Many of the folksy, roots-rock tunes rendered by Brigantine Unplugged would be well suited to unamplified instruments, but that has little to do with why founder Bob Kerns named the band what he did.
“I just feel like Brigantine is a blessed place to be — it enriches you, it makes you feel good being surrounded by nature, by the bay, the ocean, the beach,” said Kerns, 67, who is originally from northern New Jersey, summered in Brigantine as a child, and has lived here full time since 1994. “The reason my band's called Brigantine Unplugged is because, as soon as you drive over that bridge, you're unplugged from all the stress.
“And that's what inspires good music.”
Kerns was part of five-man ensemble Friday, Feb. 7, at the Cove Restaurant and Bar. The band also plays at several other venues on the island, sometimes in smaller combinations.
“I always say to the crowd, 'It all starts at the dinner table,' and then we launch into 'Teach Your Children' by Crosby, Stills and Nash,” said Kerns, who, as a Brigantine Beach Cultural Arts Commission board member, regularly plays guitar and sings solo as a complement to BBCAC special events. “That's how we get shows going. Then Luke (Corbit) will do a couple of his tunes, (Joey) Klank will suggest a number or two, Jeffrey (Korsak) might say 'Let's do the Gershwin tune.'
“There's no set lists,” he added. “We just play it the way we hear it, and from the heart. And almost all our gigs are here – we try not to leave the island.”
The George Gershwin tune the band performed Friday was “Summertime,” composed in 1934 for the opera “Porgy and Bess.”
“Where else are you going to hear that live?” Kerns said.
Guitarists Kerns and Corbit, bassist Klank, and sax player and former Mummers strutter Korsak are sometimes spontaneously joined in jams by a multi-instrumentalist whom Kerns only knows as Kip.
“Kip's a retired college professor of music, and he just walked into the Cove one day with his flute case and said, 'What do you think'?” Kerns said. “I said 'Break it out.' The next time he came with his tenor sax and after that his baritone sax. He's welcome any time.”
Kerns is a painting contractor by trade, and mentioned that the Cove and its owner deserve credit for the early incarnations of Brigantine Unplugged.
“The actual birth of Brigantine Unplugged came out of a storm,” Kerns said. “I was doing a painting job in Atlantic City and it started coming down really hard. I thought I'd better get back to Brigantine. I had just made it over the bridge and the streets were getting flooded.”
Kerns stopped at the Cove for a bite to eat and to wait for the weather to settle down, and was one of only four people in the place.
“We started talking about music, and one of them says 'I've got a guitar here' and he went in the back to get it,” Kerns said. “He comes out with this beautiful Taylor T5 — a guitar worth multiple thousands of dollars. He hands it to me and says 'Here, try this.'”
Kerns, who took up the instrument at age 14, and was classically trained by Grammy-winning jazz guitar luminary Harry Leahey, apparently made quite an impression.
“The guy says to me, 'Well, obviously you can play, are you interested in gigging here?' I said sure, who do I need to talk to? He says you need to talk to me, I own the place.
“So (Cove owner) Jack Scheurich was really the catalyst for putting this band together. It all grew out of Jack and a storm. He sort of gave birth to Brigantine Unplugged. I started playing alone two nights a week there, and gradually added people to the mix.
“It's really crazy how some things happen on this planet.”
Kerns comes from a musical family. His father was a classically trained pianist, and his mother was a big-band singer with Alex Bartha and the Hotel Traymore Orchestra in 1940s Atlantic City. He probably owes partial thanks to his sister's lack of inclination toward playing music, however, for the success he achieved so far.
“My father bought my sister a guitar and she never touched it, so I pulled it out from under the bed one day and started playing 'Louie Louie,'” said Kerns, referring to the 1964 R&B hit by the Kingsmen. “Then I just kind of tinkered with it for a while, and then got some lessons.
“My father told me, after I started playing my sister's guitar, that he'd buy me a nice guitar if I'd learn how to play classical music,” Kerns said. “So that's what I did, and that's when I entered into a whole different phase. I studied under Harry Leahey (in New Brunswick), and this guy was an absolute monster talent. He was as good as they get.”
Kerns used to own a music shop on the island called Brigatunes, and tells the story of being snowed into the shop one night, and writing a tune called “Our Little Island” about Brigantine while he was snowbound. He also used to home teach guitar to children on Saturdays, helping give rise to a lot of local musical talent.
“I feel like I was put here in Brigantine for a reason, and teaching the kids was part of that,” Kerns said. “One of my favorite gigs to this day is playing in front of the (Richmond's) ice cream shop in the summertime, because everyone's here on vacation, they're bringing their kids, their dogs, they're having a good time ...
“There's a lot of positive energy on our island, and I love being part of it.”