Missing Piece of the Puzzle

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Coffee Butler Amphitheater  – the missing piece of the puzzle

During the first year of COVID Rams Head got permission to do a locals only concert with masks and social distancing no more than 500 in attendance – Coconust Victrola was the first and the music gods were smiling on us.

The story behind the Coffee Butler Amphitheater starts about twelve years ago with a Mason jar of blackberry moonshine and two guys floating in a pool at a campground on Sugarloaf Key. Real Estate mogul Joe Cleghorn and good friend and musician Howard Livingston were sipping moonshine when they came up with the idea for a new music festival they called the Keystock Music Fest.

Howard Livingston and his buddy Joe Cleghorn came up with the idea of the Keystock Music Festival

They booked the famous 60s band Blood, Sweat & Tears at Sugar Loaf KOA campground for their first attempt in 2012. The campground was quickly overwhelmed. The following year, they booked nine-time 70s gold record group, Three Dog Night and moved Keystock to the wide-open, gravel covered, field of then undeveloped Truman Waterfront.

Nine Time Grammy Award winner Three Dog Night was the headliner for the 2013 KeyStock Fest and the Truman Waterfront.

The 2013 Keystock Music Festival was a “bring your own portable stage, sound, lighting, and generator” logistical nightmare of an event. Howard Livingston and The Mile Marker 24 Band opened for the headliners with a number of other local bands showcased at the nine-hour festival. It was a harbinger of things to come on this open patch of Truman Waterfront property. Keystock 2014 hosted the amazing Doobie Brothers, 2015 was the Grand Funk Railroad, and 2016 was headlined by Huey Lewis and the News. Every year got a little easier and the crowds got larger with over 3,000 tickets sold.

Howard Livingston and MM24 Band opened for the Doobie Brothers at the 2015 Keystock Music Fest to a huge crowd and what looks like a message from above.

Most towns the size of Key West may have a couple of bars with music on the week-ends. Key West boasts 50 venues for live music averaging over 350 live performances weekly resulting in over 17,000 live music performances annually. We take our music seriously and the visitors notice.

For decades, the largest entertainment venue was the beautiful Tennessee Williams Theater that seated 550. Several smaller theaters existed with about half that capacity. The Keystock Music Festivals were the proof of concept. In 2016, the City of Key West led by then Mayor Craig Cates finalized the Truman Waterfront Development Plan, which included a multi-use amphitheater that could seat 4,000 patrons.

The first event at the new amphitheater was the Keys Strong fundraising concert in October 2017, after Hurricane Irma devastated the Keys. It was a huge successful and much needed fundraiser for the community. Life-long Key Wester and local guitar legend, Caffeine Carl Wagoner was one of the performers. After the performance, he said, “I’ve seen the city build a lot of things in Key West, but this (amphitheater) is the best thing they have ever built.” Legendary Key Wester 90-year-old legend Lofton Coffee Butler, whose name the venue would soon bear, also performed that day.

Claire Finley performed at the Keys Strong Fundraiser shortly after Hurricane Irma in October 2017 – the first concert at the new amphitheater.

The legendary Coffee Butler performed at the Keys Strong Fundraiser. The amp was soon to bear his name.

The Coffee Butler Amphitheater was the missing piece of puzzle for the outsized Key West music scene. The larger capacity venue would soon be used to promote big name national artists. Willie Nelson has performed, three times, to sold-out crowds of 4000.  Many other national acts have attracted big audiences, including two concerts last February by Key West’s favorite son, the late Jimmy Buffett. The Mile Zero Fest has added another multi-day music festival to the annual schedule along with the four-day Key West Songwriters Festival in its 24th year.

Key West has the best winter weather and the season can be filled with music events. The Rams Head Group, manager of the venue, booked four national acts this past March — ZZ Top, Foreigner, The Temptations & Four Tops, and the Marshal Tucker Band—to huge audiences.

Key West tried a Jazz Festival back in the 90s but couldn’t make it work. Now with the new Coffee Butler Amphitheater a multi-day Key West Jazz Festival much like New Orleans could become a popular annual event. This past December the amphitheater hosted a fun holiday Waterfront Winter Wonderland event for all residents, complete with an ice skating rink, Santa, games and food.

The recent proposed upgrade to the facility will correct some basic deficiencies with the original venue. Unbelievably, running water is not readily available at the venue. Restrooms are needed instead of porta-potties, there are no facilities backstage for the entertainers, some of those little things that are extremely important for tour managers. A roof over the entire facility will be a game changer reducing weather impacts, providing many more year-round events, and making the venue much cooler for the daytime audience.

Those existing 17,000 annual performances support a host of musicians, bartenders, sound engineers, promoters, and help attract a million tourists resulting in millions of dollars of economic activity. Likewise, most of the revenue and the economic benefits to Monroe County aren’t generated by ticket sales alone. Several concierges offer concert packages with hotels, fishing, sunsets, dining, and more.

Many concert goers currently enjoy Key West a few days earlier and/or stay a few days later than the event enjoying all Key West has to offer. This results in more hotel bookings, more dinners served, more snorkeling and fishing, more sunset cruises, even more activities at our existing music and theater venues. The Tourist Development Council (TDC) has been attracting tourist down that 130-mile chain for over four decades. They know how to fill this venue and generate millions more in low impact revenue for the entire local economy.

Key West was long becoming a music destination but with the addition of the Coffee Butler Amphitheater, it has become a new home for winter music festivals. I have long said if Nashville is Music City then Key West is Music Island. Music Tourism provides the kind of visitors that Key West needs – music lovers.




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