Sky Harbor is well known for its sizzling steaks and cozy atmosphere, but of equal note are its nights of live entertainment. The West Peoria establishment regularly plays host to an assortment of local musicians, most notably jazz legend Jimmy Binkley, who mans the piano bar on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

If you’ve ever visited Sky Harbor, you’ve likely witnessed owner Daryl Klusendorf meandering about, with a banjo around his neck and a smile on his face. His warm, colorful personality helps make this family-owned restaurant one of a kind.

Under the Covers
And that’s where you’ll find Pickin’ On, the last Thursday of each month. The live music series evolved out of a monthly bluegrass jam with local musician Robin Crowe, who used to work there. “After Robin moved on, I wanted to continue a monthly music feature that wasn’t an open stage or karaoke,” said Klusendorf, “so I came up with the Pickin’ On series.”

The format is simple: Klusendorf invites a guest musician or two, and together, they spend a few hours “pickin’ on” the tunes of a chosen artist. “Among others, we have covered Willie Nelson, Ricky Nelson, Buddy Holly, Jimmy Buffett, Bonnie Raitt, Merle Haggard and Dan Fogelberg,” he explains. The set runs from 7 to 9pm, after which anyone is welcome to come up and jam.

Since the first session debuted in 2010, Pickin’ On has offered central Illinois a unique opportunity to rediscover songs from deep within the artists’ archives. “Everybody in my circle knows [Jimmy Buffett’s] ‘A Pirate Looks at Forty,’” says Klusendorf, “but we kind of forgot about ‘Life is Just a Tire Swing,’ which he wrote after an early-‘70s concert here at the Fieldhouse. I encourage my co-hosts to share some of the back story, in addition to playing the tunes.”

From Pawn Shop to Park Road
Klusendorf’s own back story has long been intertwined with live music. After a handful of guitar lessons in junior high, he shifted focus to sports for awhile, but returned to the guitar while a student at Southwest Missouri State in the mid-‘70s. One day, he happened into a pawn shop, where a four-string banjo caught his eye. “I bought it for a hundred bucks. It sat in the case for about 14 years,” he notes wryly.

After joining the family business at Sky Harbor, Klusendorf took to playing acoustic guitar sets on off-nights. “I eventually invited fellow musicians Darren Peacock, Dan Newby and Tom Nelson to join me, and in 1988, we became the Flying D’rito Brothers. I incorporated a couple of banjo tunes at that time.”

Since the steakhouse moved to its current digs on North Park Road in 1996, “D Klu” still takes the banjo out of its case for birthdays, anniversaries and the like. “Occasionally, someone asks for ‘Deliverance,’ which I, of course, oblige,” he laughs. “I’ve never gotten really proficient…but if I pick quickly enough, most folks can’t tell.”

A Full House
Not only is the monthly session a good time for Sky Harbor patrons, it’s great fun for Klusendorf as well. When asked for his favorite Pickin’ On artist thus far, he borrows a well-known line. “My favorite is the one I’m pickin’ on now,” he says. “Hooking up again with Darren Peacock and Tom Abbot to pick on Bob Dylan was very special, though.” On January 26th, the three D’ritos will come together again for a set of classic numbers from country legend George Jones, in the first Pickin’ On session of 2012.

If he could pick on just one musician, who would it be? “Willie Nelson,” he answers. “He’s the bridge from jazz to blues, folk to Western swing, old to new country, and young to old.”

In the end, for Klusendorf, it’s all about the customers who walk through his doors. “Everything we do is enhanced by the people,” he says. “Put Paul McCartney in a half-empty room, and it would still be a great show…but add the crowd, and the energy just multiplies.” a&s