By Tiffany Yates | Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Island Hopper:
'Bent sense of humor' serves musician Wahlberg well

Musician Andy Wahlberg cuts a bit of an intimidating picture. Standing 6 feet and 7 inches tall, he looks imposing even seated on a stool in the corner of a bar. He’s got a deep, commanding voice that’s hard to ignore. And planted in his lap is the most startling instrument: a double-necked, curving harp guitar that looks like something Renaissance courtiers might have used to entertain royalty.

But at the moment Wahlberg is clowning around with a pair of dark sunglasses obscuring his eyes, his lips puckered out exaggeratedly, claiming he’s the famed (and fabricated) “Blind Naples Sludge” to his avid, captivated audience at the Village Pub in North Naples.

This is what Southwest Florida fixture Wahlberg does — mix comedy with his music to create an evening in which he is the central activity, not background sound.

With his stature, you could never say Walhberg blends in, anyway. Even aside from his size, you wouldn’t overlook his gifted playing on the complicated instrument, his intriguing singing voice and his enthusiastic blowing on the harmonica strapped around his neck.

But if somehow you managed to remain oblivious to all of that, you’d snap to attention when you hear him sing a litany of derriere puns in I Wanna Kiss Her Butt but She Won’t Let Me (She was the kind of girl who stole men’s hearts and wrecked ’em), or makes an array of animal sounds in the Irish song The Rooster, or launches with Johnny Cash seriousness into that “old favorite, Cows with Guns … “

He does a credible George Bush impression; he bock-bocks Ride of the Valkyries as a chicken; he has Jason the waiter lead the audience in clapping along to The Drunken Scotsman.

It is not your typical bar show.

“I have a naturally kind of bent sense of humor,” Wahlberg says with considerable understatement. When he starts an evening, the handsome, ponytailed musician usually begins with some of his instrumentals — lovely, complex pieces — and then salts in typical easy listening cover tunes — Elton John, James Taylor — “so as not to scare away a lot of people,” he explains.

But then he puts out feelers. “I’ll start kind of prodding and probing to see how far I can go,” Wahlberg says, changing a few lyrics, bringing in some of his more unusual novelty songs, and seeing if his audience comes along for the ride.

And far more often than not, they do. Wahlberg has such a loyal local following that when I mentioned to three separate friends I was going to review him, each excitedly related some experience of his show.

“I try to be the reason that people come out,” explains Wahlberg, who is not content to simply serve as ambience in the background. His shows have more of a theatrical feel than those of most other bar entertainers, with the audience circling chairs around to face him and watch whatever bizarre musical creation he will whip out next.

Like his series of various television show theme songs set to the tune of classic rock hits. It takes a moment to sink in that the familiar strains of Secret Agent Man that you’re hearing are accompanying these lyrics: “Here’s a story of a lovely lady … who was bringing up three very lovely girls … “

Or, Mr. Ed sung to “House of the Rising Sun”. Or Gilligan’s Island to Stairway to Heaven. I could go on — and Wahlberg does, in an impressive virtuoso stretch that tells you he might have far too much free time on his hands.

Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss him as simply a novelty act. Wahlberg is first and foremost a musician — and a strikingly talented one. The harp guitar he plays is a replica of the antique one he originally discovered in a pawn shop thirty years ago. After painstakingly teaching himself to play it — he couldn’t find any other players or even recordings to learn from — it became his main instrument.

While the lower half of it is basically an acoustic guitar, the top curves off into six fretless strings that provide bass, and Wahlberg plays the whole thing with his huge, dexterous hands, giving unusual depth to his sound.

You don’t really appreciate the complexity of what he’s doing until he plays one of his original instrumentals, like Emmett’s Rising, a Celtic-influenced, poignant, but vivacious tune inspired by the leader of a historical Irish uprising.

But the beautiful number is very likely to be followed by one in which Wahlberg apologizes for its various off-color lyrics, promising to merely hum the offensive lines. (This yields phrases like, “Rubber shirts … mmm-hmm-hmm … leather skirts … mmm-hmmm … and jars of Vaseline … “)

Check out his Web site for schedule information, news about the musical tour of Ireland he’s leading, or an update on the harp guitar convention he’s organized this fall at the Sugden Theatre and Norris Center.

Wahlberg plays the Village Pub in the Village at Venetian Bay every Thursday through Saturday from 7 to 10 p.m. (Justify the trip with a shopping spree at the Village’s upscale stores.) Closer to home, you can see him off Third Street South at the Old Naples Pub, 1262 13th Avenue, from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. Wednesday from 6 to 9 p.m. Sundays.

It’s an evening out that’s not your usual singer-in-a-bar entertainment, a fun, silly, interactive party atmosphere with a host who is determined that you will have a great time.

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© 2006 Naples Daily News and NDN Productions. Published in Naples, Florida, USA by the E.W. Scripps Co.

More Press for Andy Wahlberg

“Wahlberg is a born showman...with songs of humor and humanity, and a stage presence bigger than life.”

Liz Bumiller
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“...a breath of fresh air. Listening to him perform is a guitarists delight.”

Peter Roth
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“Wahlberg’s show...(is)...guileless, spirited, nervy and infectious...(he) takes the crowd on a joyride.”

Frazier Moore
The Atlanta Journal Constitution