgustedly muttering "Will went downtown!" and probably scaring the hell out of Bob DeRosa of the comedy troupe Them, who was just arriving after wrapping up another set of improv across the street at Performance Space Orlando.
Something else was bugging me. I had missed my chance to give Walker his birthday present: a slip of paper I had found in a fortune cookie earlier in the evening, when I had eaten dinner in a seedy Chinese restaurant on Edgewater Drive -- a place so filthy that I was sure touching anything would cause my health-insurance provider to cancel my coverage immediately.
"Be sure to use your talents to attract others," the fortune read.
Wherever he was in the land of faux volcanoes and papîer-mâché pigs, I hoped Walker was living out that edict to the fullest. But not enough to make him forget Mills Avenue, where Springer is king and coeds are easy to con.