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Review: Tropical Heatwave, the Hold Steady throw another killer party in Ybor City

Five years ago, Tropical Heatwave was the only game in town.

There was no Gasparilla Music Festival, no Antiwarpt, no Whigfest, no Big Guava, no Sunset. Sure, there was the Clearwater Jazz Holiday and Ribfest, but in terms of a pure eclectic, electric rock festival experience, you had to go to Ybor City for WMNF-88.5’s biggest annual event.

Obviously, a lot has changed in the last five years, and Tropical Heatwave has doubled down to catch up – never more so than in 2014, with an expanded two-day lineup; a beefier footprint, thanks in part to new renovations at the Cuban Club; and one of its most freshest and most competitive lineups to date.

The message: After 33 years, WMNF still knows how to throw a killer party. And if Saturday is any indication, Tropical Heatwave isn’t going anywhere.

While last week’s Big Guava Music Festival struggled with rain, Tropical Heatwave on Friday and Saturday had swelteringly hot weather fitting its name. After Friday kicked off with sets by Hayes Carll, Elephant Stone, Katchafire and others, Saturday brought headliners The Hold Steady to the Cuban Club’s spacious new courtyard, one of the few venues the Ybor-loving band hadn’t yet played.

After a dismal turnout at their Guavaween set at the Ritz Ybor in 2012, there was a question if the band’s love affair with Ybor City might’ve subsided. Thankfully, the crowd seemed larger and more receptive for their show at Tropical Heatwave.

Celebrating 10 years as a band, they played a career-spanning set heavy on their new album Teeth Dreams, 2008’s Stay Positive and even a few tracks from their 2004 debut Almost Killed Me. Throughout, frontman Craig Finn shuffled around, repeated his lyrics with mouthed shouts and generally had a look of perpetual gleeful disbelief of being in his own band.

During their encore, Finn mused on the 10-year anniversary of the band and their lyrical connection to Ybor, a city he’d never visited when first writing about it. “I was trying to think of a place that was fun to sing,” he said.

The Hold Steady closed with two of their Ybor name-dropping songs, Slapped Actress and Killer Parties, to fans’ cheers of recognition. The message was clear — as the song goes, they’ll go to Ybor City again.

The Hold Steady were a perfect example of what Tropical Heatwave does so well – namely, booking artists across all genres who know how to get fans up and dancing, from the dual sax assault of New York City’s Moon Hooch laying down some funky electro jams in the Cuban Club Cantina; to the Pentecostal party of cultlike swamp-jam revivalists Rosco Bandana at the Orpheum.

And as always, there was hair. Down-to-there hair, shoulder length or longer.

Athens, Ga. indie rockers New Madrid, playing at Crowbar, had plenty to swing around, with an afro being the least on anyone’s head. Though they hail from the town of R.E.M., Pylon and Elephant 6, their sound hewed more to a louder, feedback-laden Band of Horses.

This was the third Tropical Heatwave for shagadelic Austin rockers the Bright Light Social Hour, who’ve made Tampa something of a second home. “It’s good to be home,” they said at one point, and dedicated one song to “Rick f---ing Scott” before mentioning their own governor Rick Perry. Long-haired freaky-people politics aside, their music – a blend of spacey ‘60s and ‘70s psychedelia mixed with a modern, robotic pulse – got the main stage crowd moving before the sun went down.

But Roadkill Ghost Choir singer Andrew Shepard might’ve had the most hair of all, sporting Evan Dando-style locks at Crowbar. The Deland group played a brand of eerie indie complete with steel guitar and banjo.

Later in the evening, Crowbar switched its focus to two very different types of Americana.

Playing opposite the Hold Steady was North Carolina’s Matrimony, a family band with just enough banjos, mandolins and whoa-oh-ohs to perhaps win a few fans from the Mumford set. They have a pure pop-country sensibility – imagine a harder, more tattooed Lady Antebellum – and had no problem leading fans in a sing-along through Lucky Man, a sinister cousin of All Along the Watchtower and Fleetwood Mac’s Rhiannon.

Then came the David Mayfield Parade, a folk-rock quartet brimming with winking Vaudevillian charm. Mayfield himself was arguably the most charismatic performer to play either day of Tropical Heatwave, mugging and slinging one-liners left and right; but his band stole the show on a few occasions. Shortly after a bluegrass version of AC/DC’s You Shook Me All Night Long, Mayfield swapped seats with drummer Jason Edwards, who ventured off the stage and meandered through the bar playing solos on every surface he could find, including one fan’s beer bottle.

As always, local acts acquitted themselves quite well at Tropical Heatwave. At New World Brewery, St. Petersburg’s RedFeather showcased new material that thundered down Eighth Avenue in a tribal rumble; then Clearwater’s Lions After Dark let singer Maddie Pfeiffer’s soaring wail build each indie-pop anthem to a fist-pumping crescendo.

Down at Market on 7th, DieAlps! – a band who walked to the festival from their home in Ybor City – offered a waltzy spin on indie rock, somewhere between the Pixies, Pavement and Cowboy Junkies.

And at the adjacent, slam-packed Carmine’s Courtyard, Sarasota jam-band phenoms Come Back Alice proved their mettle during the very first song, Fast Train. The power dropped out of their amps midway through, but no one was fazed – fans kept singing, and drummer Yral Morris eased right into an extended solo. By the time power was restored, the song was right back into a jam so serious, it was hard to notice anything had happened.

One notable, but welcome, exception to Tropical Heatwave’s party-all-the-time agenda was New York singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur, playing his long-awaited first show in Tampa Bay.

The Ohio native did his best to appeal to Florida fans by admitting that once, after one too many heartbreaks from his beloved Cleveland Browns, he briefly switched allegiances to, of all teams, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (Maybe he says this in every city, but we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt – Browns fans have been through a lot.)

“I feel like I have to cram all the music I’ve made in the last 20 years into a 45-minute set for you guys,” Arthur said, though he actually played more than an hour. That included an acoustic version of 2003’s gently moving Honey and the Moon; a couple of Velvet Underground covers (Heroin and Walk on the Wild Side) from his new Lou Reed tribute album, Lou; and 2013’s The Ballad of Boogie Christ, during which he brought out St. Petersburg singer Robert Vessenmeyer from the band Experimental Pilot to sing backup.

Arthur endured a couple of technical hiccups during his set; on his best-known single In the Sun, his acoustic guitar shorted out, so he switched to an electric and ended the song in an uptempo rave-up. But he never lost focus. In fact, during one mesmerizing mashup of art, poetry and music, he actually created a giant painting live onstage as he sang.

How’s that for artsy and eclectic?

-- Jay Cridlin and Jimmy Geurts, tbt*

[Last modified: Sunday, May 11, 2014 9:33pm]


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