Review: At 97X Next Big Thing, rock mounts a comeback with Paramore, the Lumineers, more in Tampa

Walk the Mono performed at 97X Next Big Thing at Tampa's MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre on Dec. 3, 2017. Photo by Jay Cridlin
Walk the Mono performed at 97X Next Big Thing at Tampa's MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre on Dec. 3, 2017. Photo by Jay Cridlin

If you managed to sit through all 19 hours of this year's 97X Next Big Thing — two days, 20-plus bands, both the most in station history — you got a pretty great time capsule of the past half-decade of alternative pop.

Paramore's Ain't It Fun. The Lumineers' Ho Hey. Walk the Moon's Shut Up and Dance. Portugal. The Man's Feel It Still. X Ambassadors' Renegades.

It was a veritable Now That's What I Call What Now Passes For Alternative Music, a huge swath of the small sliver of the pop charts occupied by traditional rock bands. Getting them all to Tampa's MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre was a coup for 97X, a station which has adapted to the times by booking more and more synth-based acts for its annual year-end shindig.

But judging solely from this year's two-day affair, you'd think guitar rock was making a full-on comeback. Thanks to a deep and distinctly band-centric lineup, Next Big Thing 2017 felt like a live, loud throwback to traditional rock sounds and vibes, right down to some serious Tom Petty love.

How did we get here? Start with Sunday's headliners Paramore, who are riding simultaneous waves of emo-pop nostalgia and art-pop acclaim for their latest album After Laughter.

From working Blondie's Heart of Glass into opener Hard Times to channeling the softer side of Heart or on Forgiveness, the band — now seven strong in its current touring configuration — looked and sounded more grown and assured than ever. Even when she skip-danced and screamed through their spikier earlier stuff – Misery Business, Still Into You, Brick By Boring BrickHayley Williams looked and acted controlled and confident and cocksure.

"For the past decade, we've been growing up with you," she said, "and some of you even more than that."

Jack Antonoff, too, has grown up coming to Tampa Bay; he shouted out venues like the Orpheum, State Theatre and Jannus Live, which he'd played with Fun. and Steel Train. But as the frontman of Bleachers – not to mention the brains behind all the pop music of 2017 – Antonoff's ridiculously up-with-everything set and omnipresent mile-wide smile screamed vintage Springsteen, right down to a big man with a saxophone leaning into Antonoff's mic. Whether he was hoisting his guitar high into the air or begging the audience to meet him on his cloud-9 level, he radiated positivity and life as his personal E Streeters throttled along behind him.

Coming at the pop-rock crossover from the other end of the spectrum were Saturday's decidedly earthier headliners, Denver folk-rock revivalists the Lumineers. Playing their first local gig in four years, singer-guitarist Wesley Schultz and kickdrum-and-tambo maestro Jeremiah Fraites had fans dancing all the way back to the back fence. They were dynamic and adaptable, switching it up and playing songs as a duo, trio and full, expanded band; stomping and swinging through the emphatic Cleopatra and Sleep, and extracting amphitheater-sized warmth from more emotive fare like Slow It Down. The crowd stood and sang to it all, not just enormous hits Ho Hey and Ophelia, and were rewarded with a shower of confetti on the appropriately titled Big Parade.

Even dance-rockers Saint Motel and piano-emo vet Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness emphasized living, breathing audience interactivity. After whipping everyone up on Move, Saint Motel singer A/J Jackson raced off the stage and scampered up to the lawn for the incredibly joyous My Type. And when McMahon wasn't pounding out top-of-your-lungs screamers like Fire Escape, he was leaping off his ivories, surfing the crowd in an inflatable duckie raft and heading up to the lawn to dance and sing, waves of overjoyed fans trailing in his Pied Piper-like wake.

From exuberant '80s pasticheurs Walk the Moon to earnest, fluttery Aussie folkie Vance Joy, this cross-section of pop and traditional (and non-traditional) rock is where we find ourselves in 2017. And it's kind of a recent development. A year ago, it would have seemed impossible that stoner-prog weirdballs Portugal. The Man would find a home at Next Big Thing, much less mainstream pop radio. Then came the inescapable Feel It Still, which opened so many doors that here they were, blasting thunderlike basslines and interpolating Pink Floyd lyrics and tones in a shroud of relative darkness. Those who got it, got it; those who didn't nonetheless burst to their feet and whipped out their phones for the band's one three-minute pop song at the end.

"This has been the craziest f—ing year for us," said bassist Zach Carothers, "and Florida has been there since the very beginning."

Will Portugal. The Man fans still be there at Next Big Things to come? It's entirely possible. There is still undeniable, uncontainable rapture in an audience when Walk the Moon plays Shut Up And Dance or Anna Sun, or Paramore delivers a celebratory Ain't It Fun. A good pop song is a good pop song regardless of genre, and any festival would be lucky to book them live.

But rockers like Barns Courtney and Mondo Cozmo got their deserved moments in the sun, sweating through anthemic sets in the midday heat and stripping down for raw, rowdy acoustic sets later on. Just before the breakdown to his unplugged version of Shine, Mondo Cozmo said: "This is the Tom Petty part."

And there were more Petty tributes where that came from. During Bleachers' set, Antonoff worked a verse of American Girl into Fun.'s Carry On; while on Saturday, the Lumineers opened their encore with a cover of Walls.

From its heavy, punkish early days to its quirkier and more synthetic recent offerings, it's safe to say no Next Big Thing has seen quite that much Tom Petty love. But if guitar-based alt-rock truly is making a comeback, it seems like Next Big Thing will be there for it. Good thing it went to two days.

— Jay Cridlin