By Pam George

In the 1980s, Michael “Kid” Davis decided to move from Delaware County, Pennsylvania, to Wilmington for one primary reason: the music scene. “It was really jumping down here,” says Davis, the front man for The Bullets, a roots/rockabilly band. Venues included Gallucio’s downtown location, the Barn Door, The Buggy Tavern, Zink’s Place and Tally-Ho — to name a few. 

The venues are long gone, but Davis is still plugging away, with about 20 or more gigs a month. He’s not the only one. Bassist Tony Cappella performs nearly every weekend — and during the week if he’s not busy with his full-time job. And Pat Kane, who at 32 represents the younger generation, is steadily booked from Thursdays to Sundays.

Musicians like these are keeping the live music scene alive in northern Delaware. “There are just so many musicians, artists and talented people,” Kane maintains. “There always has been, and there always will be.”

Melissa Forsythe agrees. “Some people underestimate the size of the music scene,” says Forsythe, who recently bought Rainbow Records in Newark. She also owns Gingerfox Productions. “The pandemic really threw a meteor in it, but it’s coming back.”

But climbing back into the spotlight is not easy, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic punted bars and restaurants into survival mode. Today, getting gigs requires initiative, ingenuity and community support.

A Long Legacy

Full disclosure: My husband is a musician, and I’ve seen the highs and lows of the job. Like most band members, he has a full-time job. But music is his passion, and like Davis, he remembers the heyday of The Buggy Tavern and the many restaurants/bars that offered a steady stream of live music.

Gray-haired musicians rarely hang up their guitars or stash their drumsticks. Cappella, for instance, has been performing before audiences since 1974 and shows no sign of stopping. The bassist has played with so many bands, including Montana Wildaxe, that it’s easy to lose count when he lists them. 

Tony Cappella has been playing the local scene since 1974 and remains one of area’s busiest musicians. “I love all genres,” he says. Photo by Joe del Tufo.

Between the old and the new, there are more bands than there are places to play. And that is saying something. Just before COVID-19, there were plenty of options, and many restaurants offered music after the dinner hour or on special occasions. 

Those hungry for a steady diet of live local music could find it at Kelly’s Logan House, Rockford Tavern, Jackson Inn, Kennett Brewing Company, Oddity Bar and 1984. The Queen, which opened in Wilmington in 2011, initially featured local acts as well as big names, thanks to World Café Live’s influence. When Live Nation took over that temporarily, changed. Nearby, The Nomad Bar opened in 2011 and is devoted to live music, craft cocktails and beer.

While jazz is a priority, The Nomad began offering other genres, including cover bands, bluegrass and rockabilly. “Nomad is a special place for me,” Kane says. “They gave me a home to play, and I love that they’re a dedicated music venue.” 

Then came the pandemic, which closed The Nomad for two years.

The Same But Different

When the economy opened, live music did not return to some establishments; for instance, 1984 was permanently closed. Home Grown Café no longer hosts bands, and the Deer Park features an acoustic act on Mondays and DJs spin tunes five nights a week. 

Main Street had lost some viable venues before COVID-19 due to city alcoholic beverage regulations that restricted any entertainment accompanied by dancing in restaurants. Older establishments, including the Deer Park and Klondike Kate’s, have a grandfathered-in exception to the so-called “Footloose” rule.

Oddity Bar had been on the market before the pandemic began, and Gillian Daniels purchased the popular spot near Wawaset at a time when masks and seating requirements were still in effect. The restrictions were tough on the small bar, and she has since sold it to brothers Manny and Napoleon Hernandez. 

Vocalist Joe Trainor and The Rock Orchestra return to The Grand Nov. 5. Photo by Jim Coarse.

Since being outdoors reduced the risk of getting the coronavirus, alfresco venues had an advantage — and that’s still the case. Consider Constitution Yards and Maker’s Alley, both in Wilmington. For a time, Dew Point Brewery was the go-to destination for live music. But the Yorklyn brewery recently met resistance from neighbors who object to amplifiers, and it now has music inside the small taproom.

The pandemic made state and city parks a hub for live performances. “Every town seems to have these little music series in their parks,” agrees Kane, who plays with Bones Brigade and The Bullets. “Everybody comes out and hangs, whether they know the band or not. It’s a great way to get together and enjoy music.”

Inside or out, breweries and wineries are newer platforms for performers. Smaller operations book bands and food trucks for weekend events, while larger brewpubs have a steady lineup.

“Wilmington Brew Works is an example of somebody that embraces the music community and local arts, organizations and businesses,” says longtime Wilmington resident Brianna Hansen, who handles marketing for The Queen.

Wineries in Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey also book bands.

Making It Happen

A music career is a business, whether you play on weekends or five nights a week. Succeeding requires initiative. 

“People are getting really creative, which is interesting and fun,” says Forsythe, who books for the festival Hot Jam, a benefit for the Center for the Creative Arts in Yorklyn.

In Wilmington, Gable Music Ventures started by holding music popups in gallery spaces in downtown art galleries. Gable went on to develop the Ladybug Music Festival, now in Wilmington and Milford. The promoter and event organizer plans to do more along these lines, says founder Gayle Dillman.

Joe Trainor of The Rock Orchestra is equally unwilling to sit idle. Instead, he’s booked theaters and entertainment spaces to pull off high-caliber shows saluting bands like Genesis and the Beatles. On Nov. 5, Tony Cappella and friends will perform the music of Todd Rundgren at the Grand Opera House.

The Susquehanna Floods at Kelly’s Logan House. O&A file photo.

Cappella is arguably one of the busiest musicians in town. Credit his drive — energy. Along with Montana Wildaxe, he plays with the Stone Shakers and What the Funk.

 “I love all genres, and it really doesn’t bother me to do something that’s not mainstream,” he says.

He calls up the booking reps and asks what they want — jazz, folk, funk? A duo, trio, or full band? Then he delivers it. Indeed, flexibility is the key to staying busy. Bassist Rich Hanrahan performs with Too Tall Slim & the Guilty Pleasures, Crazy Chester and the Space Farmers and the Delta Cosmonauts, which can function as a five-, four- or three-piece band.

Kane and Davis also play with several different musicians — and together. “It keeps me interested. It keeps me creative,” Kane says. “It opens up more opportunities for you.”

The mentality might not sit well with those who cut their musical teeth in the 1970s and 1980s when bandmembers pledged fidelity. However, that philosophy can bring more drama than dollars.

A Show of Support

Speaking of income, payment policies vary between venues. Some offer the proceeds from the door, which is a way to motivate bands to recruit listeners. Others pay a flat fee, which differs from business to business. Cappella, who has a large following, feels that a venue shouldn’t pay the total amount if the attendance is lackluster. He admits that few share his viewpoint. Most maintain that there are forces that some bands can’t control, such as the weather or conflicting special events. The musicians are delivering a service regardless of the turnout.

Tony “Big Cat” Smith at The Nomad, which has reopened after closing during COVID. Photo by Butch Comegys.

Many places now allow a tip jar. “It’s a big part of our pay; people seem to be really generous,” says Davis, who was reluctant to use one before COVID. Too Tall Slim & the Guilty Pleasures once made more from tip jar proceeds than from most gigs, Hanrahan says.

Private parties, meanwhile, are the goose with the golden egg. “The private functions are where it’s at,” Hanrahan agrees. One man booked The Nomad for a surprise birthday party and paid a jazz band far more than Vandever’s regular rate.

The fluctuations in rates — or lack therefore — is one reason why Gable is pulling back from booking artists. “You have to do a ton of volume, and some bands are getting paid the minimal amount,” Dillman explains. “If they make $100 and I get $15, I’m not covering my costs.” 

One solution, she says, is for an establishment to put music in the budget, much as they do linens, eggs, and beer. Davis isn’t convinced. “If a place had to put music in their budget, they just probably wouldn’t have music,” he says.

Back to the Start

The rise of new possibilities — parks, parties, breweries and special events — doesn’t mean the traditional outlets are dead. Jackson Inn in Wilmington has taken the lead as a live music venue, and The Bullets play at the establishment every Thursday.

Hansen has successfully lobbied for regional acts to return to the Market Street theater’s Crown Room. “When we first opened, we were community-driven,” she notes. “We want to integrate more local music again — that back-to-the-roots model.”

The Nomad is only open three nights a week, but the place is often packed. David Vandever says that downtown development, including new apartments, has brought fresh faces to the bar. “This whole area is undergoing revitalization.” He notes that offices aren’t back to capacity, but there are more residences than in the past, and the bar attracts a diverse crowd.

The annual Ladybug Festival has become a popular showcase for female performers such as Danni Peace (above), earning the area music scene national attention. Photo by Joe del Tufo.

Diversity is also a calling card at Oddity Bar, which is broadening its musical offerings to include jazz, blues and other genres, says Manny Hernandez, who has a background in studio engineering. “Original music is near and dear to my heart.”

Music, however, isn’t the only draw. The bar has also had hookah nights, bingo and open mic nights. Other bars and restaurants offer Quizzo and DJs, and younger generations are just as happy gaming, streaming or throwing axes.

 “The slices of the pie are smaller, for sure,” Forsythe says of the entertainment dollars. But when people come out for music, “they are dedicated,” Hanrahan says. 

Dillman would like to see more of those committed fans in Wilmington. In cities like Austin or Philadelphia, she says, people aren’t wondering if they will see music; the question is where. 

“By supporting the venues and the musicians, we are going to bring business into Wilmington — it’s a big circle,” she maintains. “People will come from Philadelphia and surrounding areas. They may eat out. They may also stay overnight. It creates a cycle of success.”

Davis, for one, will be here to greet them. “Financially and psychologically, I have to keep doing it,” he says of his music career. “I don’t picture stopping until nobody comes to see me, or I physically can’t do it.”