Review: Big Guava Music Festival ends with Foster the People, Chance the Rapper, Violent Femmes and more at the Florida State Fairgrounds
Oh: So THIS is what the Big Guava Music Festival was supposed to be like.
After two days of rain and mud and mercury in the low 60s, Tampa's experimental new fest struck gold with perfect weather, and the effect couldn't have been clearer. With thousands of fans in day-glow shades, sundresses, tank tops and body paint, this was the event Live Nation had in mind when Big Guava was announced in January.
Will Big Guava be back in 2015? That's the million-dollar question. The crowds likely weren't as large as organizers had hoped on Friday and Saturday; Live Nation will no doubt blame that on the rain -- and they’d have every right. But if Sunday was all you saw, you got a real, honest-to-goodness peek at a genuine big-boy rock festival, right here in the 813.
If Sunday had a downside, it was that festival closers Foster the People were generally viewed as the weakest of Big Guava's three headliners -- and that was before their over-the-top new album Supermodel fizzled on arrival in March.
They're kind of odd ducks, Mark Foster and company. Foster's a former jingle writer who found international stardom by writing the catchiest song about school shootings since Pearl Jam's Jeremy. Pumped Up Kicks was the biggest hit from 2011's Torches, an irresistibly slick album with deep roots in disco and '80s pop, but it's not necessarily the best point of entry to Foster's kitchen-sink style of pop production.
Playing amid an array of glowing crystals and wavy LED boards suited the band and made the stage come alive. Call It What You Want exploded into a glittery golden disco ball of light; the trippy Pseudologia Fantastica swirled like a psychedelic kaleidoscope; and Miss You was a seizure-inducing shower of white strobes.
In an effort to recreate most of Foster the People's intricate songs as faithfully as possible, Foster, Cubbie Fink and Mark Pontius jumped back and forth between every instrument -- synths, guitars, pianos, you name it -- as a trio of backing musicians did the same. For the most part, it worked – Supermodel’s best songs, Coming of Age and Ask Yourself, fit right in alongside the best of Torches – though reimagining the discotastic Houdini as a toe-tapping, Mumfordy number was a curious choice. (It must be said, though, that Foster's actually a decent folk fingerpicker; if nothing else, this suggests Foster the People Unplugged might not be the terrible idea it sounds like on paper.)
As a frontman, Foster's hit-and-miss: When he moves, he's got panache, a little swivel in his hips; when he doesn't, he just stands there like a mannequin (or in the case of Goats In Trees, a mannequin with his hands in his pockets). But his studio-rat chops are undeniable; the guy's got a hell of a future as a producer if this whole festival-headlining rock star business doesn't work out.
Foster the People were Sunday's only act to take the stage after the sun went down. During the day, “the sweetest weather ever,” as sultry singer-songwriter ZZ Ward put it, had an obvious uplifting effect on the artists. Or maybe it just just seemed that way, given the across-the-board positivity displayed on every stage.
Though their sets overlapped, indie rock groups (and past tourmates) Grouplove and Walk the Moon were in full-on festival mode. Walk the Moon wore their trademark tribal face paint, bouncing and spinning while leading the crowd through a frenetic sing-along on Tightrope. Bonus points for scrawling their setlists on the backs of paper plates.
On the main stage, Grouplove’s gear was splattered with flowery graffiti, lending their performance a fitting hippie vibe. They followed buoyantly twee hit Tongue Tied with a folk-rock cover of Beyonce’s Drunk In Love; then singer-guitarist Christian Zucconi crowd-surfed during Bitin' the Bullet. (Grouplove also contributed to the day's two best fashion ensembles: Singer-keyboardist Hannah Hooper’s peacock-feathered bodysuit; and one topless female fan whose chest was covered entirely in Grouplove-themed body paint.)
In perhaps the weekend's best marriage of music and weather, South Africa-by-way-of-New York electro-pop outfit St. Lucia elevated everyone's spirits with a magically infectious combination of synthesizers and sunny harmonies. Wearing a retro tropical shirt, singer Jean-Philip Grobler whooped, spun and sweated his way through shimmering earworms like Closer Than This and We Got It Wrong. On Elevate, not only were the fans bouncing and clapping, so, just offstage, were members of several other Grove Stage bands -- Walk the Moon, Magic Man and MS MR, all looking like they were having the time of their lives.
The good vibes even extended indoors, to the Fairgrounds' Expo Hall. Mash-up party king Girl Talk is one of the best festival DJs in the game; each of his shows features a club's worth of onstage dancers, blizzards of confetti, toilet paper streamers and balloons. And mixing together tracks as disparate as Weezer's Say It Ain't So with Ice Cube's Today Was A Good Day made fans of all genres feel included.
And then there was Chance the Rapper, who, along with Haim on Saturday was one of the most buzzed-about young artists at Big Guava -- and yet his incandescent set still exceeded every expectation.
"Rapper" barely scratches the surface of Chance's talents – backed by a four-piece band, including a trumpeter, he also sang, swaggered and stutter-stepped across the stage like James Brown. Songs from his acclaimed mixtape Acid Rap, such as Brain Cells, filled Expo Hall with smoky Stax soul and wah-wah guitars. By the time he closed with Chain Smoker, Chance was shirtless, spraying the crowd with water and leaping into the photo pit to slap hands with fans. Did we mention he only just turned 21? Watch out, world.
If any act stood out like a sore thumb on Sunday's lineup, it was the Violent Femmes, a folk-punk act more than 30 years removed from their seminal self-titled debut album. Perhaps for the benefit of fans who weren't alive in 1983, they played the album in its entirety, which meant they opened with their two signature hits: Blister in the Sun and Kiss Off. It was a rare Florida set by the cult Milwaukee band, but even the youngsters knew every word to those two.
The Violent Femmes were a nice blast from the past for a festival that was, for the most part, all about the future. Several of Big Guava’s younger acts (Haim, Earl Sweatshirt, Terraplane Sun, Smallpools) were playing their maiden shows in Tampa Bay – this was, quite literally, something we’d never seen before.
It could be a while before we hear anything about Big Guava 2015. Weather aside, the festival’s MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre crowds seemed to diminish each day (and considering Friday’s announced attendance was only 10,000 in the first place … uh oh). But Live Nation seems committed to Big Guava as a key part of its overall strategy in West Central Florida – one big music festival in the spring, plus the smaller Coastline Festival in the fall and the Sunshine Music and Blues Festival each January – and they certainly have deep pockets.
Tampa may never experience anything quite like this again, so if you went to Big Guava on Friday or Saturday, you should cherish the memories. If you went Sunday, you almost certainly will.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*