Best of 2016: Pearl Jam, Dolly Parton, Kanye West among Tampa Bay's best concerts
(All week on Soundcheck, we’ll be revisiting our favorite Tampa Bay concerts of 2016. Today’s picks come from Pop Music/Culture Critic Jay Cridlin.)
My top concert experience of 2016 came about 2 1/2 hours outside the Tampa city limits. It was down at the inaugural Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival, a sterling new addition to Florida’s live music landscape.
For three days, tens of thousands of fans camped out for sets by Kendrick Lamar, Robert Plant, Bassnectar, Future and a stellar list of creative collaborators. Of the many standout moments, the top had to be Saturday night’s all-star jam session dubbed the PoWoW! – by the end, you had Mumford and Sons, Miguel, Skrillex, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, John Oates, Kamasi Washington and members of Arcade Fire and the Meters, all jamming together on a 20-minute rendition of Earth, Wind and Fire’s Let’s Groove. How can you possibly top that?
But there was also a ton of great live music closer to home – including one that also involved Earth, Wind and Fire. Here, in chronological order, are my top 10 Tampa Bay concerts of 2016.
Carly Rae Jepsen (Feb. 17, Ritz Ybor): I will never understand why the crowd for Jepsen’s much-anticipated show at the Ritz wasn’t bigger. Her stunning album Emotion is one of the best pop LPs of the decade, and if you don’t come running to hear epic jams like Run Away With Me and When I Needed You live and in person, well, there’s something wrong with you. But Jepsen didn’t let the slightly slim crowd get her down – she sang and danced and smiled her heart out, in the process prompting every soul there to do the same.
Underoath (March 16, Jannus Live): Back in 2012, Underoath’s farewell show at Jannus Live made my best-concerts list. Four years later, the Christian metalcore heroes’ reunion show at the same venue felt even more urgent and amplified. The band roared and raged like they had something to prove, thrashing and crashing through two full albums, 2004’s They’re Only Chasing Safety and 2006’s Define the Great Line, and giving their hometown fans a cathartic performance for the ages.
Chicago/Earth, Wind and Fire (March 26, MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre): Not long after the death of Earth, Wind and Fire founder Maurice White, and just before Chicago entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the two rock and funk outfits came together for a night of bountiful, buoyant brass. On their own, both bands delivered hits aplenty, but when they joined forces at the beginning and end of the night, that’s when the fireworks truly came out. Everyone should get the chance to hear these bands join forces on Shining Star once in their lives.
Pearl Jam (April 11, Amalie Arena): This was a victory-lap year for the newly minted Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, including a headlining slot at Bonnaroo and a major U.S. tour. This show, their first in Tampa in ages, showed why they’re arguably the best live American rock band since Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. So many ferocious singles (Jeremy, Alive, Do the Evolution), deep cuts (Off He Goes, In the Moonlight) and covers (Baba O’Riley, Little Wing, Imagine), all delivered like the last songs Pearl Jam might ever play. This was my No. 1 Tampa concert of the year.
St. Lucia (June 13, 2016): Central Florida needed this. Two days after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, St. Lucia brought their kaleidoscopic dance party to the State Theatre, where dynamic frontman Jean-Philip Grobler offered his condolences for the lost, as well as a hopeful message for us all: “You can’t choose who you love, and that is actually a beautiful thing.” It was just what we all needed to hear, especially delivered amid a set of propulsive, sun-kissed indie-pop grooves grooves like Elevate and Walking on Glass.
Drake (Aug. 27, Amalie Arena) and Kanye West (Sept. 14, Amalie Arena): Two hip-hop titans played Amalie Arena within a three-week span in late summer, and my expectations going in were mixed – I’ve never been a Drake fan, and Kanye’s The Life of Pablo left me cold. But these were cases where seeing something in person can turn you into a believer. Drizzy’s awe-inspiring stage, with its glowing pink orbs undulating from the rafters, and his burning desire to charm over every last fan eventually did exactly that. West’s tour setup was even more dizzying – a “floating” stage hovering over a crowd of crazed moshers, from whom the entire arena drew its energy. And he gave us all a classic rant on Kid Cudi (“I birthed you!”), and hearing Kanye rant is like hearing Clapton play guitar. So what if these technological spectacles were designed to distract you (or me, at least) from subpar material? Being in that room with those cats on those nights was nothing short of mind-blowing.
Steven Tyler (Aug. 29, Ruth Eckerd Hall): Okay, first a personal bias: It was pretty cool seeing the Aerosmith frontman walk out on stage holding the Tampa Bay Times, pretending to read my profile of him before the show. That fun moment aside, Tyler held nothing back in a raucous night of Aerosmith hits and songs from his first country-ish solo album. You’ll never get to hear Aerosmith play Walk This Way or Cryin’ in an intimate theater like Ruth Eckerd, but Tyler’s one-off show was the next best thing, and worth every penny for a seat.
Dolly Parton (Nov. 26, Amalie Arena): Inspirational. That’s the word that keeps coming to mind when I think back to Dolly Parton’s epic, career-spanning jubilee at Amalie Arena, her first concert in the city of Tampa in some 25 years. Though battling a cold, she sang and, just as importantly, delivered wonderfully warm storytelling to a packed, adoring house. “We’re so consumed with dying that the joy of living is lost,” the 70-year-old icon counseled us. Preach, Dolly, preach.
Tall Heights (Dec. 8, Safety Harbor Art and Music Center): As gratifying as it was to be on hand for the first concert at the long-anticipated, beautifully decorated Safety Harbor Art and Music Center, it was made all the better by the headlining performance by Boston indie folk duo Tall Heights. Gorgeously heartfelt harmonies swept through the venue, and the audio was utterly pristine — so much so that the duo completely unplugged for a couple of songs, including the sparse and lovely Heirloom. But the highlight was a song called Cross My Mind, in which singer-guitarist Tim Herrington asked the audience to pull out their phones and call the person next to them, then hold the two phones close. The resulting feedback loops chirped like crickets, creating an ethereal, naturalistic bed of ambience for the song. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Honorable mention: Billy Joel (Jan. 22, Amalie Arena), Chris Stapleton (Jan. 30, Amalie Arena) The Joy Formidable (April 28, State Theatre), Beyonce (April 29, Raymond James Stadium), Keith Urban (June 17, MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre), All-American Rejects (Aug. 5, MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre), Dixie Chicks (Aug. 19, MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre), Dandy Warhols (Oct. 3, State Theatre), Clipping (Nov. 1, Local 662), Lauryn Hill (Dec. 6, Mahaffey Theater).
-- Jay Cridlin