Monday, December 18, 2017
Tampa Bay Music & Shows

Gasparilla Music Festival gains momentum in Year 2

On the fourth floor of Tampa's "beer can" building, in a borrowed office shaped like a fat wedge of pie, the organizers of the Gasparilla Music Festival are reflecting on the last-minute spit and glue it took to get last year's inaugural event up and running.

"Ty and I were out there last year at 2:30 in the morning, the morning of the event, connecting fences around the outside of the park for three hours, hands torn up," says festival president David Cox.

This year, executive director Ty Rodriguez adds with a laugh, "the volunteer part of this festival was very well thought out and organized."

That's not to say organizers won't get their hands dirty this year, too. The music festival Saturday promises to be bigger than in 2012, when more than 6,000 fans packed Curtis Hixon Park — a number that surprised all involved, considering that less than three weeks before the show they didn't even have a headliner.

Almost immediately, festival execs began talking about adding venues, expanding the festival's footprint, even going from one to two days. That won't happen for at least another year, but that doesn't mean organizers have scaled back their ambition. They've booked bigger bands, added a craft beer tent, and beefed up their food options and family-friendly offerings. They're preparing for a crowd of 10,000 or more.

"We're light years ahead of where we were last year," Cox says.

 

The first Gasparilla Music Festival was a labor of love for local music fans who wanted to bring to Tampa the sort of eclectic signature event seen in cities like Austin and New Orleans. They felt it could become for local music fans what the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts and the Gasparilla International Film Festival are for art lovers and movie buffs. They even had the perfect venue in mind: the new, and impressively photogenic, Curtis Hixon Park.

But organizers were adamant that the festival look and feel like something entirely new to the area. It had to feel ambitious and bold — the fest's blaze-orange logo was no accident — but also independent and, above all, local.

Among the ground rules they set forth: No corn dogs.

"There was a very set way (of thinking): 'Oh, you gotta have the guy selling corn dogs,' " Cox, a former board member of the Gasparilla Film Festival, recalled. "We're not going to have corn dogs. It's not going to feel like whatever millionth blues festival we've been to in Tampa Bay. That's not what we're going to do here."

To get it off the ground, they launched the festival as a nonprofit, pursuing sponsorships from local companies and recruiting about 80 private donors who pledged at least $1,000. "Everybody that we ended up with was people that just think Tampa deserves better stuff," Cox said. "They were willing to stick their toes in the water."

Still: Who knew? The festival's volunteer board was composed of entrepreneurs and well-connected young professionals, powered more by want-to than know-how. Tampa concert promoter Phil Benito, now the festival's vice president, signed up and began booking local and national artists, including New York indie rockers Ra Ra Riot and Grammy-winning New Orleans funk group Rebirth Brass Band.

It wasn't a bad lineup, but up until the day of the event, "we were sweating," Cox said. "Tampa is very tough on preselling events like this, so we knew it was going to be walk-up sales. So you're looking up at the skies and watching the weatherman for a couple of days. That was a little bit nerve-racking."

It was only after arriving at the park that everyone got it. The perfect weather, the sparkling setting, the diverse lineup — it all made sense. By noon, Cox said, "I looked out, and there were like 500 strollers walking around, and I had a huge sigh of relief. I was like, 'Wow, people actually came out with their kids to this thing.' "

Rodriguez recalled one of the best compliments he got from any fan at the event: For the first time, I'm really proud to live in Tampa.

• • •

So can the 2013 Gasparilla Music Festival live up to heightened expectations?

From a business standpoint, organizers are feeling much better than last year. All 600 VIP tickets sold out weeks in advance. Local businesses, having witnessed the success of last year's event, have been more eager to jump on board, from the top level (Clearwater's Tech Data Corp., one of the region's largest companies, is the presenting sponsor) to the food vendors (the Refinery, home to James Beard Award-nominated chef Greg Baker, will serve Thai Pulled Pork Tacos).

Music geeks have reason to be excited about the lineup, which includes hot indie groups Best Coast, Dr. Dog and Dawes; genre-hopping collective Ozomatli performing sets for both children and adults; and headliners the Meter Men, a supergroup featuring members of New Orleans funk legends the Meters and Phish keyboardist Page McConnell.

Those names might not mean much to mainstream music fans — ostensibly the sort of people who might help this festival grow in Year 2 — but organizers think that won't be an issue.

"Probably 75 percent of the people I talk to in my daily life have never heard of a single one of those bands," Cox said. "Everybody that came last year, as far as I could tell, had a great time, not knowing any of the bands. So that's the plan. Hopefully we can keep building that trust. The greatest part of a music fest, in my mind, is always seeing something new, something different — something for the first time."

Or in this case, the second.

     
     
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