Pekinites Justin Robbins and Joshua Starkey discovered their mutual affinity for music early in life and under the tutelage of influential family members. Robbins, whose parents played several instruments between them while his four sisters sang and his brother wrote lyrics, picked up a guitar at the age of 6 but maintains that he did not begin playing it correctly until he was 10.
“I didn’t realize it, but I had tuned my mom’s guitar to what was essentially a banjo tuning,” said Robbins. “She had a performance at church one Sunday and, in front of the whole congregation, her guitar was tuned wrong. On my 10th birthday, she sat me down and said, ‘You’re going to learn to play this thing right or I’m going to break your fingers.’ She started teaching me chords, and my dad started teaching me songs. I just took it and ran with it.”
Starkey had been an aficionado of MTV music videos since the age of 5, watching them with his older brother Dusty Owens. When Owens began playing the guitar, Starkey’s effort to emulate him revealed an unfortunate lack of aptitude.
“I got a guitar, and I couldn’t play it at all,” Starkey said. “But I kept hitting cardboard boxes and Tupperware bowls that I’d take from my mom to act like I was playing the drums while Dusty was playing the guitar. When I was 12, my parents said ‘Okay, he’s continuing to do this, so we might as well get him a drum set.’ There’s a part of me that still loves the guitar, and I’m at the point now where I can play some chords, but I’m still not a proficient guitarist at all. But the drums came naturally, and I realized that’s where I’m supposed to be.”
Today, Robbins is a guitarist and lead vocalist, while Starkey has found his musical niche as a drummer and back-up vocalist. Together with vocalist Melanie Finley of Bartonville, they make up the Justin Robbins Band. Formed in 2012, the group originally performed under the name Shades of Blue before becoming the Justin Robbins Band in 2014. They are in the process of auditioning bass players.
“We focus primarily on blues rock, some rhythm and blues, and some funk,” said Robbins. “I wanted to do something different from what most musicians around here were playing.”
The band plays at a wide variety of venues, including night clubs, street festivals and private parties. Their largest engagement was a Fourth of July performance at Pekin Stadium for an audience of about 10,000 people. Upcoming engagements include weddings, a birthday party and a repeat performance for The Restless Breed motorcycle club.
“They’re just really nice people,” said Robbins. “With a biker club, you would think they would be crazy and rowdy, but that wasn’t the case at all. They’re just good, down-to-earth people who work hard and have a genuine love of music. We’ve played for them twice: once in December and once in February.”
The Justin Robbins Band performs original songs and covers songs by other bands. Signature original songs include “Burnin’ Bridges,” the title track from the first of their two albums.
“Choosing a favorite original song is tough,” said Robbins. “‘Step Out of the Boat,’ from our newest album called ‘Heartbroke,’ stands out. It was written for a friend of mine who struggles with some health issues, and she’s afraid to try new things and afraid to go to new places. She’s very single and very alone. The message for her was that sometimes you have to be brave and do things you want to do. ‘Queen of Sara Lane,’ is a song about the same friend and about her knowing who she is as a person and my appreciation of her friendship.”
Favorite groups whose songs the Justin Robbins Band cover include Journey and Huey Lewis and the News.
“I really love playing ‘Heart of Rock and Roll,’” said Starkey. “I don’t even know why. It’s just fun to play. I like playing songs that are up-tempo and get people dancing. They’re also energizing for me as a drummer. Sometimes, though, it’s nice to slow it down and do a song that’s kind of laid-back like ‘I Fooled Around and Fell in Love,’ by Elvin Bishop. They give me a chance to sort of catch my breath and recharge.”
Robbins has been working as a musician since the late 1980s and believes the central Illinois music scene has changed during that time. It is more of a challenge today to make a living as a musician in central Illinois than it was 30 years ago.
“When I first started playing out, central Illinois had a thriving music scene,” said Robbins. “I could play four or five nights a week if I wanted to. Now, we really need to work harder. We need to be diverse, and we need to be able to do different things. I play in three different projects. I do acoustic shows by myself, I play with this band, and I travel on the road with the rock band Phat Kitty. I also play the guitar for services at my church, Broom Tree Ministries in South Pekin.”
One of the more challenging aspects of being a musician, Robbins added, can be negotiating fees with night club owners.
“The owners need to sell drinks and make money,” he said. “If they’re going to book live music, they want the evening to be lucrative for them.”
Key elements to a rewarding and sustainable career as a local musician, according to Robbins, include cohesion with one’s bandmates and the ability to have fun both onstage and backstage. The Justin Robbins Band is not deficient in either quality.
“You have to have fun or it’s not worth doing,” he said. “It’s too much work for the money if you’re not having a good time. Getting along with your bandmates is important, too. We get along famously, like to play together, and have our inside jokes.”