Florida Folk Scene: A catalyst in Tampa Bay’s folk community

It’s another breezy Thursday night in Downtown St. Pete and the Green Bench Brewery is buzzing with the chatter of craft beer enthusiasts against the backdrop of folk musicians playing outside.

In the brewery’s beer garden, Roger Lanfranchi, a local folk musician himself, is playing with the knobs of the soundboard, introducing new musicians and periodically stopping to talk with friends.

This is the routine every first and third Thursday of the month at the Florida Folk Scene showcases hosted at Green Bench Brewery, right off the main downtown area.

Realizing the lack of outlets for folk bands in the Tampa Bay area, St. Pete locals Mark Etherington and Roger Lanfranchi started the now bi-weekly showcase in an effort to fill the void and foster a blossoming folk scene.

“There aren’t many other places where anyone who has at least 30 minutes of original material can present it in front of an audience and demographic they might not ever get to perform to,” Etherington said. “It get’s these artists out of a bedroom and in front of a microphone.”

One year and 79 sets later, the showcases draw a regular crowd and can reward bands with bigger exposure and bigger payouts.

But the showcases aren’t the only asset the Florida Folk Scene offers to local artists.

Etherington and Lanfranchi have essentially created an online structure that connects local folk artists from around the state — what Etherington calls the Florida Folk Scene network.

The two first began tossing around the idea for creating this network a little over a year ago when Lanfranchi’s solo project, Ophelia, opened for Set and Setting at Fubar. Etherington is the drummer for Set and Setting and has a folk solo project called Mountain Holler.

When Lanfranchi approached him after the show to ask about how to book shows and get back in to the local music scene, Etherington realized there needed to be a place to share this kind of knowledge with local artists.

“After doing this for about three years now, I have this huge network that’s really open to people going out and playing,” Etherington said. “I wanted to make that network available and I wanted everyone to know each other.”

That night he created a group on Facebook called Florida Folk Scene and invited every folk artist he had met over the years. The idea was to create a unifying network for the state’s folk scene.

“I just wanted it to be like a group of friends all around the state, so if I want to go play a show in like Tallahassee, I can hit someone up,” he said.

With over 250 members currently in the group, Etherington said the Florida Folk Scene Network supports each other and people have networked, booked shows and gotten exposure outside of their hometowns all through the network.

In January, Lanfranchi was really pushing to start a showcase for the artists in the network and who live in the region.

Etherington said settling on Green Bench Brewery was a no brainer. He had played a few sets there already and even played a set when the brewery first opened their tasting room in 2013.

“Really, I picked Green Bench because they picked me a lot,” he said.

Though the showcases originally started as a weekly feature at the brewery, they quickly switched the scheduling to bi-weekly, because they felt having a showcase every week was becoming redundant.

The first few showcases also had some unique challenges neither Lanfranchi or Etherington were prepared for. They began their showcases in February — the tail end of the Florida winter — and the first few showcases were a test in survival more than anything.

“Imagine our very first showcase and it’s pouring rain outside, there’s like 30-40 mph winds, it’s freezing outside and we had to combat that and just roll with that.
It was a good introduction in to this whole process that we were getting ourselves into. It was pretty fun too, though: mics blowing over, guitars blowing over, literally.”

Regardless, Lanfranchi said he was hooked on the concept and so was the staff at Green Bench, even after a trying first couple of shows.

Valerie Niager, a long-time bartender at the venue, said hosting the showcases has worked out well for both sides. She said, day one of the showcases, people who had never been to the brewery before started arriving and many of them even returned on Friday and Saturday nights.

Even for regulars, Niager said the showcases create a presence at the brewery and musicians and patrons alike seem to gravitate toward the beer garden on Thursday nights.

“It draws people into the brewery who probably have never been here,” she said. “Green Bench isn’t directly in Downtown St. Pete, so it’s kind of out of the way and you have to know what you’re looking for, but we now have this consistent group of people who support the Florida Folk Scene and support what we are doing here.”

A few months back, Lanfranchi was able to secure a budget for the showcases from the management at Green Bench, solidifying the relationship between Florida Folk Scene and the brewery.

Being able to pay local artists — people that rarely get paid for small venue gigs — has now become the favorite part of the showcases for Lanfranchi.

“’I really like to tell artists ‘I really like what you did and here’s the payoff,’” he said.

With the start of the new year, both Etherington and Lanfranchi are looking to commit more time to bolstering the Florida Folk Scene.

Throughout the last year, the two have been on the same page when it comes to their vision for the network and their goals for 2015 are no different: find ways to get more exposure for Florida’s folk artists and expand the Florida Folk Scene network throughout the state.

“Obviously that’s something that might take years, but that’s what I want: I think there should be a Florida Folk Scene Tampa edition, a Florida Folk Scene Sarasota edition,” Etherington said. “It’s something anyone can do, really, as long as they have a passion to facilitate an atmosphere for people to play music and play their own music,”

The showcases at Green Bench are pulling in larger and larger crowds and there have been talks about a one- or two-day Florida Folk Scene festival for 2015 that would feature nearly every artist in the network.

“There’s a lot of other growing art sub-communities within St. Pete and Tampa and I don’t really know of any for theses kind of folk artists. That’s really what I hope comes out of this: just a bigger scene for this type of music. If we can be a catalyst for that, then that’s great.”

The Florida Folk Scene Showcases are hosted every first and third Thursday of the month from 8-10 p.m. at Green Bench Brewery.