It has survived fires and floods, expansions and contractions, sex, drugs and threats from the fire marshal. And still, after 30 years, Tropical Heatwave feels as fresh as ever.
The signature event of Tampa radio station WMNF 88.5, Tropical Heatwave has evolved from seven local bands on one stage in 1982 to 60 bands on nine stages today. The vibe has remained wildly eclectic throughout the years, with the station bringing in genres of music you've never even heard of ("folkabilly"? "cosmic Americana"? "gypsy ska punk tango"?). And if you like straight-up folk, jazz, blues and rock 'n' roll, there's plenty of that, too.
It is impossible to experience all of Tropical Heatwave in one day — trust us, we've tried. But if you like discovering new music, it's hands down the best day you can spend in Ybor City. In honor of Tropical Heatwave's 30th anniversary on Saturday, here are 30 tips, tricks and recommendations to help guide you through this year's festival.
5 MUST-SEE BANDS
Carolina Chocolate Drops: Making their Tampa Bay debut are the Carolina Chocolate Drops, whose old-time string-band sensibilities have roots in the African-American music tradition. Using many instruments, including banjos, fiddles, kazoos and a jug, they infuse traditional bluegrass and folk with elements of jazz, Dixieland and the blues. "There is a black folk music audience," singer Rhiannon Giddens told NPR. "They're just very small." The Drops' 2010 album Genuine Negro Jig won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. See them at 8:25 p.m. at El Pasaje Plaza.
Two Man Gentlemen Band: One of the standout sets of Tropical Heatwave 2010 came from New York duo Andy Bean and Fuller Condon, known as the Two Man Gentlemen Band. Former buskers on the streets and subways of New York City, the Gents specialize in quirky Vaudevillian ditties about chocolate milk, reefer, minivans, croquet and President William Howard Taft. They've honed their Tin Pan Alley routine into a rollicking stage show — you'll love their retro vibe and riotous old-timey stage banter. Don't miss their set at 7:20 p.m. in the Cuban Club Cantina.
Two Cow Garage: Take the punk fury of the Replacements, the sentimental twang of Uncle Tupelo and the passion of Bruce Springsteen, and what do you get? Two Cow Garage, an Ohio alt-country group that puts on a blazing show. "Explosive," said longtime fan Bryan Childs, the St. Petersburg blogger behind NineBullets.net. "Every year Tropical Heatwave has a few bands that leave everyone in awe. Two Cow is one of those bands this year." See for yourself at 9:15 p.m. at Crowbar.
The Bright Light Social Hour: Austin, Texas, is a pretty awesome music town. So if you sweep the 2011 Austin Music Awards, including Band of the Year, Album of the Year and Song of the Year, you must be doing something right. The Bright Light Social Hour is one of Texas' hottest next big things, with a sound that blends organic funk, Southern soul, indie psychedelia and plain ol' sweaty pop. Their live shows are quickly becoming the stuff of legend: "They are a blast to watch," wrote Paste magazine's Tim Basham, "and I can't get their songs out of my head." See them at 12:10 a.m. at Crowbar.
Those Darlins: Combining gritty rockabilly roughness with girl-group harmonies and a punk ethos, Those Darlins are one of the edgiest and most fashionable bands on this year's bill. Singer-guitarists Nikki, Jessi and Kelley Darlin (yes, like the Ramones) embraced a trendy, '60s garage-pop sound on their new sophomore album Screws Get Loose, but they kept the sexy sass that made their self-titled debut so appealing. "With Screws Get Loose," wrote music blog Ze Catalist, "you can feel the stardom around the corner." See them at 7:50 p.m. at Crowbar.
3 WOMEN YOU'LL CRUSH ON
Geri X.: One of Tampa Bay's most popular songwriters, the singer-guitarist cuts an imposing figure onstage (see her tattoos and jade hair) while remaining vulnerable (see her wistful song Blackbird). (7:30 p.m., Play)
Miss Tess: With her band, the Bon Ton Parade, this quirky singer-guitarist serves up vintage jazz that will make you pine for the days of the speakeasy. (11:20 p.m., Play)
Jenny Parrott and Katy Rose Cox (Shotgun Party): So technically this makes four women. Singer-guitarist (Parrott) and fiddler (Cox) deliver a Western, swing and rockabilly mix. (10:05 p.m., Play)
AND 3 DUDES, TOO
Ryan Montbleau: You'll dig his sunny style, which combines top-notch guitar work with the pop vocal stylings of a G. Love or Jason Mraz. (8:45 p.m., Cuban Club Cantina)
Young Goodman Brown: Hailing from Atlanta, this introspective troubadour delivers noirish country story-songs in a lo-fi folk style. (9:35 p.m., Play)
Rayland Baxter: This scruffy Nashville singer-songwriter plays soulful, sensitive alt-country hymns, just like his dad — former Bob Dylan band guitarist Bucky Baxter. (10:30 p.m., Orpheum)
3 ROCK-INSPIRED DISHES
These would make a suitable pre-Heatwave lunch. Two blocks south of the Cuban Club is the Bricks (1327 E Seventh Ave.), a hip bistro with a decidedly rock 'n' roll feel. Just take a look at these menu items:
The Elvis: Jif peanut butter, banana, bacon and honey on white toast. $6.
The Cure: Two eggs over messy, cheddar, bacon, tomato, avocado cream, toast, baguette and a side of fruit. $7.
Sonny Bono: Cool mint and chocolate latte. $3.75.
3 WAYS TO GET MORE MUSIC
Can't swing a $40 door ticket? See three Heatwave bands for only $8 on Friday, when Two Cow Garage, the Only Sons and Have Gun, Will Travel perform at 9 p.m. at New World Brewery. (813) 248-4969.
Catch a preview show. Three eclectic Heatwave bands will play at 8 p.m. Friday at Skipper's Smokehouse in Tampa: Carolina Chocolate Drops, gypsy group Caravan of Thieves and dancehall-reggae group Bachaco. Tickets are $12 to $15. (813) 971-0666.
Hidden event alert! Prior to Heatwave, a handful of promoters, music writers, poo-bahs and musicians — including Cracker's David Lowery — will hold a music business workshop from noon to 5 p.m. at CL Space, 1911 N 13th St., No. W-200 (in Ybor Square, above the Spaghetti Warehouse). Admission is $5. It's followed by an alt-country/bluegrass concert featuring Matt Woods, Ramblegrass and Free Range Roosters from 7 to 11 p.m. Entry is free with a Heatwave wristband, $5 without.
5 THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND
Get inside the Cuban Club Cantina early if . . . A popular band is playing. There is a max capacity, and they do enforce it. You don't want to be stuck outside.
Get to the Cuban Club Bandshell late if . . . You like to boogie. The place usually turns into a big dance party by midnight. This year's final two artists on that stage, funk master Chico Mann and world rockers HuDost, are energetic and danceable, so prepare to break a sweat.
Why this is arguably the best local music event of the year: Because there are almost as many local acts as national acts. Some of Tampa Bay's top artists will be there, including alt-country group Have Gun, Will Travel (4:30 p.m., Cuban Club Bandshell), Polynesian-inspired jazz act Stolen Idols (7:45 p.m., New World Brewery), psychedelic alt-rock trio Sons of Hippies (6:05 p.m., Cuban Club Bandshell), blues whiz Damon Fowler (El Pasaje Plaza, 12:05 a.m.) and Southern indie rockers Marksmen (11:30 p.m., Orpheum).
Heatwave goes mainstream?!? For the first time in years, organizers have brought in a mainstream headliner for its main stage: '90s rockers Cracker, best known for alternative hits like Low and Get Off This. They perform at 10:15 p.m. at El Pasaje Plaza.
Look for the Mobile Itinerant Funk Unit. Early in the evening, the band will meander around the entire Heatwave zone. "It's some of the best jazz musicians in Tampa Bay," said WMNF program director Randy Wynne. "They're going to parade through the whole event at a little after 5 p.m., and they'll end up playing a set of New Orleans second line music, unplugged, in the Cuban Club Courtyard around 5:30."
5 INSIDER TIPS
From WMNF program director Randy Wynne:
You can't see it all. "When we had 12 bands, you could reasonably expect to see every band. Now, you just make your own festival. You might see 12 bands out of 57. But you can pick and choose the 12."
Don't fear what you don't know. "Be sure to see some bands you don't know. That's the Heatwave experience, discovering some bands, not just seeing those bands that are your favorites."
Skip the high heels. "We encourage people to dress colorfully, and you can dress weird or strange if you want. But the main thing is, be comfortable. Comfortable shoes are very important. Women don't want to wear high heels."
Can't afford the whole package? Go a la carte. If you only want to see one or two bands, some venues sell individual tickets for $12 — a good deal for, say, the stacked lineup at Crowbar: Those Darlins, Two Cow Garage, Holy Ghost Tent Revival and the Bright Light Social Hour, among others. "We think it's a better deal to spend $30 and do everything. But if you can't do $30, going to New World Brewery or Play or Orpheum or Crowbar is a good deal for $12."
There are secret bathrooms. But don't ask Wynne where they are. "If I tell you where the hidden bathrooms are, they don't remain hidden anymore."
3 CAN'T-MISS BEERS
One of Heatwave's nine venues also happens to be Ybor City's best beer bar, New World Brewery. Here Times correspondent and beer guru Justin Grant recommends three beers to order to savor the experience.
Schlenkerla Helles Lager: This traditional Bavarian Helles is brewed in the same copper kettles as Schlenkerla's famous "smoke" beers and is aged in caves beneath the brewery. It's light but flavorful, with a subtle smokiness.
Lost Coast Apricot Wheat: Like many fruit beers, this one is heavy on the apricot, but the crisp bite of the wheat comes through in the finish, making this balanced and refreshing — a perfect summer/daytime brew.
Schneider'S WIESEN Edel-Weisse: This variation on the renowned Schneider Weisse was originally brewed for Oktoberfest. A great warm weather beer as well, it has all the fruit and spice aroma of a traditional hefeweizen, but with richer malts and slightly more hop presence.