When university faculty stand before a crowd, you’d generally expect a lecture to follow.
On this Saturday evening at the open-air Riptide Brewery in Bonita Springs, three Florida Gulf Coast University faculty members are on stage and the program instead consists of a spectrum of classics ranging from the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” all the way to “Straight Up” by Paula Abdul. The eclectic mix has the crowd engaged, on their feet and singing along to every word.
This is the Immokalee Road Band, built by three FGCU faculty members on a shared love of music. The group has been attracting fans of all ages for almost a decade. This evening’s show is no different, covering a variety of songs sure to appeal to almost anyone’s musical tastes.
The jam sessions began after faculty meetings of the Communications and Philosophy Department at FGCU. “My favorite part of our meetings was always afterward, when Mike and I would talk about music,” said Miles Mancini, an integrated studies instructor who recalled those early conversations fondly.
SEE THE BAND» Find the full schedule on the group’s Facebook Page
» Eagle Radio Music Festival: 6:30-10 p.m. March 31 on the Great Lawn
» Riptide Brewery: April 16, May 20 and June 17
Instructor Michael (Mike) Kennedy has been in the classroom teaching public relations, marketing and civic engagement for more than a decade. Mancini and Kennedy became fast friends through “our shared love of British rock – The Beatles, The Rolling Stones – we could talk for hours,” Kennedy said.
Those hours turned into discussing the possibility of playing music together. Add Eric Otto, an integrated studies professor and director of general education, to the mix. Otto has been a part of FGCU since starting out as a student in the inaugural class in 1997, just like Mancini.
In similar style, the two left the university to earn graduate degrees, soon navigating back to the campus they both call home. Not only was Mancini on the hiring panel for Otto’s return to FGCU, the two have been co-teaching courses and found their way to the newly formed Integrated Studies Department in 2016.
The potential of performing a show in those early days got them all thinking, so Mancini sent out the call to his colleagues. “We said ‘let’s get together and see what happens.’” So, they started to jam. Three rehearsals later, they “set sail to England,” as Mancini described it.
“Our first gig back in 2014 was a Beatles tribute at a benefit concert for the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Port Charlotte where Miles is the music director,” Kennedy said. “It was British night, which included a ‘cruise’ to the United Kingdom theme, and our set for the night covered the band’s music chronologically from 1963 to 1969.”
That synergistic evening of performing together set the band on a course to becoming a local favorite with a loyal following. The band name sprang from their common connection of living near Immokalee Road in Naples, and it stuck. They describe the music they play as varied, including rock, pop, blues, funk, reggae and country, with the set lists built from covers of songs from the late ’50s to present day.
“We can now say that we play music spanning an entire century after our private event gig recently celebrating a 99-year-old brought requests from the 1920s and ‘30s,” Kennedy said. “We learned ‘Mac the Knife’ and ‘Begin the Beguine’ – it was really neat to see the birthday girl and friends enjoying the tunes from their time.”
The group is dynamic, always mixing it up and creating new set lists to integrate music for all audiences. Mancini, from a family of exceptional musicians, develops the sets for each show and covers the keyboard and vocals. Otto brings the jazz flavor and jams on the guitar and Mancini’s longtime friend, Steven Donaldson, joined the band this year and plays the drums. “Miles has a real knack for arranging the sets,” Kennedy said, whose specialties include the bass, harmonica, guitar and vocals. “There’s a true art and science to it – the way one song blends into another.”
Their connections grew over the years and have enriched them not only as friends and bandmates, but also in the classroom. Storytellers by nature, each one intertwines narrative through their lessons, sharing their musical side with their classes, which tends to create surprises.
“I start all of my classes each semester with a PowerPoint, sharing about my life: my wife, my adult children, grandchildren, fur children,” Kennedy said. “Then I share a favorite photo of me and the guys at one of our shows. It usually catches them a little off guard.”
Mancini knows that introduction well as they all often encounter some of the same students in separate semesters. “When I go through my intro and share a bit about my background, if I don’t mention the band the students will say, ‘Hey, why didn’t you tell us about the band? Professor Mike did!’ So, there’s a little pressure there.”
Connecting with their fans is something they all cherish. Otto shares that the band’s performances enhance partnerships and relationships with colleagues at FGCU. “The comradery on any given night is amazing – we see faculty, staff and students at our shows and that colleagueship extends beyond the classroom, beyond campus,” Otto said. “There’s a lightheartedness, a different dimension in that environment.”
As a communication major with a concentration in public relations, Abby Kertz-Lender knows the depth of connectivity that IRB brings to the classroom and appreciates all aspects of the enrichment in education. “I just love him — we all do,” Kertz-Lender said of Kennedy.
Kertz-Lender sang a solo performance of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” alongside Kennedy strumming the guitar at Riptide. Singing in the choir in high school and taking guitar lessons, she shared that with her professors when she learned about the band. “I was talking to Professor Kennedy one day and mentioned that I sing, and he asked if I would like to sing with his band, and I told him ‘Absolutely.’
“They are all amazing professors. They give us every possible resource to succeed. They really and truly care about each one of us,” she said. “It is also wonderful to see students that I don’t know, and past students that come to support our professors. It really shows how much of an impact they made in our education and throughout our college experience.”
The engaging and inclusive nature of bringing students, faculty, friends and fans together is at the heart of what they love, weaving together common threads through music.