Review: The Hold Steady rock the Ritz in Ybor City, but Guavaween is no killer party
On Saturday, The Hold Steady guitarist Tad Kubler Instagrammed a photo of drummer Bobby Drake with his bottom lip puffy and discolored. “The last time we were in Ybor City … Bob’s lip needed medical attention,” he wrote, adding that it had something to do with “complications from getting punched in the face the previous evening.”
The band’s connection to Ybor City – singer-barroom bard Craig Finn’s lyrical home, if not his spiritual – is so deeply rooted that a fistfight ending in a trip to a clinic seems about par for the course. The Hold Steady have played some legendary gigs in Ybor City over the years, from the crowd cramming onstage at Czar to Finn drinking with fans at the Orpheum to a sold-out free show at the Ritz. Saturday’s gig headlining the Ritz Ybor on Guavaween night -- part of a new music festival bringing some 30 bands to six venues around Ybor City -- had the potential to be the wildest of them all.
Objectively, though … it’s hard to call it anything but a flop.
Oh, sure, Finn and company gave it their all, as they typically do, and a passionate few at the edge of the stage cheered and screamed along to beloved cuts like Stuck Between Stations and Southtown Girls. One shaggy bro even walked around the venue passing out free high fives.
But when the band took the stage at around 11 p.m., there were probably fewer than 200 people inside the Ritz’s main ballroom. That was the story across Guavaween's inaugural music festival: The early crowds were light, and the later revelers seemingly had little interest in indie rock.
“Isn’t this Ybor City? Where are the pirates?” said Sagit Shir of indie pop duo Hank and Cupcakes, who played to a crowd of about 40 at Czar.
Actually, the pirates were there. They were just at Prana and the Amphitheatre, not Crowbar and the Orpheum. They came in pink limos dressed as slutty butterflies, and they probably do not know all the lyrics to Sequestered in Memphis.
“It’s always good to be back in Ybor City,” the beaming Finn said at the outset, and he and the guys played like it all night, even the view from the stage must have been disorienting. They nursed canned Budweisers through 2010’s The Weekenders, a beautiful song that’s just begging for handclaps; and the drunken, delirious one-two punch of Constructive Summer and Hot Soft Life.
The Hold Steady played three of their songs that mention Ybor City – Cattle and the Creeping Things, Slapped Actress and Most People are DJs (what, no Killer Parties?) – and each time, Finn’s bespectacled acolytes roared out the name of the city where they stood.
That’s normally the sort of love Finn and Ybor City have for one another. But Guavaween changes everything. The good-natured indie-rock vibes that buoyed the Gasparilla Music Festival and Antiwarpt didn’t quite translate to Seventh Avenue, especially not on one of Ybor’s biggest party nights of the year.
It wasn’t the music’s fault. There was plenty worth dancing to all night: The ghostly, David Lynchian soundscapes of Tampa’s Florida Night Heat; the kinetic frenzy of Hank and Cupcakes, a group with the energy of Matt and Kim or the Ting Tings; the cool boho blues of St. Pete native Kendra Morris.
No band did more to embrace the Guavaween setting than Vermont-bred, Brooklyn-based pop group Rubblebucket. Playing at Czar, the group donned face paint and costumes to dish out their brand of Becklike boogie. They performed with glee, inspiring dancing throughout the house, and took their horns for a pair of ecstatic second-line jaunts throughout the crowd. At one point, trumpeter Alex Toth hopped on another man’s shoulders for a lap around the dance floor. If Guavaween sticks with a music festival in 2013, they should bring in more bands with a similarly whimsical bent.
As for the Hold Steady: With such a light turnout, where does this leave Finn and Ybor City? Is the shine off the apple? Is Finn going to start singing about, say, Tarpon Springs? At the very least, will the Hold Steady consider playing – gasp! – a venue outside Ybor City the next time they come through Tampa Bay?
It’s possible, although Finn still seems smitten with Ybor. During their 21-song set, The Hold Steady played a pair of new cuts, Records and Tapes and Wait A While, and then pulled out something extra-special. “First time in Ybor City in a while. Thought we’d make a memory here,” Finn said before the band played a new, untitled song for the first time. (On the setlist, it was called “Rainbow.”)
Finn ended the show on his knees, sharing his mic with the fervent fans in the front row, grinning and growling a message that everyone involved in Guavaween 2013 would do well to take heart:
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*