An openly gay blues harmonica wizard. A fiercely independent Chinese-American folk singer. An Indian-American artist crooning classic '60s soul. A chirpy-voiced riot grrrl playing some of the grittiest rock in Nashville. A rapper who moved from New York to Tampa to get discovered.
What do these artists have in common? They're all on the bill for WMNF's Tropical Heatwave 2010.
Like this year's festival headliners (Alejandro Escovedo and Ruthie Foster), Jason Ricci, Ruby Velle, Kevin So, the Ettes' Coco Hames and Dynasty are all about bucking expectations with their music. We'd expect nothing less from artists performing at the always-eclectic Heatwave, this Saturday in and around the Cuban Club in Ybor City.
We caught up with each artist to find out how they paved their respective unique paths to success.
Ruby Velle and the Soulphonics
Home base: Atlanta
Their sound: Vintage '60s soul, blues and funk.
Check 'em out if you like: Amy Winehouse, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Adele
Their story: Growing up in Melbourne Beach, Ruby Velle was part of what she called a "perfectly blended culture," attending dance parties with her Indian-immigrant parents and singing in Western choruses with her friends. "I never had that strict upbringing that a lot of Eastern parents can inflict on their children," she said with a laugh. "Now that I'm singing professionally, they're probably regretting being so open with me." Not likely, considering the success of her group. With a reputation as one of Atlanta's top party bands, the Soulphonics and Ruby Velle worship at the altars of James Brown and Aretha Franklin, playing classic horn-driven soul and funk in bars and at festivals. Velle, 25, attended the University of Florida, where she studied journalism and design and met founding Soulphonics Spencer Garn (organ) and Scott Clayton (guitar), who were looking for a female singer for their soul band. The trio moved to Atlanta for Velle's graphic design career, and today, she, Garn and Clayton make up the group's core, with an evolving roster of musicians behind them. The Soulphonics did so well at Tropical Heatwave in 2008 that WMNF invited them to close down the main stage this year. "Once you get to the main stage, you've really gotta bring it," Velle laughed. "So we're gonna bring it."
This weekend: The Soulphonics and Ruby Velle perform at 11:55 p.m. at El Pasaje Plaza at the Cuban Club.
Dynasty, a.k.a. Diana Maria Eva Hardy
Home base: Tampa
Her sound: Hip-hop, with hard and thick "boom-bat" beats.
Check her out if you like: Dynasty's smooth, rapid-fire rhymes could be compared to that of Fugees' Lauryn Hill, but a little less raspy with no singing. She uses guest vocalists.
Her story: Diana Maria Eva Hardy, a.k.a. Dynasty, started rapping at age 14, encouraged by a family friend who had access to a recording studio. The theater arts and business grad moved to Tampa from Queens, N.Y., in 2005, with no ties here. "It's funny; I moved from the city where dreams come true to live in Tampa — where everything takes off!" she said. Dynasty sets herself apart from the rest of the cleavage-baring Dirty South female rappers. She'll wear a fitted T and jeans but adds a touch of allure with high heels. "I like to leave something to the imagination," she said. She got her first big break when she won over the highly influential DJ Sandman of tampahiphop.com with some local shows. He booked her an opening slot for Wu-Tang Clan. "Sandman really gave me the push I needed to take this thing seriously," she said. "He made me believe again." Since then, DJ Premier, who has worked with Nas and Christina Aguilera, played her tune Femcee on his Sirius radio show. He also included her song on a mixtape he distributed in Europe. Dreampusher, her own mixtape with mostly original material, releases June 5. Laws and Funkghost are among a long list of impressive collaborators on the disc.
This weekend: Dynasty performs at 8:55 p.m. at New World Brewery. $10 admission.
Julie Garisto, Times correspondent
Coco Hames and the Ettes
Their sound: Foot-stomping punk with blues and rockabilly touches.
Home base: Nashville
Check 'em out if you like: The White Stripes, the Black Keys, Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Their story: Coco Hames' basement is dry, which is a relief. But some of Hames' other favorite musical haunts in waterlogged Nashville weren't so lucky. "Some really, really good studios got completely flooded," said Hames, 28, "which means a lot of classic, collectible gear and guitars were just destroyed. Things that belonged to country greats." For Hames, the retro-minded singer of Nashville blues-punks the Ettes, that's a big deal. "I was definitely the only kid in the neighborhood who had a lunchbox full of 45s next to the bed," she said. The Ettes' core members — Hames, drummer Poni Silver and bassist Jem Cohen — went to high school in Florida (Hames is from Orlando) but came together as a band in L.A. They quickly headed out on the road until they reached Nashville, where they landed a gig house-sitting for Ben Folds. The Ettes made fast friends in the Music City's garage-rock scene, and began touring with artists like Kings of Leon and most recently the Dead Weather, a.k.a. Jack White's new band. "He's got a scary, intense persona, and for good reason," Hames said of the White Stripes frontman, who also lives in Nashville. "But I think anybody who's ever gotten on his bad side, or gotten their faces punched in by him, must have crossed some cosmic line, because he's a really cool, tolerant and really smart dude." For Hames, who also blogs for Blurt magazine, the idea of maintaining a mysterious, White-like stage personality is less important than keeping the Ettes' music intense. "I don't necessarily like being misunderstood, but I like being underestimated," she said. "People are surprised by my creepy blogs or high-pitched voice or how Poni and I are really small ladies. That's enough mystery for me. Just showing up and blowing your mind — that's the most fun part for me."
This weekend: The Ettes perform at 10:50 p.m. in the Cuban Club Cantina.
Home base: Nashville
His sound: A blend of folk, R&B, blues and pop.
Check him out if you like: Gavin DeGraw, James Taylor, Marc Broussard, acoustic Bruce Springsteen
His story: Kevin So's outgoing voice mail message ends with one word: "Peace." But as an independent singer-songwriter, managing his entire career on his own (booking and promoting shows, performing solo, tracking his own bottom line), his life is often anything but. "I've been managing my own career pretty much since '95," said So. "Until somebody can step up to the plate and say, 'We'll take you to the next level,' first of all, I'd like to know what that next level is, and is it consistent (with what I've done so far)?" So has a point. The Chinese-American troubadour has earned a few nice breaks over the years, including touring with Keb'Mo. Throughout his career, So, 32, has been fascinated by what he calls "the roots of American music" — everything from the Commodores and Earth, Wind and Fire to Billy Joel, Bob Dylan and George Jones. "I love exploring the lyrical part of it, the musical part of it — there's so many layers to that onion, it excites me." For years, he's also been working on an off-Broadway musical, Victor Woo: The Average Asian American, that won an award for music and lyrics at the 2007 New York International Fringe Festival. This summer it'll be workshopped in California with Tony-winning playwright David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly) on board as a story consultant. That connection, So said, might not have happened if he was signed to a label. "Being an independent artist, you're not contracted to a company," he said. "I call my own shots."
This weekend: So performs at 7:15 p.m. in the Ybor Room. On Friday, he'll perform at 8 p.m. at the WSLR coffeehouse at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Sarasota, 3975 Fruitville Road, Sarasota. And at 4 p.m. Sunday, he's performing a house concert at the South Tampa home of Gloria Holloway. For details, e-mail email@example.com or call (813) 837-6572.
Jason Ricci and New Blood
Home base: Nashville (via Portland, Maine)
Their sound: Harmonica-driven Chicago blues.
Check 'em out if you like: Junior Wells, Charlie Musselwhite, Little Walter, Paul Butterfield Blues Band
Their story: Blues fans know the story of Robert Johnson, who, legend has it, traded his soul to the devil for the ability to play the guitar like no other. Jason Ricci knows this story well. "At some point, if you're going to get into this music, you definitely need to make friends with the devil," said the singer and harmonica player, who's a devotee of the famed occultist Aleister Crowley. "That doesn't mean you turn your back on God. It just means you're willing to walk that path as well." Ricci's religious beliefs aren't the only thing that sets him apart in the blues world. He's one of the only openly gay blues artists — and certainly the most prominent — in the country, giving him a unique perspective on the fine line between heartache and happiness on which the blues is based. The Portland, Maine, native came out of the closet at age 28, after years of playing in clubs around the country, and he quickly noticed a difference in how his music was received. "The years of me coming into my own as a performer have been exactly that — me just stripping away all that self-doubt and revealing who I am," said Ricci, 36. "We have all these preconceptions of what is blues, what's good and what's bad, what's soulful and what's not. When we finally stop thinking about that, and just let whoever the hell we are inside come out, that's the (performer) that everybody wants to imitate." He's doing pretty well in his own skin. On May 6, Ricci picked up his first Blues Music Award (Best Harmonica Player) from the prestigious Memphis-based Blues Foundation, the latest sign that he's been accepted by the conservative blues establishment. Ricci, who handcrafts his own harmonicas in painstaking detail at home, was awed by the honor — but it hasn't changed his dark outlook on life and the blues. "That's what the whole thing is all about, is that tragic place between good and evil, between happiness and sadness, that bittersweet moment," he said. Spoken like a real devil-may-care bluesman.
This weekend: Ricci performs at 10:20 p.m. at the El Pasaje Plaza at the Cuban Club.