His first song of the night ends and no one gathered at the Sunset Beach Bar in the Naples Beach resort pays any attention. They are all enthralled with the maize and parsimmon streaks running across the aquarium blue sky as the sun sinks into the gulf.
Always at ease, and in stride, Barefoot Geno jokes, “Thanks for that round of indifference.” He smiles, and then, “Time for my sunset song.”
He starts playing Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic,” and just as he plucks the last note, the final sliver of sun disappears below the horizon. Now this is a performer.
It all makes sense of course. Barefoot Geno, whose full name is Don Gene Ortiz, comes from a long line of performers dating back to Vaudeville. His father, Steve Ortiz, played on the Tonight Show six times and still does gigs in Naples at 73 years old. His brother Joerey Ortiz sang the harmony on Don McLean’s “American Pie.”
Geno himself has been performing since he was three years old. He first picked up a guitar when he was 12, and a month later he was playing 45 minute sets at the New York restaurant his father booked shows for, the Hawaii Kai.
“With my family I was never allowed to have stage fright,” Geno, 37, said.
Standing on the Sunset Beach Bar patio in his bare feet – the left one marked with a tattoo of the symbol from the Colorado band he used to play with, The Naildrivers – his black stubble covered cheeks widen into a warm smile as he says “Thank You” to a woman who drops a dollar into his jar.
“This is my day job, coming here to play in the evenings,” Geno said. “It’s playing the bars and clubs at night that’s really fun. I get to do my thing.”
In 1994 a friend told Geno that he was a great guitar player, but could do so much more if he could play bass pedals, like fellow South Florida musicians Tim Crandall and Terry Cassidy. The next day Geno went out and bought a pedal set up, and has been playing bass lines with his feet ever since. The nickname didn’t come until a year later when he showed up to a gig at the now closed Crazy Flamingo. The manager, and good friend of his, Rodney Gibbs had put “Barefoot Geno” on the marquee and the name stuck.
These days Geno uses a looper so he can record a guitar riff or even the chorus of a song while he’s playing and then “loop” it so he can play solos and sing the verse. Along with the drum machine and guitar pedals he uses, Geno is a fritter of commotion with all four limbs in action when performing solo.
Geno is easy going and approachable, and full of unfeigned modesty as he talks about the musicians he’s played with like Otiel Burbridge (bass, Allman Brothers band) and Jimmy Herring (guitar, Phil and Friends) who are working on his album scheduled to come out in the summer of 2007.
“When I sit down next to those guys, I’m like ‘OK, it’s learning time.’ They are amazing musicians who could play with anybody they want to,” Geno said.
The album has been a long time coming. Geno started working on it ten years ago, and a lot of the material is older stuff. Apparently things are going to well for him to be able to write songs.
“I’m in a writing funk because I’ve been in a happy relationship,” said Geno.
Tonight Geno is singing covers for the tourist crowd at the Beach Bar. He shows off his vast repertoire going from jams like “Fire on the Mountain” where he loops more than one vocal part and guitar riff, to more down beat tunes like Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice” and “Unknown Legend” by Neil Young. After the sun has gone down, few people are left on the patio to hear him, but he’s still having fun.
“It beats pumping gas,” he said.