Memories of iconic venue that will soon be demolished

Owner Renee Bennett greets me with a smile and I smile — but they're sad smiles all the same. We embrace and have a few final photos taken of us together in front of the stage at her Ace's Live music venue in northwest Bradenton. Bennett whispers so only I can hear and we share a warm laugh.

It's Monday and her place is packed when I enter a half hour before Mark Skey & The Frenzy are scheduled to host an open jam starting at 7 p.m. Everyone knows the deal:

Ace’s Live, the most beloved music venue in Manatee County, will close at its current location at the end of the night. The two-story former barn that has housed Ace's Live for three decades will be destroyed.

The building and the land off Cortez Road about four miles from the beaches of Anna Maria Island were recently sold to an undisclosed company. The new owners will not do business as a bar, restaurant or anything associated with hospitality or entertainment.

I've been a regular at Ace's since returning to Bradenton from Southern California in 2010.

'Sugar Shack Mondays'

Not too long after my return, nationally acclaimed blues musician Damon Fowler, a longtime friend of mine living on Anna Maria Island at the time, invited me to co-host his weekly "Sugar Shack Mondays" online concert and interview series at Ace's. Fowler's wife, Lacy Campbell Fowler, produced the webcasts.

My payment was an unlimited bar tab, which meant on many nights I was the highest paid person in the room.

During this time, I was able to watch outstanding performances and have candid interviews with blues world luminaries such as Mike Zito, Biscuit Miller and Davina Sowers of Davina and the Vagabonds. Important members of the blues community would attend on Mondays, too, including Jack Sullivan, my buddy who publishes Blues Music Magazine.


Over the years, Ace's is where I watched one of the final performances by guitarist "Dangerous" Dan Toler. A few years later my wife, Kristin, and I attended the last local show by Toler's old Allman Brothers Band mate Butch Trucks, who was then touring with Fowler and our pal Berry Duane Oakley in his Freight Train Band.

One evening near closing time, Oakley was leading his own band and let me sing background vocals with him on "Whipping Post," the song his dad helped create, a song he had performed with the Allman Brothers Band his father co-founded. Luckily, no video exists. I'm a terrible singer.

At Ace's, I enjoyed performances by members of Dickey Betts' band including Dickey’s son Duane Betts (guitar), Frankie Lombardi (drums), Mike Kach (keyboards and vocals), Pedro Arevalo (bass), and, yes, guitarist Fowler, whom Dickey has added to the lineup he's taking on tour starting next month.

Ace's is where I first heard Fowler play his poignant, country-flavored original "Old Fools, Bars Stools, And Me," one of my all-time favorite songs. It's where I was right on the stage practically as Kach delivered a gorgeous, solo rendition of his ballad "Get Away," which can be heard on the outstanding double CD/DVD "Rockpalast: 30 Years Of Southern Rock (1978-2008)" by Dickey Betts & Great Southern.

Dana Lawrence and his Kettle of Fish band mates including Greg Poulos, R.J. Howson, and so many more highly talented musicians were regulars at Ace's. And, yeah, we all became friends.  

Beyond blues

In addition to all the great blues-based musicians who played Ace's, there were Americana standouts, too, such as Fred Eaglesmith, whom I got to watch with Kristin and my old college buddy and fellow journalist Jarrett Guthrie, who drove down from Tampa for the sold-out show. 

Bradenton-based Americana band Have Gun, Will Travel also turned in numerous great performances at Ace's. Those guys would pack the place and, yes, were also a pleasure just to see. We are also old friends.

Bennett would book other events, too, such as Beneva Fruitville's Drag Queen Bingo Brunch, which I had a blast attending with Kristin. In fact, I rarely have witnessed my wife laugh so hard as when Beneva came by our table and threw her leg, high-heel and all, over my shoulder and posed for a picture. 

I don't stay long that last Monday at Ace's. In addition to Bennett and her daughter, Chelsea, I talk with friends who had supported the place for years: Jim "Captain" Hartzell, Realize Bradenton executive director Johnette Isham and her husband, Jeff Plunkett.

We're all hopeful about the future of Ace's Live in a new, as yet undisclosed, Bradenton-area location.

But the thought of the beautiful, funky old barn with the great acoustics, the one Bennett's mom purchased while vacationing in Tennessee and rebuilt on that Bradenton site; well, that's a tough one.

I exit from the tiki bar area and hear the band playing "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" as I take a photo of the sun setting on Ace's Live, the parking lot full, the adjacent streets lined with more cars.

And then I laugh to myself. Even our Frenchie, Tucker, had made an appearance, albeit illegally, I think, at Ace's Live. One night, probably around last call, I was in the bathroom when someone yelled:

"Wade, your wife is here. And your dog!" Oh, yes, someone had come to take me home.

So many great memories at the old music barn.


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