Review: Tropical Heatwave ditches the Cuban Club, keeps things eclectic in Ybor City
After the carnival of options that was the Tampa Bay concert landscape on Friday – Beyonce at Raymond James Stadium, 98 Rockfest at Amalie Arena, Alabama Shakes at the Cuban Club – it was nice to have a familiar event like WMNF 88.5-FM’s Tropical Heatwave to help come down on Saturday.
Only problem: This year’s Heatwave didn’t feel too familiar at all.
For the first time in ages, the 35th annual eclectic music festival abandoned the cozy confines of the Cuban Club for an assortment of venues across Ybor City, giving this year's Heatwave a feel unlike any other.
In years past, the Cuban Club would host at least four stages, offering one-stop shopping for fans who didn’t feel like schlepping all the way to Crowbar. Now 10 stages were spread among nine venues. (Only the Italian Club had more than one, and it was the most far-flung of them all. While its "dance stage" passed well enough for the Cuban Club's ballroom, its cantina lacked the stage visibility of its Cuban counterpart.)
Luckily, Tropical Heatwave tends to attract listeners who don't care where music is played, and will dance anyplace there's room to dance.
The main stage sat in a parking lot at Seventh Avenue and 14th Street, a setup commanding attention from anyone entering Ybor from the west (and with its chain-link fence, offering basically unobstructed views to anyone who didn't buy a ticket). There were no food vendors there, but music boomed for blocks as Kansas Bible Company kicked things off with a cacophonous blast of pink, garage rock and ska; and WMNF regular Chuck Prophet later riffed away with his band Mission Express.
You had to wonder whether Ybor's Seventh Avenue date-nighters were ready for the hard-edged hard truths spewed by ragged, jagged Texas songsmith James McMurtry.
"This next one was supposed to be our big radio hit from our last record," McMurtry said, teasing How'm I Gonna Find You Now. "Best laid plans of mice and men and blah blah blah. But we had fun anyway."
(Another McMurtry gem, about writing Ain't Got a Place at R Bar in New Orleans: "I was just the right amount of drink and pissed off. You get that mixture right, and you can write a song. But you gotta write it fast.")
Headlining the main stage were New York indie band Ra Ra Riot. If their brainy synth-pop sound doesn't immediately strike you as Heatwave material, you're not wrong -- both Prophet and McMurtry drew a larger crowd. But Ra Ra Riot's synth- and string-laden baroque pop was a better fit for Ybor's main strip after midnight, as their inexhaustible supply of danceably chipper ditties (Binary Mind, Beta Love, Can You Tell, Too Dramatic, Absolutely) eventually succeeded at pulling in a younger audience.
Among the other national acts, there were standouts, including gypsy-rock troupe Caravan of Thieves, who performed with drum kit made from cans, jars and water bottles. Delightful Athens, Ga. singer Wrenn brought an eccentric, colorful and worldly indie-pop sensibility to Tequilas, singing in Italian and covering Alex Clare's Too Close as a fizzy lounge-rock burner, all despite performing in a ripped romper.
Local talent was, as always, well-represented, from garage-pop originalists Pretty Voices buzzing through a raucous set at New World Brewery to Acme Jazz Garage filling the normally fiesta-happy Tequilas with heated jazz.
Drummer Max Norton anchored a fine assortment of local voices, including singer-songwriters Ronny Elliott, Rebekah Pulley and Will Quinlan, for an all-star roundabout of Americana-flavored rock at Crowbar. And back at New World, Sarasota elecrtro-alternative group Pleasures dialed up the distortion with a torrent of glitchy, psychedelic math-rock that left the packed patio mesmerized.
Two of the most memorable local performances were tributes to the legends who've left us in 2016.
Early in the evening, Four Star Riot filled the New World patio with a 20-minute tribute to Prince that ended with a forceful Purple Rain. And whip-smart power-pop quartet Barely Pink had fans spilling into Crowbar's courtyard for their lived-in, full-album performance of David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, digging especially deep for the furious Star and Hang Onto Yourself. (Makes you wonder: How would an all-tribute stage, peopled by local musicians, fare at Heatwave? Could be fun, right?)
As always at Heatwave, some of the best performances were the ones you might not've seen coming. At the Italian Club, one-man-band the Suitcase Junket shone with a wailing tenor and command of his rusted-out indie-blues voice. And at Cigar City Cider and Mead's early-evening "teen showcase" stage, young acts like Francesca and AB+ displayed pop songwriting and performance chops well beyond their years, offering hope WMNF needn't fret about filling out its Heatwave schedule a decade from now.
Hopefully by then they can nudge their way back into the Cuban Club.
-- Jay Cridlin