TARPON SPRINGS – When the 2019 edition of Tarpon Fest, an all-day music festival on two stages in downtown Tarpon Springs, starts at 3 p.m. on March 23, Phil Esposito, the charismatic lead singer of the Black Honkeys Band, will be front and center to kick off the show.
“Brother Phil,” as Esposito is known, and his band will also be on stage to close out the outdoor portion of the event in the courtyard of the city’s Historic Train Depot Museum at around 11 p.m.
It’s a burning-the-candle-at-both-ends approach that’s been a staple of the band the Clearwater native formed in 2000, leading to sold out shows everywhere they go.
“We average about 12 to 14 shows a month, so we’re basically playing every other day,” Esposito said in December at the Neptune Lounge, site of the second Tarpon Fest stage. “I know why I do it, because I love to do it. It’s a pain in the — sometimes! But it’s worth it to get to play incredible music with my friends, and people really seem to dig it.”
People “dig” the Black Honkeys shows because the band plays an eclectic set list featuring funky, feel-good R&B and soul classics from the 1970s and ’80s by the likes of the O’Jays, K.C and the Sunshine Band, Billy Preston and Sly and the Family Stone, among others.
“We try to pick not-so-obvious hits. Like, we’ll play J. Geils’ “Give it to Me” instead of “Love Stinks”,” Esposito explained. “I like to do something different. We’re trying to stay a little off the beaten path.”
Fortunately for North Pinellas residents, that path has often led to Tarpon Springs. Last year the band played the Hippiefest at the Sponge Docks, at the city’s Oktoberfest celebration and the Tarpon Fest.
“We love Tarpon Springs,” Phil said. “The city of Tarpon Springs has always been great to us. We built a following here before there was anything going on here. We used to get 150 people at the Zone.”
Esposito’s ties to Tarpon, specifically his friendship with Neptune Lounge owner Eddie Mullally, led to the creation of the inaugural Tarpon Fest, held on a sweltering Saturday last June.
“The Honkeys played my 20th anniversary party in 2016, and Brother Phil and I said let’s utilize the Train Depot for a concert,” Mullally said. “We thought the stage was perfect, and it’s a beautiful backdrop, so…we approached the merchant’s association and the city, and we worked together to set it up.”
Now that the show has moved to March, Mullally hopes the turnout will be just as good, if not better.
“It was way too hot to hold an event like that like in June, and we want this to become an annual music festival in downtown Tarpon Springs,” Mullally said.
As the band approaches two decades together, albeit with a continually rotating cast, Esposito admitted time might be running out to catch the Black Honkeys, named after Esposito’s childhood nickname, with “Brother” Phil at the helm.
“I’d like to go at least 20 years. Take it to the twentieth anniversary and then wind it back,” he said, noting he has a wife and 10-year-old son at home who also require his attention. “But our band never takes anything for granted. We’re lucky to have people dig what we do, buy our merchandise and support us. It’s that reaction that keeps us going.”
Asked what he would do, post-Black Honkeys Band, the guy who seems to perpetually have a twinkle in his eye said, “I don’t know, maybe go acoustic?! I’ll always do something. I can never stop being myself altogether.”