Sunday, May 20, 2018
Music News, Concert Reviews

Ybor's Cuban Club revamped into major outdoor concert venue

It was an iconic part of a historic building, and a big part of Ybor City's live music scene for decades.

Still, not too many tears were shed over the recent demolition of the Cuban Club Bandshell.

"Cute, but not very effective," is how WMNF 88.5 program director Randy Wynne described it. "It was small and kind of created an echo effect if you were playing on it."

Not any more. As of two weeks ago, the Cuban Club Bandshell is no more, razed in a major renovation that will effectively double the size of the nearly century-old building's outdoor courtyard, creating a new outdoor 4,000-capacity concert and event venue in Ybor City.

"We've been told by many promoters that this should be a unique size, and probably could attract maybe 10, 12 concerts a year," said Cuban Club Foundation board member Patrick Manteiga, editor and publisher of La Gaceta. "It all depends on the way it's set up, but we're thinking it will be around 4,000, so it should make us one of the largest event venues outside of the State Fair, the Amphitheatre, the Ice Palace (Tampa Bay Times Forum) or those kinds of places."

The revamped venue will debut at WMNF's annual Tropical Heatwave festival Friday and Saturday at the Cuban Club. Instead of two stages divided by a walled-off city alleyway — one in the Cuban Club Bandshell and one in the El Pasaje plaza parking lot — fans will see one big stage in a single giant courtyard, hosting artists like indie rockers The Hold Steady and singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur. The courtyard is so large, Wynne said, that the festival will probably set its vendors up there instead of along Ninth Avenue.

The changes have been a long time coming. Rumors about a renovated Cuban Club courtyard were circulating even before last year's Tropical Heatwave, but Mantega said discussions didn't really heat up until last fall.

Tampa's City Council voted to close the alley in March. Not only would it create a larger event space, Mantega argued, it would improve local safety as well — Hillsborough Community College has long expressed concern over students cutting through the long, dark alley.

Despite an initial objection from the city's Barrio Latino Commission, which wanted to preserve Ybor City's historic grid, the city agreed to the closure, provided the Cuban Club would provide easements for utilities and assume maintenance of the alley's sewage pipes.

Crews are scrambling to erect a temporary stage for Tropical Heatwave, but in the months to come, Manteiga said the venue will have its own standard stage. In addition to concerts, they're hoping the much larger space could pull events and festivals away from other large public spaces, such as Curtis Hixon Park.

"If you've got a festival that's a lot of days and you've got security issues, we might make a lot of sense to somebody," he said. "This might be a little less disruptive to the community as a whole."

Promoter Harry Tiyler, who has booked recent Cuban Club shows like Cypress Hill, Danzig and Method Man and Redman, said an outdoor, general-admission venue of that size would be an "extremely viable" space for touring artists. For examples, he pointed to a pair of his past shows: Hard rock group Rise Against at Tampa's now-closed, 3,000-capacity Stadium Green Iguana; and reggae-rock outfit Sublime With Rome, who in 2010 played a two-night stint at Jannus Live, which holds around 2,000.

"There's really nothing in that mid-size tier," said Tiyler, who already has an offer out for a possible Cuban Club show in October. "Those bands that aren't really quite big enough for the Sun Dome, and certainly larger than Ruth Eckerd and Mahaffey and Jannus and the Ritz — there's a lot of acts that probably could appreciate that."

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