Review / photos: Fun., Grouplove, Of Monsters and Men bring good festival vibes to 97X Next Big Thing in St. Petersburg
There was plenty of noise, yes, and more than a little moshing and crowdsurfing.
But the overwhelming theme of Saturday’s 97X Next Big Thing was positivity. The annual alt-rock extravaganza’s move from the plasticine 1-800-Ask-Gary Amphitheatre to St. Petersburg’s sunny, laid-back Vinoy Park was a return to the shindig’s festival roots, which proved to be a smart call, given all the good vibes and uplift emanating from the stage. It was perfect beach-blanket weather, and for most fans, it was the closest they’d been able to get to the Next Big Thing stage in years.
Even though things got a little louder after dark, as headliners Rise Against and Bush took the stage, many of the 15,000-plus who passed through Next Big Thing on Saturday left smiling and satisfied by winning sets from earnest, bright-eyed pups like Fun., Grouplove, Of Monsters and Men and Paper Tongues.
It was a momentous gig for Fun., the year’s breakout pop-rock band, who at last year’s Next Big Thing played at 11:30 a.m. on a secondary stage. Two smash singles later, the larger stage suits singer Nate Ruess, as it does the group’s multi-layered vocals and Broadway-ready bigness – there’s more turf for him to skip and stomp around like a wee but infectiously happy Lord Fauntleroy.
Fun.’s schtick is Instagramming classic rock tropes through a 21st century filter, with Ruess borrowing liberally from the playbooks of Queen, Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan and Kenny Loggins, then dialing the Glam-O-Meter up to 11. (Or, in some cases — like their cover of the Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want — just re-selling the product as-is.)
Smash single We Are Young has, perhaps, lost just a bit of its oomph since early 2012, especially as its follow-up, Some Nights, has become nearly as big a hit in its own right. On that last one, Ruess smartly dialed down the oddball over-Auto-Tuning of that last one, letting its marching-band drumbeat and those oh-so-big Whoa-oh-ohs carry the night. It was a triumphant end to a triumphant year, especially since Ruess said 97X was the first station in America to play We Are Young.
Earlier, shiny-happy California kids Grouplove kept the crowd’s mood lighter than helium with beachy, almost cultlike campfire songs. Dressed thrift-store chic (singer-guitarist Christian Zucconi wore some sort of Egyptian dashiki), the group’s airy harmonies and singer-keyboardist Hannah Hooper’s spinning and grinning presence got everyone in a great mood. The rumbling torch song Slow evolved from icy Bjorkish territory into a full-on rave; it was followed by the cheery hit Tongue Tied, which segued into Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody, just in case anyone wasn’t already dancing (spoiler alert: they were).
All the way from Iceland, the seven-piece mini-orchestra known as Of Monsters And Men brought their own gloriously joyous tidings. Like a warmer, fuzzier Arcade Fire, the folk troupe stirred huge crowd clap-alongs on King and Lionheart and Mountain Song, and the park erupted in cheers and chills when the initial horn sounded on breakout single Little Talks. Everyone sang along as the vocals dropped to a breathy whisper, swooning and thrusting their hands to the sky as if at a revival.
And early in the day, Charlotte, N.C.’s Paper Tongues — “Tampa Bay’s adopted sons,” as 97X DJ Drew Garabo called them — created their usual party vibe with a set of funky, groovy alt-rock. Frontman Aswan North must have been sweltering in his black leather jacket, but he didn’t show it, leaping into the crowd by second song Get Higher, wailing with his tightly bedenimed crotch in the faces of those in the front row. He is not shy about his love for 97X, and considering the station seems to invite his band to Tampa Bay a few times each year, the feeling is probably mutual.
But all good vibes aside, it wouldn’t be Next Big Thing without a little rawk ‘n’ roll.
Headliners Rise Against, another 97X festival regular, were the star attraction for any kids with a trace of hardcore in their DNA. The Chicago outfit’s razor’s-edge agit-punk revels in the angriest, angstiest elements of Bad Religion and Alkaline Trio, especially on the jittery Help Is On the Way and the epic one-two haymaker of Wait For Me and Prayer of the Refugee. Guitarist Zach Blair leaped and high-kicked like a rockette on the Springsteenian Audience of One.
But even Rise Against weren’t immune to the day’s positive vibes. When frontman Tim McIlrath stripped down to a single acoustic guitar for the hit ballad Swing Life Away, when he got to the lyric, “Let’s pack our bags and settle down where the palm trees grow,” he paused an extra beat, surveyed his waterfront surroundings, and added, “It sounds nice.”
Even at whatever-the-hell-age-he-is, Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale still oozes sweat, sex and swagger, and the females at Next Big Thing knew it (you should have seen them swarm the 97X interview tent when the grunge godhead popped inside). After an eight-year hiatus, the British band has come back hungry, with something to prove, and with at least four local shows in the past two years, they’ve chosen Tampa Bay as just the place to do it.
Yet Rossdale refuses to coast on his model’s looks and linebacker’s pythons. He seems to know how hard he has to work to stay relevant, and so he works just as hard on radio staples Everything Zen, Comedown and Greedy Fly as he does new (and surprisingly solid) singles Afterlife and The Sound of Winter. Bush plays it all with sultry, swingin’ verve, much more so than in 1996, when they were dissed as little more than a group of Nirvana-knockoff prettyboys. They’re the ultimate rarity in music — a band that has come back back stronger than they ever were in their prime.
There was no pop posturing when The Joy Formidable took the stage, as the powerhouse Welsh trio stirred a tidal wave of noise with their sludgy, gut-gnarling sonic assault. Ritzy Bryan, the band’s whirlwind of a frontwoman, is a magnet for the eyes, whizzing about the stage like she’s having the time of her life, her blonde bob whirling above a sensible working-woman’s frock. But as the band set speakers ablaze with cascading crashers like Whirring and new songs Cholla and This Ladder Is Ours, bassist Rhydian Dafydd and drummer Matt Thomas were not to be ignored. It’s as if all three members are trying to dominate the sonic conversation, and all of them are winning. This is a band that plays like Thor’s hammer smacks — literally, by the end, as Bryan kicked over speakers, smashed her guitar and screamed, “See you in 2013!”
L.A.’s Silversun Pickups were an outlier on the bill; much like the Joy Formidable, their grinding, pummelling, art-rock wouldn’t seem to work on rock radio. But Panic Switch and Lazy Eye ended up becoming commercial hits, and the group — playing without bassist Nikki Monninger, who’s two weeks from giving birth to twin girls — the group blasted the crowd with its raw, scratchy-as-sandpaper sound. With his wispy Billy Corgan moan, singer Bryan Aubert pulled the dreamy shoegaze jam Lazy Eye — which he dedicated to Of Monsters and Men bassist Kristján Páll Kristjánsson, who was celebrating a birthday on Saturday — to a squealy, squelchy finale.
Celtic punk icons Flogging Molly pits are notorious war zones, and security was heavily increased in front of the stage before their set. “Say hello to breakfast!” singer Dave King said as he hoisted a Guinness tallboy pre-set. King dedicated Friendship to Leonard Cohen, a man he said could still “kick my ass,” and incited the crowd to a furious jig on Float and Drunken Lullabies.
Ohio’s largely unknown Twenty One Pilots got the Fun. slot from last year – that of the band early on the bill who could be poised for a breakout 2013. It’s a goofy, harmless mix of piano power pop and white-boy frat-rap, like Asher Roth fronting the Fray. But singer Tyler Joseph won over the early risers with a lifely set, scaling 10 feet of scaffolding and executing a perfect leap back to the stage on Car Radio.
Finally, contest winners Wolf-Face scored a victory for local punk weirdness, delivering fun-loving punk in full Teen Wolf regalia, including bright yellow tighty-whiteys. If these guys are Next, the future looks like a whole lot of fun.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*. Photos: Luis Santana (Fun., Rise Against, Of Monsters and Men, Bush, Flogging Molly) and Jay Cridlin (Grouplove, Paper Tongues, The Joy Formidable, Twenty One Pilots, Wolf-Face). For a full gallery of 97X Next Big Thing photos, click here.