Ponce de Leon first discovered Key West in 1521 during his expedition to Florida in search of the Fountain of Youth. I first discovered Key West via the tales of Jerry Jeff Walker coaxing Jimmy Buffett down there in the early 1970’s. 500 years after Ponce de Leon first hit the island, many of us made our fourth trip down to the tip of the continental USA for another Mile 0 Fest. The festival is the stuff dreams are made of. Pretty much everything you can draw up in a utopian setting for a music festival is in play here. Locale: exotic and gorgeous; infrastructure: in place and ready to party; organization: getting sharper each year; artist’s buy in: 100%.; fan experience: peerless.
With that backdrop, we set about journeying down to the Keys for another round of Mile 0 Fest. With the sceptre of knowing things would look much different due to Covid. Reduced capacities, artists backed out, fewer venues, less music, fewer attendees. The Mile 0 crew was taking a big risk and chance being the first major festival to attempt to produce an event post-Covid. What would it look like? Would it work? Would people still come?
We got the answers to our questions within minutes of the first note hitting the amplifiers. The reduced capacity wasn’t noticeable, in a good way. Key West was open for business. Some of the late night jams and after-parties may be put on hold, but we were going to have plenty of live music. People were coming, from all over. The good times were rolling in such a rollicking, Key Western manner that it was hard to notice anything was different. Occasionally, you’d have to mask up to enter a business. But other than that, there were few visual clues that 2021 was any different than 2020. That’s a testament to the hard work of the Mile 0 Staff, the artists, the fans and the Key West locals that helped make all of it happen.
Making things happen is the Key West ethos. From Ponce de Leon to Hemingway to Buffett to Mile 0. Everyone that is associated with this tiny hamlet of hard living takes pieces of what they need and create a new version of themselves. Sometimes it’s built from nothing and other times it is created by just adding a few touch-ups to a solid foundation. Mile 0 2018 was the former, Mile 0 2021 was the latter.
This is a place for true music fans. You’re not going to plunk down the cash to get to Key West and enjoy 5 days of music, without actually digging the music. Although there were a considerable number of attendees more interested in how much beer they could drink, how loud they could talk over the acoustic act onstage or which bar the afterparty was at; they were in the extreme minority. They can also be found at any large gathering. What remains true about the Mile 0 fan is their dedication and devotion to their favorite acts. I took in A LOT of music this past week and at each show, big and small, I witnessed reverence, love and passion for the music above all. They know how to party and have a good time, while still supporting the music. That balance is key and not found at many festivals.
Todd was a young banker from Arlington. He came to Mile 0 for the first time last year, and vowed to never miss again. As I interviewed him, he began to tell me why he wouldn’t miss this festival. “I’m 25, and I’ve done Steamboat and LJT a few times. But this one…just…feels…different.” I told Todd that while I also love and respect those festivals, I agree with him. He added, “I read your recaps of year 1 and year 2 and thought it can’t be that good…and then year 3 and 4 for me have been even better than that.” I checked in with Todd throughout the week. Each day he was a little more sunburnt and a little more happy than the day before. He said his favorite act was William Clark Green but that Morgan Wade was his new obsession. The second part of his opinion was shared by anyone lucky enough to encounter Morgan Wade in Key West. Wade is poised for a breakout. She’s getting national attention, she’s connected with the right people in the business, has been added to country radio, and perhaps more importantly in 2021 she’s been added to the most important playlists. People are finding her. And when they find her she delivers the goods.
“I’d propose marriage to her, if I knew she wouldn’t kick my ass.”- Todd
Roger Creager was a natural addition to the line-up at Mile 0. He already lives on Gulf Coast Time, has long covered Buffett and fits the general vibe of Key West/Mile 0 like a glove. HIs Tuesday night set was one that found him delivering his Texas hits with their usual aplomb, before shifting into a robust cover of “Pirate Looks at 40”. It set the bar and template for the remainder of the week. The raucous free-wheeling insanity of a Shinyribs show was missed, but Creager more than made up for it.
Following Creager, Mike and the Moonpies teamed with Jamie Lin Wilson to deliver a cover night jam of classic country tunes that managed to turn the Coffee Butler Amphitheater into The Broken Spoke. The Moonpies and Jamie Lin have become ubiquitous with Mile 0 Fest. They are popular nationwide, but perhaps never more popular than the week of Mile 0 at Mile 0. And for good reason. Each of these acts give the people what they want and deliver it in doses of fun, loose collaborations. This set was the first of many such similar sets that would take place the remainder of the week. Usually, these mash-ups would be tucked into the corner of a crowded bar on Duval. Having to throw them up on the big stage under the professional lights kind of gave them an air of legitimacy that sucked a tiny bit of the uniqueness of them away without sacrificing any of the spontaneity or fun.
Wednesday was perhaps the most complete day of music. Between 11am and 3pm, you had sets from Shane Smith and the Saints, Walt & Tina Wilkins, Adam Hood, Kaitlin Butts, Kyle Nix, Kevin Fowler, Josh Grider/Drew Kennedy, Max & Heather Stalling, Micky & the Motorcars, Jonny Burke, Chloe Beth, Courtney Patton, Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis, Cody Canada and the aforementioned Roger Creager. That’s a hell of a lot of music in a condensed time frame. Such is life at a festival, but it’s hard to recall a greater spread of the goods at any other Mile 0 and only one other such instance would pop up the rest of the week.
The Dirty River Boys had their inaugural Mile 0 performance at 4pm on this day and were as electric as ever. They kicked off the Amp stage and set a tone, just as they have for years. Their live performances are always intense, lively, interactive and joyous. Four words that fit with three- time festival attendee Mary.
I caught Mary jamming out to Dirty River Boys, head banging as if she was watching Pantera. Her purple tie-dyed sundress was paired with some birkenstocks that she definitely bought in the 80’s and a non-Uncle Bekah trucker hat that read “Work sucks, this doesn’t.” As her bleached blonde hair blew in the wind, it was only matched in speed by her flailing arms that kept rhythm with the beats cranked out by the DRB boys. When asked what she liked about Mile 0 aside from the awesomeness of Dirty River Boys, she responded, “The people.” She told me she was from Oregon originally and finds “the further south I travel, the nicer the people are. You Texans and Okies get a bad rap in some places…but y’all are actually very nice and tons of fun.” Mary said she now lives in Florida and hasn’t been to Oregon in years, but that she may just have to move to Texas if the Mile 0 weeks are any indication of how we party and treat others. I assured her it was and she said, “Calling my realtor when I leave this place!”
“If you’ve got more guys like this (referring to Dirty River Boys) down in Texas, I need to move asap!” – Mary
The mainstage kept rolling from Dirty River Boys and went right on into Bri Bagwell. Bagwell always brings a soulful, heartfelt rendering to the stage and she knows how to make it fun at the right moments too. Her personality is warm and endearing and she puts that on display right alongside the songs she sings. It was the perfect stage setter for Ray Wylie Hubbard. Hubbard would cause some of the largest social media attention of the festival when he called out an ignorant tweet from a young Austin radio personality that called Willie Nelson overrated. Ray’s reaction was profane…and correct. He had that energy with him onstage as well.
Backed only by his song Lucas, Hubbard’s dead thumb grooves more than made for a formidable rhythm section. Everybody’s in the groove and everybody loves it has never been more apropos. When you start your set with “Rabbit” and go right into “Snake Farm”, groove is all there can be. And it never let up. By the time Cody and Dierks Canada joined the two Hubbards on stage, the groove was downright explosive. The entire island of Key West always wants to rock n’ roll and hoochie coo, 24/7, 365. Add this festival into the mix and well…things get righteously groovy. The father-son guitar duos wielded some considerable riffs and it was the first truly special and singular moment of a festival that has become known for them.
Roger Ray stepped away from being part of Jason Boland and the Stragglers a few years back. Recently, he had begun to pop up here and there at gigs with Boland, sparking speculation. Mile 0 confirmed that the reunion is in full force. New promo shots were revealed and Roger made that steel guitar sing for the entirety of the Straggler set. For those unaware, Roger Ray is as important to the growth, sonics and style of Red Dirt music as just about anyone else that’s picked up six strings in the last 25 years. His stoic guitar work was always the anchor to Boland’s kinetic intensity. It was nice to see the two of them back in tandem and sounding as good as ever.
Pat Green is the reason just about any of this exists. At least in the form it exists in. It would certainly be alive and around, but it’s hard to imagine something like Mile 0 even existing if Pat hadn’t led the late 90’s/early 00’s explosion of this type of music. He’s talented and flawed. He’s goofy and intelligent. He’s charismatic and misunderstood. That natural charisma was on point from the moment go. Several artists I talked to during and after Pat’s set used the following words to describe his set and current state: “happy”, “proud”, “healthy”, “fun”, “goofy”, “weird”, “an adventure”, “badass”. I think those are descriptors that could have applied as easily in 2001 as 2021. And I agreed with every single one of them. He was happy, proud, fun, goofy, weird, adventurous, healthy…and he’s always been a badass, even at his most infuriating moments. Walt Wilkins and Wade Bowen joined him for some songs. He made jokes about looking like Parker McCollum. He danced around and cajoled the crowd. He played all the songs you wanted him to play. The only thing missing was a fiddle. Pat’s music just doesn’t sound the same without a fiddle. It doesn’t have to be Brendon Anthony’s, although that would be optimum, but any fiddle will do. Perhaps that is something that will change in the coming weeks with regard to the PGB.
Julie was a bartender from Tulsa. She’d come down to the festival to see many of the bands she enjoys back home and have a little post-Covid fun. She was living life on the beach bum pass level and having a blast. I noticed her singing along to Hayes Carll and decided to ask her which artists she was most looking forward to. She said, “I like the thinking man’s type stuff. Hayes, BJ (Barham), Drew Kennedy, Jonny Burke, Ray Wylie…Kaitlin Butts, Eady…I should probably stop listing them all!(laughs) ” As Hayes told a very humorous, very Hayes Carll-like anecdote about visiting Key West for the first time as a Jimmy Buffett obsessed 15 year old. He related how he loved Buffett so much that prior to that trip he wrote a song called “Come Sail With Me Jimmy”. When 15 year old Hayes arrived in Key West, he found a large aqua mail dropbox at the original Margaritaville restaurant and wrote Jimmy a heartfelt note. The letter pledged his fandom, talked of his song and of actually wanting to sail or write with Jimmy. The punchline to the story was Hayes dryly saying, “it turns out that Jimmy Buffett doesn’t check the mail at Margaritaville.”
“That’s why I love him and this festival,” said Julie upon Hayes placing the button on that story.
The most noticeable signs of difference for this year’s festival was the lack of late night entertainment options. Where once you would find free for all jams, or arena-packing bands crammed into a tiny bar, this year it was cover bands, karaoke and bar-hopping. All good things, but definitely different things. One thing that has not changed is that the street pizza and hot dogs still hit just right after a long day of libations.
The roosters crow early in Key West. And then they continue to crow well into the afternoon. They aren’t afraid of people, loud noises, cars, trains, motorcycles or really anything. They are a special breed. Guarantee that if you ate some chicken that is local to Key West no seasoning would be required. Those early wake-up calls are often joined by a bevy of extreme breakfast options from bougie bed and breakfast set-ups to epic Bloody Mary bars to bottomless mimosas; this is a town that knows how to make you drink, keep you drinking and help you recover to make you drink again. They even off multiple locations to rehydrate via IV. Not just during the festival, but year round.
Debauchery has no calendar in Key West.
I started my Thursday adventures at Smokin’ Tuna. Still one of my favorite bars anywhere, but especially in Key West. The staff of bartenders are humorous, patient, knowledgeable and appropriately conversational. All good traits for a bartender. They need to know when to engage and when to disengage a guest…and the staff at Smokin’ Tuna could tell that 11am on a Thursday night after a long Wednesday night was a time of disengagement. Johnny Chops and Chance Anderson were onstage as I worked my way through the morning’s warm reflective fog of a previous night well spent. When your day starts with something stiff in a cup as Johnny Chops launches into “10 Miles Deep”, that’s going to be a good day. Chance Anderson also impressed with a song called “Burning Gas” that he wrote during the shutdown. Look for this tune. It was the best new song I heard all week.
From there it was time to head over to Dante’s to take in the Topo Chico Cowboys experience. I’ve been fan number one and biggest support of Drew Kennedy and Josh Grider for a long, long time. Which made it so gratifying to see them explode at Mile 0 2020. They were the breakout artists from last year. So much so that they sold out of merch and became one of the most scheduled acts on the festival app. Dante’s was proof of that. Two young women even showed up in Topo Chico Cowboys bikinis. By the time the boys launched into “Dollar on the Wall” the entire pool was singing along. They mixed in some covers, including a rousing “Shotgun Willie” in honor of Willie’s birthday. This was a cue they had unknowingly taken from Chance Anderson over at the Tuna about an hour before who commented that an early mentor told him to always mention Willie onstage for a cheap pop from the crowd, before going “So, it’s Willie Nelson’s birthday y’all…”
Bonnie was from Buffalo. She said she first saw these guys last year and they reeled her in. “You can tell they are honest and have a genuine brotherly love for one another. It makes their songs that much more enjoyable.” Bonnie and her husband Tim found this music from getting into Cross Canadian Ragweed a long time ago. Upon introducing myself, she said “you’re how I first find out about a lot of these guys.” I obliged and told her thank you. Through her vintage Ray Bans and lime green visor I could see the gleam in her eye when she said, “new music keeps me young!”
“I drive him crazy making him listen to all these new bands, then he ends up loving them more than me!” – Bonnie
The Sunset Green stage was a new addition to Mile 0 2021 and its need to have additional open-air concerts. Its location precluded a great number of people from making it out there. I personally never did, but the folks that did said it was super cool. Hard to commit to that Uber or bike ride when the music is equally good right next door. Growing pains.
The music flowed from the afternoon right on into the evening once more. Speaking of growing pains, this was a day more than others that was impacted by Covid. Cancellations from Shovels & Rope, Lucinda Williams and Reckless Kelly left this day thinner than originally planned for the Amphitheater sets. The Mile 0 team extended the sets of those performing on the main stage on this evening to fill that gap. That was no challenge for festival darlings Morgan Wade and Jamie Lin Wilson. Each filled the open ocean breeze with their own brand of songs, vocals and stories. Each ably backed by fantastic musicians, in Wilson’s case she was backed by the guys from American Aquarium and Haystack Foster from Jason Eady’s band.
Shane Smith and the Saints would hit the stage after Mrs. Wilson and prove that they probably should’ve been at the top of the ticket to begin with. The Saints have been one of the most transcendent live bands in Texas for several years now. Four part harmonies, energy, songs. They have the total package. You can tell this is a band and artist that have put some serious thought and study into what makes a great live band and cherry picked the elements that make the great, the best. Shane Smith has become a fearless band leader, especially adept at creating dynamics, setting moods and channeling the energy in whatever direction he sees fit. For nearly 120 minutes Shane Smith and his Saints completely dominated the crowd, the stage, the atmosphere and the balmy Florida breeze. It was complete annihilation. I’ve seen bands kill and I’ve heard other musicians tell bands “hey man, y’all just killed it.” This was one of the first times I’ve ever seen that be a unanimous feeling. It was triumphant. And by the time the band brought Cody Canada onstage for an acoustic encore featuring just Smith and Canada leaning into Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty”, you could have heard a bottle top open all the way back in Texas. It was perfectly silent except for the singing along happening in parts of the crowd. Pockets of the crowd sounded as if they were on the third row at a staunchly adherent Church of Christ. As off-kilter and off-key as your grandma Hattie, but luckily the song leaders were gonna pull us through. Pull us through they did. One by one the remaining Saints strode back onstage to join the two leads for a mountain of a finish. They weren’t done yet though. The finale of this finale came when Smith announced, “this is a song that a little band from Oklahoma made popular…” as they launched into “Long Hot Summer Day”. Pandemonium ensued. The stage was welcomely crashed by Josh Serrato from William Clark Green’s band on guitar and Omar Oyoque from Mike and the Moonpies on bass alongside other madness. The crowd’s response and the utter exuberance of conquest awashed Smith and his band’s face was apparent. They came, they crushed, they left. Sweaty and victorious. Their set remained the talk of the festival, alongside a couple others, as late as baggage claim in Dallas on Sunday afternoon.
Many of us would not have made it through the hell of 2020 without the Sequestered Songwriters. The work that has been put into that by Jason Eady, Courtney Patton, Matt Hillyer and others remains a touchstone of humanity, kindness, art for healing sake and bluntly a financial life raft for many artists struggling to pay the bills for the past 12 months. The time had come to take the sequestered show on the road per se. And what better setting than that of Southernmost Beach. White sand. White claws. No band. No probs. Much like the online version, there was not enough time to get everyone involved and Josh Grider, who was part of the opening set alongside his wife Kristi, the Stallings and Bri Bagwell joked “He just wanted to thank Jason and Courtney…” which has become such a mantra of the online format of this show that it should be trademarked and merched.
Hunter S. Thompson once said, “a man who procrastinates in his choosing will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance.” On a trip and assignment such as this, I never try to go full gonzo like one of my literary idols and make myself a part of the event, but circumstance stepped in on this day.
I was sitting on the back of Sunset Pier, about three cocktails into a really good early afternoon buzz when circumstance arrived. It showed up in the form of a Mile 0 production manager that looked equal parts 1980’s wrestling heel and Koe Wetzel stand-in. His voice was shot and through the scratchy remnants of a once powerful orator, he was able to tell me that he needed me to bring the next band on. “Would you mind?” Would I mind? Hell no I would not mind. I had five minutes and three cocktails of creative courage to give me the right words. And of course my trusty bride would be there to document it all. I ambled backstage and slapped backs with the boys in Copper Chief. We made small talk about Nate Rodriguez, Jade Marie Patek, Bonnie Bishop and Austin Gilliam. We talked about how it would be cool if all four of those were here with us, but at least Jade was arriving soon.
The colorful environs of aqua blues and yellow vinyls seemed to merge into a fugue green as all manner of boats bopped on by and around us. We were surrounded! My trusty bride was talking to a couple of folks near the table I had abandoned to go on this mission. Her parting words to me, “you’ll do great…you always do…you’re good at this!” The couple from Minnesota weren’t sure what “this” was or who I was. As my bride attempted to explain to them, Mikey V from CC blasted over the rails and announced he was ready to go. I got the go-ahead to go hype this crowd up!
“Center one. It’s his personal one, but oh well.”
“It’s all good, I’m vaxxed.”
“What’s up Mile 0 Fest!?!? Day 4, Year 4. Is this cool or what?”
(mild applause). The type that is usually reserved for the preacher’s wife’s birthday announcement at the early service.
“Are y’all ready to rock?”
(some minor woo-ing…I notice my bride still firmly back to me in mid-conversation with the Minnesotans.)
“Well, good! Because we have some rattlesnake boogie rock n’ roll straight from Austin, TX for you…give it up for Copper Chief!”
I exit stage left to fist bumps and knowing nods. I noticed my bride furiously snapping photos from her Galaxy catching my final moments in the sunshine.
Then it hit me, I forgot to thank the Monroe County Tourist Development Council. To say nothing of reminding people to wear masks, wash hands and socially distance. Props to Mr. Ryan for always making that valid and forced announcement sound so cheerful. The man is truly a pro.
“Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of fuel. Sentimental people call it inspiration. But what they really mean is fuel. I have always needed fuel. I am a serious consumer. On some nights I still believe a car with the gas needle on empty can run about fifty more miles if you have the right music very loud on the radio.” -HST
My fuel on this day was the sounds of Texas rock n’ roll, a pristine setting, a beaming and beautiful bride, solace in a job well done and a seat in the shade to bask in it all.
Copper Chief is a force. A greasy, rocking, bearded force. Few bands mix fun and talent in such a potent mixture. They know how to put on a show and they are chameleons in the way they can match their set to the setting. Fresh off a rousing, landmark set at Tuna, the fellas were ready to kick off Sunset Pier in appropriate fashion. By the time they reached a crescendo with Gilliam’s “Strawberry Lemonade”, life was in one of those beautiful moments where you are reminded why you are alive. Symmetry. Music, people, views, and vibes were all at optimum levels during the Copper Chief set.
That level never wavered as the boys from Fort Worth, Quaker City Night Hawks, confidently strode onstage next. Sam Anderson and the gang announced their presence with the first number and never let the rhythm die. QCNH are one of the best live bands in America. They are unique and don’t sound like other bands. Cosmic Southern Rock Funk is a genre all their own and own it they do mightily well. Whether it is Sunset Pier, Gruene Hall or their home base of Magnolia Motor Lounge, these boys know how to get down. A great match for Key West.
This is the point of this tale where I need to introduce you to Tim and his wife Sherri. Tim rode his Harley all the way from the Houston area to Key West with Sherri right behind him. Tim loves music. Tim loves Harley’s. Tim loves to rock. Tim loves fun. This was never more apparent than during the Copper Chief set as Tim was entrenched in front of the stage and enjoying every second of music provided to him. He was captured in pure exuberance by Geoffrey Hill in a photo that we quickly shared far and wide. I want Tim on t-shirts, caps, posters and more. He’s now a Texas Key West icon. We need more Tim’s. And we all need to be more like Tim.
Traversing back up Duval, we decided to hit up the Tuna. A glance at the clock informed me that my spiritual guiding light, Sir Walter Wilkins and his lovely bride Tina would soon be onstage there to heal anything that had gone wrong the previous 72 hours. We quickly found two corner stools at the bar and began to really enjoy a young band ripping it up onstage. A quick app check clued me in that this was The Wight Lighters, a young Oklahoma trio full of tastiness. This was a band that could rock and knew when to lean into that and when to let it ride for a bit. I thoroughly enjoyed this set. Perhaps my favorite discovery of the week.
As they loaded out, Walt and Tina appeared. A quick changeover and load out, then before you knew it Walt was singing his songs. They always sound divine, but something about Key West makes them more powerful. “I Would Not Make It Through” always hits you, but it hits you harder at a bar in Key West at 3pm with Tina singing the chorus behind Walt. It makes you appreciate where you are and where you’ve been. And the people you’ve done it with. Walt is the king.
Friday night would bring my favorite stretch of the festival. It’s difficult to create a stronger line-up than William Clark Green, Mike and the Moonpies, Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers Band back to back to back.
Many bands eschew typical stage clothes at Mile 0 and embrace the aesthetic of beach bum or tacky tourist. Some mix and match. This year’s later date would seem to dictate even the guys that consider themselves the hippest and/or most professional would lean toward shorts and the like. It was hot y’all. Like Houston in August hot. I swear I could see the humidity. Yet, that didn’t happen nearly as often as it probably should have. And the WCG gang was no exception.
William Clark Green led his brash bunch of guitar slingers and drum mashers onto the stage at 5pm peak heat trends. Shades couldn’t hide their pain as they melted under the blazing sun. But, it did not stop them from shredding through a set of WCG’s best songs. Sweat pouring out and the crowd filling in, these boys powered through literally the hottest set of the festival. By the time they were a few songs in they had coaxed the early crowd out from under the shade spots and right into the front to sing along with the circus melody in “Ringling Road”. Just as it should be.
Mike and the Moonpies continue to innovate. Recording at Abbey Road, sure. Getting pedicures on camera in Key West? Why not! And there just happens to be that little nugget about them putting on one hell of a live show. Each year their following and appreciation at Mile 0 is greater. They cranked out a fantastic set of songs people wanted to hear and one that people didn’t know they wanted to hear, but after they heard it realized they definitely wanted to hear again. That would be the Moonpies brilliant cover of Fastball’s “The Way”. Who knew that it needed steel guitar and tele? Apparently Mike Harmeier and Adam Odor. Props gentlemen, this too was a musical highlight of the week.
Wade Bowen probably logged more sets this week than any other person. He played in every iteration of his own band (solo, trio acoustic, full band, a tiny dash of HMBWT) as well as jumping up at many of the specialty shows (Sequestered Songwriters, Duets, The Brother In Law’s). Bowen was everywhere. And happy about it. The fabulous Wade Bowen band was rounded out on this evening by a double-billed Les Lawless from the Randy Rogers Band. Wade’s drummer Bryan Zannoti could not be at the show, so Lawless stepped up. With some ace coaching from longtime Bowen bassist Caleb Jones, any flubs and flaws the band had with Lawless behind the kit were not noticeable. A tribute both to Les Lawless’ skill as a drummer, but more so Bowen and crew’s professional smoothness. Bowen was able to transform the amphitheater into a 1980s arena with choice covers of U2’s “With or Without You” and Phil Collins’ “I Wish It Would Rain Down”.
Randy Rogers Band has been at the top of the Texas Music mountain for over 15 years now. Other bands come and go and the RRB just keeps chugging along. Cranking out songs true to the brand, playing the old ones with the same verve and passion of all those many gigs ago. This was many band’s first big set post-Covid, but that was most apparent with the RRB and American Aquarium. Rain famously interrupted the RRB set at last year’s Mile 0 three songs in. Randy and the guys had over a year to plot revenge. It was a classic RRB set but amplified with an added energy and buzz. Each member was locked in the pocket and they all smiled the entire set. It was like we had never missed a show the last year. It was a moment. A moment of normalcy, love, music and community. True RRB traits.
The specialty, wheels-off after show has become a Mile 0 tradition. This year the organizers handed the reins over to Jamie Lin Wilson to organize one such show. She took on the task of putting together a show of duets. Despite many amazing performances of things like Kaitlin Butts and Wade Bowen delivering the Kid Rock/Sheryl Crow classic “Picture” with straight faces, this night and moment will forever be known for the lift. Nobody puts Mike Moonpie in a corner…except Drew Kennedy. Until Rio Tripiano and Wade Bowen forced Mike Moonpie back out of the corner. All while Kennedy is singing the Dirty Dancing classic “I Had the Time of my Life” with Courtney Patton. Do those sentences read crazy? Because as wild as it reads, it is nothing compared to seeing all of this take place in person. Luckily, we have video evidence to do it justice. As Patton put it later, “this is my favorite moment in four years of Mile 0’s.” Indeed it is. It perfectly captured the essence of the festival. Fun, free-wheeling, unpredictable, worlds colliding, collaborative madness.
Saturday morning was spent reliving the big Dirty Dancing moment from the night before as it spread virally across the internet. Easing into the last day of music is always key. After trying to find the bottom of the bottomless mimosas during our brunch stop, we made our first stop at the Lighthouse pool.
Pro-Key West tip. Don’t visit the Lighthouse after a long night. I made that mistake in year 1 when I was trying to cross every touristy thing off my list. It’s a long way to the top if you wanna topple and roll at the Key West Lighthouse. Trust me.
Anyhow, the Lighthouse pool stage was delightful. Newcomer Lucas Jagneaux serenaded the gathered masses around the picturesque swimming pool as an early morning breeze beat back the unbearable humidity. We bounced from Lucas to Kyle Nix’s beach performance back to the Lighthouse for a bit of Jonny Burke before landing back at Southernmost for one more Wade Bowen performance. The proximity of these two stages was a blessing
Martin from Dallas was a recently divorced fifty-something down there with a large group of his buddies. He featured a heavy smokers laugh despite “switching to the vape for health reasons.” He was attempting to “have fun for the first time in 17 years, brother.” He figured Mile 0 to be the remedy for his troubles. By the last day he said, “I know this was the right prescription for what ails me.”
“Sitting by a pool, pretty women, good tunes, good friends…this place is paradise in more ways than one.” – Martin
We’ve all tossed out bon monts for various artists over the four years at Mile 0. Jamie Lin Wilson was anointed as the Queen in year 1. Mike Harmeier quickly became a de facto mascot of the festival. But, there’s another guy that has been steady as a rock throughout the festival. It’s festival founder Kyle Carter’s childhood friend and musical rival Cody Canada. Cody Canada is the epitome of a rock star, a songwriter’s songwriter, a caring human on the level of Willie and an ambassador for independent music wherever he travels. Each year he puts between himself and the end of Ragweed he seems to be happier onstage too. I remember well the Bowen Classic performance where he rightfully and proudly reclaimed the old songs as part of his canon and never looked back. The joy and love he’s pouring out on the stage is an inspiration. That has never been more readily apparent than this week when, aside from his scheduled performances, he was called out to jam with: Ray Wylie Hubbard, Shane Smith and the Saints, and Blackberry Smoke among others. Each of them paying him reverence, respect and admiration for what he’s built. If there was a Mt. Rushmore for this music, Canada’s face is squarely in the middle of it. His voice is once again strong and full. His silver PRS has never been more dialed in. You place Jeremy Plato’s otherworldly low-end, six-string bass in the mix and 2021 is looking like 2001 all over again for the Canada crew. Canada was clearly enjoying being back onstage and he took the time to genuinely thank those in the crowd he recognized for supporting his family through the lockdown. The goodness Cody Canada has put out in the world through his music and attitude had come back around to him and was on display on stage in Key West.
Perhaps, the most intriguing piece of Canada’s current legacy is the burgeoning skills and stage presence of his sons Dierks on guitar and Willy on drums. Their band Waves has performed at the festival the last couple years and grown with each performance. Cody played most of his set as a trio, but would occasionally bring in members from Waves and his New Braunfels School of Rock music school to join in on the jams. First, it was just Peyton Glasco on second guitar. Then it was Calen Parish on the second guitar. Then Ben Mitchell slid behind the skins. Then his boys joined him for a couple tunes. By the time an encore was needed, Cody left the stage completely to the kids. But not before he introduced them as “Jellyroll Johnson and the American Waterpicks”. Parish on lead vocals, Dierks on guitar, Willy on drums and Luke Wilson on bass. Parish proved himself to be a natural entertainer. While wearing an Uncle Bekah hat that read “DILF”, he asked the crowd “Y’all like my Damn I Love Fishing” hat and with that we were off. This quartet of young musicians ripped into a ferocious cover of Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name Of”. Wilson’s bass nailed that iconic opening riff before Dierks Canada leaned into the heavy Morello riff and Parish capped it off with a performance that would have made Zach De La Roca grin. The pure power and talent of these musicians was on full display. Never has a set mentioned Guy Clark as Cody Canada did early on ended with a faithful and fiery cover of Rage Against the Machine replete with the requisite number of f-bombs to end the song.
In a word, it was amazing.
Immediately after it was over I ran into Josh Crutchmer of Red Dirt Book fame and we both couldn’t believe what we had just witnessed. It was one of those moments that you had to be there to see, but thankfully phones were out everywhere.
Few bands could have or would have wanted to follow that show stopping moment, but BJ Barham and his American Aquarium bandmates were more than up to the task. When I think of Barham, I think of intensity. Each record he’s gotten better and honed in on a sound that is all his own. In a live setting, he has always been the ultimate showman. Uptempo, slow and sad, whatever it is, Barham makes you feel it. The current lineup of AA is versatile and springy. They follow Barham’s lead and the roadmap he laid out on Saturday night at Mile 0 was definitely one to the promised land. In a set full of hits, he peppered them with the rightful amount of power and vigor. American Aquarium’s first live set in over a year could be qualified only as victorious.
Alas, there would be no late-night jams on Duval Street to close out the festival this year. Blackberry Smoke’s week-capping set would be what sent us off into the thick night air with the memories of a week of music and the knowledge we had participated in something meaningful. The vibe throughout Blackberry’s set was triumphant and celebratory. We had done it. Mile 0 had done it. Covid precautions. Lost artists. Reduced capacity. None of it mattered. What mattered were those who had shown up. The production and crew guys and gals who busted their rear-ends endless hours to make it all look seamless. The fans who paid hard-earned money coming off a tight year to a vacation at a new time. The bands who jumped right back in like none of them had only been playing to computer screens for over a year. The locals and the politicians who allowed it to happen. And everyone that played a part. Given the circumstances, it was one of the most impressive feats of music production I’ve ever witnessed.
Caroline was a recent college grad from Kansas and this was her second Mile 0. She said her favorite artists are Reckless Kelly and Micky and the Motorcars. “I’m a sucker for the Brauns.” Aren’t we all Caroline? When I asked why Mile 0? What made her come? She was quick to anwer, “The people….from the ones who put all this on, to the friends I’ve made with other fans to the locals who let us all come down here and invade their home…everyone is so…nice and happy.”
Everyone is so nice and happy. After the past 14 months, we were all ready for something like this. A tinge of normalcy. A reminder of what life is about and the possibilities that arise when a determined group of people put their heads and hearts together to make something happen. Mile 0 is a special and unique place any year. But in 2021 it was an oasis of joy. A reminder of what we used to do and took for granted. And an omen of what we will start doing regularly on this side of the pandemic. Chase the music. Build relationships. Happiness and good times can’t be denied when the right pieces are in place.
Hunter S. Thompson is famous for saying, “buy the ticket, take the ride.” This is a ticket and ride that everyone who enjoyed it will be clamoring to ride again and again. Sometimes the unknown mixes with the known and you end up with something entirely new. That’s sort of what happened here. Mile 0 took what they knew from previous years and threw it against the wall alongside the unknowns of a post-Covid concert world and it worked.
Throughout the week I was constantly reminded of a famous quote from Key West’s favorite son, Ernest Hemingway. “Never go on trips with anyone you do not love.” At Mile 0, that doesn’t just mean the people you travel with. That’s the folks you plan with online. The people at your hotel. The local bartender who becomes your new favorite. And perhaps most importantly the music makers and mystic wanderers who paint our dreams into a lyrical reality that would be unattainable without them.
Mile 0 took a dream and made it a reality just by being founded. And they recaptured that lightning in a bottle here in 2021 by pulling off a festival amid a global pandemic. I don’t plan on coming back to Key West without someone I love ever again. The good news is, that thanks to Mile 0, nobody else will be alone either.