Review: Gasparilla Music Festival sends Curtis Hixon Park into a Ra Ra Riot
Too bad Saturday’s sunset over the University of Tampa was gold and blue. If only it had been bright orange, it would have perfectly matched the logo for the inaugural Gasparilla Music Festival.
That might be the only thing festival organizers might have changed about Saturday’s daylong concert in Tampa, which by almost any standard – the crowd, the music, the weather, setting, the overall good community vibe – has to be called a success.
Organizers were hoping to sell about 3,000 tickets, and were on the verge of passing that figure by mid-afternoon, even with another music festival (Wild Splash) going on across the bay in Clearwater. When the dust settles this week and the coins are counted, the festival should at least break even. And for a first-year event, with a lineup largely devoid of household names, that has to count as a win.
Headlining duties fell to strings-and-synths-driven New York indie rock group Ra Ra Riot – an odd choice for an event with such an emphasis on funk and soul, but one that proved fortuitous, as it probably helped draw in a younger crowd.
Looking bookish and shaggy, the group was clearly excited for what singer Wes Miles called “the longest set we’ve ever played.” Ra Ra Riot played three of its most recognizable singles – Too Too Too Fast, Shadowcasting and Too Dramatic – within the first half-dozen songs, setting fans dancing in the spacious park. Many of their songs follow a similar formula – driving synths, bouncy strings and Miles’ high tenor – but when they kicked it into high gear on songs like Oh La, Run My Mouth and Boy, it was tough not to feel the energy, even as the weary crowd began to thin out near the end. During closer Dying Is Fine, Miles hopped into the pit to slap fives with the fans who remained.
Preceding Ra Ra Riot on the mainstage was soul singer Lee Fields and the Expressions, whose heart-palipitatin’ retro R&B harkened back to the days of Al Green and James Brown, especially on show-stoppers Faithful Man and Ladies. Alvin “Youngblood” Hart delivered a rip-roaring set of foot-stomping garage blues, while the group Deer Tick infused their drunken alt-country yowling with a shot or two of serious grunge (i.e., a rousing cover of Nirvana’s In Bloom).
On the Amscot Stage at Kiley Gardens Park, next to the Beer Can Building, disco-funk trio Tortured Soul offered one of the most energetic sets of the day, a soulful blend of keys, bass and drums that called to mind everyone from Jamiroquai to Daft Punk to Stevie Wonder. Grammy-winning New Orleans group the Rebirth Brass Band and Miami funk fusion group the Spam Allstars also got lots of booties moving.
Local artists like Geri X, Rebekah Pulley and Have Gun, Will Travel did well, too. Many of the locals were relegated to the Kiley Gardens Amphitheater, normally a sorely underutilized public venue, but one that suited the needs of the Gasparilla Music Festival to perfection. It was the scene of one of the day’s coolest moments: A standing ovation for a cover of the Chi-Lites’ Are You My Woman (Tell Me So) by the GMF’s “house band,” the Distinguished Men of Brass, a 10-member drum ‘n’ brass line that spent parts of the day marching a N’awlins second line throughout Curtis Hixon Park.
Scanning the festival grounds, it was impossible to resist wondering where else next year’s fest could put additional stages. Lykes Gaslight Park? The Tampa Theater? The Hub? Across the Hillsborough River at the University of Tampa?
But this year, it was for the best that the festival stuck to Curtis Hixon Park. It’s a phenomenal setting, both aesthetically (Ra Ra Riot’s Miles couldn’t stop admiring the glowing, shimmering museum facade) and logistically (the stages weren’t far apart, but there was enough of a barrier between them that three bands could play simultaneously without disrupting one another). In the past decade, untold millions have been spent on this park and the buildings that surround it, and those chic urban environs made the event feel hip and upscale. Yet the prices ($20 a head at the gate, $5 for a 12-ounce beer) weren’t outrageous in the least – certainly not compared to other festivals – and plenty of families were there picnicking on the lawn, just like any other weekend.
Organizers wisely set up a few posters reminding fans of the park’s musical history – as the onetime site of Curtis Hixon Hall, artists like Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin and the Grateful Dead had once played these grounds.
We’re a long way from something like that happening again in Tampa. But if Saturday was any indication, maybe we’re not as far as we think.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*. Photo: Carolina Hidalgo, tbt*