Review: Tonic, Will Hoge bring Williams Park to life in downtown St. Petersburg
You might not know this, but there is a statue memorializing war veterans in Williams Park in downtown St. Petersburg. You may not know there's a fountain there, either. Heck, you may not have even noticed the giant green amphitheatre that sits across the street from historic First United Church St. Pete.
You may not know all of these things because, well, what reason have you ever had to visit Williams Park? Synonymous with St. Pete's ongoing struggles with the homeless, it's rarely been utilized for big, fun, family-friendly public events.
Enter Backline Music Group, which aims to bring Williams Park to life with a series of free pop and rock festivals throughout 2012. The first took place Saturday, with headliners Tonic, Will Hoge and Michael Tolcher (above).
Organizers had received more than 700 responses for VIP tickets, and were hoping for a crowd of 3,000. An unexpected rain shower on Saturday afternoon no doubt put a dent in those figures, but it didn't matter -- the vibe was fresh, fun and proof that Williams Park can absolutely be reinvented.
One lifelong St. Petersburg resident, a big music fan, told me Saturday that he'd never seen Williams Park look anything like this. The block was lined with food trucks, beer tents and a bar (as well as a stand for $2 grilled chese sandwiches), and the park was dotted with families and young music fans on lawn chairs and blankets. The place cleans up nice, as they say -- as with the Gasparilla Music Festival, once you see it in action, you can see how this might actually become a thing.
There was no musical agenda being pushed on Saturday -- Tonic and Hoge were easy, middle-of-the-road choices, which was a good way to bring in casual fans. Hoge's alt-countryish roots pop was a smooth soundtrack to Saturday's sunset. And Tolcher mixed in some funky acoustic covers of pop songs like Eminem's Lose Yourself, which included a great freestyle rap that referenced the day's weather and the World of Beer, which had tents around the park.
Because I was also covering Snow Patrol at Jannus Live, I had to skip Tonic's headlining set. But early in the afternoon, the '90s popsters performed a short acoustic set for VIPs at another unusual venue: Suite Six Bar and Lounge on Central Avenue. Interesting setup there, with fans on the ground and the band directly above a bar in an upstairs VIP lounge.
Emerson Hart, Jeff Russo and Dan Lavery played a handful of songs, including hits You Wanted More, Open Up Your Eyes and If You Could Only See. The vibe was loose and laid back, and was a fitting way to start the day, especially with the rain still falling outside.
All in all, Saturday's festival was an audacious idea, and credit must be given to Backline for seeing it through. These days, with so much going on each weekend in the 'Burg, you'd have to be totally inept not to be able to draw a good crowd downtown. (Which makes the barren purgatory that is Baywalk all the more baffling, but that's another story for another day).
If organizers have their way, artists like Lifehouse and Gavin DeGraw might headline future sets, which would draw bigger crowds and maybe even make Williams Park a place to see and be seen. For now, Saturday was all about proof of concept, showing simply that music fans could gather safely there, hang out on the cheap and have a good time.
It's a start.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*