Review / photos: Gasparilla Music Festival brings Best Coast, Dawes, Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears to Curtis Hixon Park in Tampa
Best Coast singer Bethany Cosentino said it best: “I thought this was a pirate festival.”
At one time, that may have been true. But over the years, the name “Gasparilla” has evolved into a catch-all brand for anything and everything having to do with Tampa culture. And in just its second year, the Gasparilla Music Festival has made a strong bid to be a part of that culture for many years to come.
The festival brought a diverse lineup of about 30 local and national bands to Curtis Hixon Park on Saturday – including Best Coast, Dawes, Dr. Dog and members of The Meters with Phish keyboardist Page McConnell – and for the second year in a row, it was hard to find a single thing to complain about.
The festival strikes a balance that’s hard to attain – it’s packed but not crowded, clean but not corporate, urbane but not exclusive, affordable yet it doesn’t feel cheap. The sold-out VIP sections offered stunningly close views of each stage, but even fans with general admission tickets had clear sight lines throughout.
Several beloved Tampa institutions had a presence at the festival, from restaurants like The Refinery and Tun-Du-Ree to breweries Cigar City and Saint Somewhere. And all throughout, there were little pockets of light weirdness – beach balls, hula hoops, break dancers – that yielded a commingling of cultures that might otherwise not come together in Tampa. Moms with strollers passed by yuppies in couture who passed by hazy jam-band fans, and no one group seemed to mind the others.
You could argue that the organizers could have used a bigger headliner – and that’s taking nothing away from the Meter Men and McConnell, who closed out the night with funky jam after funky jam. But truth be told, fans probably wouldn’t have traded Saturday’s experience for a bigger name at the top of the poster. In emphasizing quality over name recognition, festival organizers stumbled into some unlikely thematic overlaps.
Like The Meter Men, Ozomatli brought a bit of genre diversity to the bill, playing a kid-friendly set in the morning and an elastic set of Latin-tinged, horn-infused hip-hop at night. Ulises Bella seamlessly shifted from blazing sax solos to filthy funk guitar licks on a dime, while singer Asdru Sierra led the crowd on a delightful call-and-response with his trumpet.
Another act with a powerful horn section: Texans Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears, who played one of the most explosive sets of the day. The laconic Lewis roared to life behind his guitar, singing like James Brown but playing like Jimmy Page on a performance of She’s So Seductive that would crush at any top-notch blues festival.
Philadelphia’s Dr. Dog also combined ’70s rock and soulful, skunky funk, and added a little psychedelia to the mix for good measure. Heavy Light evolved from a trippy rock number to a danceable party jam, and the crowd dug the sneaky-slinky groove of Heart It Races.
The ‘70s vibe continued with AM Gold acolytes Dawes, who previewed several songs from forthcoming third album Stories Don’t End. Piano-driven first single From a Window Seat steered the band’s signature Laurel Canyon sound into Steely Dan territory, while the warm and enveloping Most People could pass for a vintage country-rock classic. It’d be tempting to hear how a modern country cover – say, by someone like Blake Shelton – would fly in Nashville.
Much like Dawes, buzzy California indie rockers Best Coast were heavily influenced by Fleetwood Mac, and during one of the most eagerly anticipated sets of the day, they did not disappoint. Singer Cosentino was a slightly loopy presence onstage, chuckling to herself and singing snippets of the Frasier theme song, but the band’s punky Let’s Go Home and blissful girl-group haze of When I’m With You were a perfect pre-sunset soundtrack.
Best Coast also contributed to one of the kookier moments of the day. As they began to play Our Deal, Cosentino noticed a fan in the VIP pit with a giant seashell horn and invited him to play along. So he did, to the delight of the band. “We’re gonna take you on tour in our shell section,” Cosentino said.
There were a few hiccups during the day. Throwback folk group The Felice Brothers were introduced as the “FEE-liss” Brothers from Florida, when in fact they’re the “Fuh-LEESE” Brothers from New York. (Singer and accordion player James Felice laughed it right off.)
And twice during an otherwise mesmerizing acoustic set by Tampa’s Sleepy Vikings, the power in the Amphitheater stage went out. After a quick start-and-stop, the band just finished the song sans amplification.
But on the whole, the artists seemed to enjoy themselves. At least two dedicated songs to local institutions: Dr. Dog sent a shout-out to “Ella’s Chicken and Waffles” on Jackie Wants a Black Eye (actually, it’s Ella’s Americana Folk Art Café, but close enough); and Cosentino dedicated The Only Place to Best Coast’s appearance on the cover of the Tampa Bay Times’ Weekend section.
For music fans at Tampa’s second straight successful Gasparilla Music Festival, the song was a fitting choice. Because on a day like Saturday, you have to agree with The Only Place’s chorus: Why would you live anywhere else?
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*. Contributing: Stephanie Bolling, tbt*