After 36 years in the music business, guitarist
Butch Ford says he has played with REO Speedwagon, Billy Joel
and The Eagles, and he’s been a stage manager for Liza Minnelli,
Bette Midler and George Benson. Now, as the weekend manager at
Cousins II in Cobble Hill, Ford is waiting for his next talent
It’s 10 pm on Saturday and the restaurant’s dinner crowd has thinned. It’s time for some live music.
Like a rock star, George Kilby Jr. is late to his own gig. Five minutes late to be exact, according to a clock on the wall. And, like a rock star, Kilby doesn’t seem to notice. He enters the room with energy that jumps off his slim frame, and a whiff of cigarette smoke follows his lead. He unzips his guitar case.
Tonight, Kilby and two backing musicians will play original New Orleans-influenced blues for Ford’s weekly live music showcase. Although the restaurant - a sports bar and grill - seems an unlikely venue for live music, Ford has booked live acts here for nearly 20 years. A personal project, it allows him to promote a variety of professional musicians in a more intimate setting than, say, B.B. King’s Blues Club & Grill in Times Square, where Kilby has performed with 90-year-old pianist Pinetop Perkins.
"That is why I’m here. It’s my playhouse," Ford says.
The secret seems well kept. Cousins II attracts a diverse and well-groomed lot in their 30s and 40s who pack the place for karaoke on Fridays and football on Sundays. But tonight, Cousins is relaxed.
Kilby plays feel-good blues with spunky flair. The tip of his worn cowboy boot keeps time with hard smacks on the tile floor. His body crooks and croons to the music and his clear, spirited vocals command attention. A slight Southern twang registers in his voice, which belies his native Anniston, Ala., although his personality is all New York. He has made Williamsburg his home for much of the last 10 years.
His backing players, Steve Antonakos on guitar, and Ritt Henn on standup bass, keep pace with Kilby and take leads when they can.
The music is loud, but not too loud for conversation. Diners focus on one another as the music bounces in the background. Those here for the music stand near the bar and by the entryway. Their heads bob up and down to Kilby and company’s tuneful lures.
One man claps with wide, lazy sweeps of his hands.
Another, clad in a striped fedora and a necktie that dangles from his unbuttoned blue collar, silently mouths Kilby’s lyrics.
The man who claps widely approaches Kilby after the first set. He has a request - Jimmy Buffett’s "Margaritaville." Kilby hesitates, then scratches his forefinger across his neck. He says he’s not sure if he knows the lyrics.
But the fan, Andre Blalock, insists, "You guys got to know ’Margaritaville.’ It’s a classic."
Ford intercedes. He says he’ll sing the song instead.
Then the man in the fedora leaves without waving goodbye.
Kilby rocks on, his shoulders slung into the strap of his guitar, his foot tapping on. It’s a few minutes before the man in the fedora returns with a clarinet. His fellow head bobbers notice the instrument and wave to Kilby. Without a missed beat, Kilby asks his name.
"Jack," the man in the fedora says.
"Jack, come on stage," Kilby says. Jack walks forward and begins to play at Kilby’s command like a Pied Piper in reverse. While Jack’s rhythm isn’t as steady as the rest of the troupe, Kilby tells him to take a solo anyway. Then, Kilby points to Henn for a bass solo. Jack plays over it, to which Kilby grunts and shakes his head, "ahhhh." Kilby points to Antonakos for the next solo. Jack wisely keeps his clarinet quiet.
Kilby points his finger back at Jack.
"Now hit it again, Jack," he says. They finish the song together and Jack (whose last name is Berall, it turns out) is all smiles.
"It’s very comfortable here," says Jack, who frequents Cousins for its live music. "And they don’t have bad shows."
As Jack leaves the stage, Kilby strums the first chords to "Margaritaville" and Ford takes the microphone. His trained voice lends unexpected grace to the song.
"I’ve hung out in Manhattan. I’ve hung out in Brooklyn. And I have had a really good time here. This place is awesome. That guy," says Blalock, pointing to Kilby, "is awesome. They made my night with that song."
That’s what Ford wants. He wants his performers to connect with his audience.
"Musicians are people who sit in chairs in the philharmonic because they can’t perform," Ford says. "I don’t want to hear you play your instrument. I want to see you perform. I want to see you entertain."
Cousins II, located at 160 Court St. at Amity Street in Cobble Hill, hosts live music on Saturday nights from 10 pm to 2 am. On Nov. 29, Roy Ramos will perform Caribbean pop, and on Jan. 10, George Kilby Jr. will return. On Dec. 6, The Ducks will perform pop. There is no cover charge. For more information, call (718) 596-3514.