The opening act

Friday, May 20, 2005
Keith Sykes, seen here in concert, will perform at the first Tunes at Twilight concert of the season tonight (Apr. 20).

Every time Parrottheads (aka Jimmy Buffett fans) sing the famous refrain of "Volcano," they are giving thanks to Keith Sykes, whether they know it or not.

And when fans listen to the records of John Prine or Tommy Tutone, they may also be hearing Sykes' handiwork.

That's because Sykes has been a jack-of-all-trades in the music industry for more than 30 years, writing songs that have been covered by the likes of Rosanne Cash, George Thorogood and The Judds, co-writing songs with Jimmy Buffett as a member of the Coral Reefer Band in the 1970s and, most recently, producing records out of his Memphis studio.

All the while, Sykes has also been making his own music -- an Americana blend of twangy acoustic guitars and folk and country sensibilities, with some full-band romps thrown in for good measure.

Sykes is in Cape Girardeau this weekend for a string of three shows to promote his new album, "All I Know." He's the opening artist who kicks off this season's Tunes at Twilight concert series tonight at the Capaha Park Bandshell. He will follow up that performance with an appearance Saturday at 4 p.m. at the ArtsCape Festival in Capaha Park. After playing the festival, he'll head to the home of Larry and Jean Underberg to play one of their House Concerts at 7 p.m.

The musical Renaissance man was a great choice to open this season of Tunes, said Larry Underberg, who organizes the events and booked the musical talent for ArtsCape in addition to running small, intimate concerts from his home in Cape Girardeau. Sykes visited Cape Girardeau once before during last year's City of Roses festival when he played a show at the university.

The community loved him, said Underberg.

"He played at the college and was real popular," said Underberg. "He had good general appeal. Sykes is likely to appeal to a wide range of listeners, plus his reputation is pretty sizable. He's got all these albums and has written some great stuff.

"It was a very entertaining show. Plus, what we had noticed was that he had some real nice doses of humor at the show that would go over big. He was one of the most popular acts at the college in our River Heritage series."

Sykes said he had a great time checking out the city's downtown and watching the musical acts at City of Roses. But he had wanted to see Cape Girardeau for a long time, regardless.

"The town's name has popped up in so many different songs through the years," Sykes said. "When I saw that sign on the interstate, I knew I wanted to go there."

Sykes makes his home just down the road on that same interstate that runs through Cape Girardeau in Memphis. Memphis was where he developed his love for music as a teenager and where he came back to later in life to settle permanently and pursue his musical aspirations, such as building his own studio called The Woodshed.

A young Sykes purchased his first guitar from a Memphis pawn shop when he was 17 and soon knew what he wanted to do.

"When I got old enough to be curious, I heard Bob Dylan, and a couple of my friends starting playing guitars," he said. "I bought one my senior year. I realized I was pretty good at it and it was something I wanted to pursue. I knew I didn't want to go to college. The whole thing was just very compelling to me -- to go out be Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan or something."

Despite the fact that Sykes lived in Memphis, he wasn't much into the blues, except for the acoustic Delta Blues of performers like Robert Johnson.

He got his start in New York, playing on the coffeehouse circuit before he was 20 years old, much the same way his hero Dylan started out in Greenwich Village. "Being a 19-year-old kid, that was great to me, because you could play in front of college people," he said.

After touring the circuit, Sykes made a brief stop in Austin, Texas, before going to Key West to play in Jimmy Buffett's Coral Reefer Band. "Jimmy and I really hit it off," said Sykes. "We were friends and we remain friends to this day."

While with Buffett, Sykes said he got to experience the star life, staying in the nicest hotels, playing the biggest venues and seeing the country on a private jet. But that allure couldn't keep him in its grasp, and he went back to Memphis and continued to pursue his solo career.

He met with some major-label success, even appearing as a musical guest on Saturday Night Live in the early 1980s, before returning to independent status, a move that suits him just fine.

"At my age I'm not necessarily trying to hit it big anymore," said Sykes. "If you go out and work, you can make a decent living."

His last two albums, "All I Know" and 2001's "Don't Count Us Out," which he calls companion albums, have returned to his acoustic roots after playing with combos for years. But his musical tastes have changed.

"Now you're more likely to see a Dean Martin record in my player than a folk record," said Sykes.

Those who attend his shows now can expect to hear those acoustic folk influences in his one-man show. It's a show that allows Sykes to connect more intimately with his audience than in the old days of playing with a full rock band or getting tropical with Buffett.

"I try to involve the audience in it," Sykes said. "It's like I'm saying 'Hey, I'm here! Keep your attention on me.'

"It's still all about the songs. If I have people verge of tears or laughing, I know I'm getting through to people."

Following the Sykes performance, Tunes at Twilight will move back to its original site at the Common Pleas Courthouse gazebo until the last show on Sept. 16, which will also be held at Capaha Park.

msanders@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182


Want to go?

* Who: Keith Sykes

* What: Cape Girardeau Tunes at Twilight series

* When: 7 p.m. tonight (May 20)

* Where: Capaha Park Bandshell

On the Net

* Keith Sykes' Web site:

www.keithsykes.com

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