Review: Whigfest brings Surfer Blood, diverse lineup to Jannus Live in St. Petersburg
It’s hard to remember a time when downtown St. Petersburg wasn’t an epicenter of hip and vibrant culture in Tampa Bay. It’s also hard to remember a time when there wasn’t a new music festival popping up around Tampa Bay every other weekend.
In other words, 10 years ago, Whigfest would have been unthinkable.
Really, a decade ago, if you’d said Jannus Landing would have a new name, and it would be flanked by Ringside Café and MacDinton’s, and you can throw one of Florida’s coolest cocktail bars into the mix as well … what denizen of local nightlife would have believed you? But we live in times where events like Whigfest are possible. And though chillier-than-normal temperatures no doubt tempered the crowds on Saturday’s opening day, it’s not hard to envision this event growing in the years to come.
Start with the impressively compact footprint: Two stages at Jannus Live, one each in MacDinton’s, Ringside and Mandarin Hide. Those last three each sit just a few steps from the Jannus Live courtyard. Not even Tropical Heatwave, centered largely in Ybor City’s Cuban Club, is as conveniently laid out. Organizers have already said they eventually want to expand to Williams Park, one block northwest, but heck, why go that far? On Saturday, there was already additional live music at nearby venues Calypso, Ruby’s Elixir and Café del Mar, and none of it had anything to do with Whigfest. Any one of those stages could offer room for expansion.
But Jannus Live is a headliner’s stage, and in Year 2, Whigfest drew a legitimate national name: West Palm Beach natives Surfer Blood, last seen at Live Nation’s vaunted Coastline Festival in November.
As one of the bigger indie rock bands to emerge from Florida in the past decade, Surfer Blood were a good choice. Cherubic singer John Paul Pitts has a Morrissey-like yowl, but the band’s bailiwick is sock-hop twists on Weezer, Dinosaur Jr. and the Pixies, as evinced by Floating Vibes, from 2010’s Astro Coast; and Weird Shapes and Say Yes To Me, from last year’s Pythons. Highlights included one brand new song, the jaunty Island; and Take It Easy, on which Pitts hopped down from the stage and sang with his arms around fans in the pit.
It was just one of many casual, comfortable moments at Whigfest. Saturday’s lineup, around 25 artists in all, had a little something from everyone, and plenty of access to all of it. Two of the highlights were beat-based.
Inside Ringside Café, the Real Clash, a hip-hop collective borne from the music program at St. Petersburg College, provided funky fusion in the most joyous sense of the word. Looking and sounding like a supergroup featuring the Roots and Slightly Stoopid, the group combined noodly organs and beach-party bass with a live turntablist and rapper Rashad “Shadcore” Harrell’s deep bellow.
And performing on a Jannus Live side stage, trippy Jacksonville dance-rock trio Greenhouse Lounge served up a thoroughly groovy set. Zach Weinert manned a laptop and layered a range of stylish guitar solos atop clean, slinky indie-pop jams (think Washed Out or early MGMT).
On the other end of the spectrum were two avowed ‘60s revivalists. Tampa’s Heavy Metals, forged from frontman Shawn Kyle’s Florida Kilos, were a blast of surfy, spacey fuzz-rock in the Jannus Live courtyard; while Archaic Interest played with shagadelic flair, their vocals echoing throughout Mandarin Hide. Impressively, half the fans crowding the stage seemed to have adopted the same shaggy-hippie aesthetic. MacDinton’s was a singer-songwriter’s stage, showcasing talented artists (Zeppelinesque blues-rocker ex-Groves frontman J.T. Brown, fiery folk siren Jun Bustamante, one-man-band dervish Lauris Vidal) in a setting that sometimes swallowed them up, as busy bars often do.
And then there was Mandarin Hide, normally a stylish cocktail joint, but on this day a solid rock venue. Though artfully decorated, the Hide’s stage was more than a little cramped – Florida Night Heat’s Andre Jones and Zulu Wave’s Michael Barrow both ended up playing most of their electrifying sets in the crowd. During one frenzied rock-out, Barrow’s guitar actually nicked Mandarin Hide’s famed chandelier, splintering a couple of crystals to the ground.
Mandarin Hide as a rock club? Well, Whigfest organizers (one of whom is the Hide’s co-owner) did say their goal was to present local art and music in a new light. Some might quibble with how successful they were with the “art” half of that endeavor (although it was fun watching artists Sebastian Coolidge and James Oleson collaborate on a mural while outlaw bluegrass outfit the Applebutter Express played a rootin’, tootin’ cover of Steve Miller Band’s Jet Airliner). The event's "artiness" seemed to wear off as the evening wore on. By the time Surfer Blood played, MacDinton’s and Mandarin Hide seemed to be attracting their usual clientele, many of whom seemed unaware there was even a music festival going on.
In fact, Whigfest’s secret success may be how seamlessly it marries artistic cool into a kind of corporate environment. Unlike St. Pete’s indie-artsy 600 Block and Grand Central/Kenwood districts, the Jannus Live block is a slick machine, abuzz with drinkers and diners until well after midnight, especially on a Saturday night.
But prior to the 'Burg's hipster revival, Jannus Landing and the Detroit block were in fact where all the cool kids hung out. Even when Jannus Live re-launched with a sleek makeover in 2010, its new owners dreamed of tearing down walls (both literal and metaphorical) between venues, so concertgoers could meander from venue to venue with drinks in hand.
Whigfest can get bigger and better, no doubt, but it’s not hard to see events like this happening more and more. After all, 10 years ago, who could have foreseen even this?
Whigfest continues starting at 1 p.m. Sunday with headliners Pinback. Day tickets start at $25 at the gate. For details, click here.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*