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Gasparilla Music Festival forges through coronavirus fears with Brandi Carlile

As other festivals canceled their 2020 editions, Tampa’s signature music gathering stayed steady. | Concert review

As the headliner of the 2020 Gasparilla Music Festival, it fell to Brandi Carlile to preach calm from her pulpit in Curtis Hixon Park.

“Thank you from the bottom of my heart for coming out tonight,” she told the thousands of fans Saturday night in Tampa. “I know it’s an uncertain time. Thanks for taking a leap of faith with me. And, you know, we’ve got to take it seriously. But thanks for choosing music over being really scared tonight.”

While major music events like South by Southwest and the Ultra Music Festival this week canceled their 2020 editions over the coronavirus epidemic, Gasparilla went on as planned — as did Wild Splash in Clearwater and the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City, turning Tampa Bay into a mini-South by Southwest of its own on Saturday.

Related: With South by Southwest canceled due to coronavirus, Tampa bands left in lurch

Few performers addressed the virus in the room from the stage, owing, perhaps, to the global uncertainty of the past week. In the words of rapper Posdnuos of De La Soul — who were down a member due to illness on Saturday — “it’s too early to do coronavirus jokes.”

But fans in the crowd talked about it. The city and fest had placed additional hand-washing stations around the park, and a few were happy to take advantage.

“I already wash my hands a lot," said Ashley Greene, 30, of Tampa, “but I would say I’m more conscious of it now.”

As the Nude Party performs in the background, Alicia Wilcox, 36, of New York, washes up at a mobile hand-washing station at the Gasparilla Music Festival in Curtis Hixon Park in Tampa on March 7, 2020. The festival and city installed the stations in the wake of the coronavirus’ spread in Tampa Bay and Florida at large. Wilcox said she had no hesitation about traveling to the festival following the cancellations of major festivals like South by Southwest and the Ultra Music Festival, and said as long as you keep clean, there should be no reason to worry. “Wash your freaking hands,” she said. “It’s just practicing hygiene. That’s what it comes down to.” [JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times]

Everyone is, which made it a little harder to focus on the music. Which is a double shame at Gasparilla, a festival that’s usually all about bringing Tampa together — and especially this year, with a Saturday lineup so diverse and inclusive.

Carlile, a cult-turned-critical favorite and recent Grammy darling, spoke a bit about politics and LGBTQ love from the main stage, but let her music speak the loudest, from the clog-stomping hootenannies Hold Out Your Hand and Raise Hell to aching, operatic singles The Story and The Joke. She went full arena-rock epic on Pride and Joy and a cover of Elton John’s Madman Acrosss the Water. And before a cover of Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You, she may have raised a few eyebrows when she said she’d recently “kind of been jamming with Joni” in the studio, even playing her songs that she’d written.

“The real Joni Mitchell!" she said. "In person!”

Big Freedia performs at the Gasparilla Music Festival on March 7, 2020. [JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times]

New Orleans “Queen of Bounce” Big Freedia appeared to have no coronavirus concerns whatsoever, inviting dozens of fans on stage to flap and clap their derrieres to an blitzkrieg of booming bass. Same with Tampa second-line stalwarts the Distinguished Men of Brass, who marched through the dancing crowd before a sundown set by indie pop group St. Lucia.

The Distinguished Men of Brass perform at the Gasparilla Music Festival on March 7, 2020. [JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times]

While their were a few other national acts on Saturday’s bill, including ’70s-indebted, double-guitar-shredding California rockers Rival Sons, there was lots of love to go around for the locals.

Rival Sons perform at the Gasparilla Music Festival on March 7, 2020. [JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times]
Rival Sons perform at the Gasparilla Music Festival on March 7, 2020. [JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times]

Alternative band Photo Fire and soul-folk act Ashley Smith and the Random Occurrence brought big crowds to their mid-afternoon sets. And so did Rapper Fre$h P, who overcame early technical difficulties to deliver a riotously fun set featuring costume changes, a live drummer, a joyful guest spot from Jroc Jones and a tearful appearance by his own mother, pulled down from the crowd for an ovation.

“It wouldn’t be right if I didn’t show my appreciation right now,” Fre$h P said, performing a song for her there on the spot. “Y’all clap loud! That’s my mama, now!”

Fre$h P performs at the Gasparilla Music Festival on March 7, 2020. [JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times]
Jroc Jones performs at the Gasparilla Music Festival on March 7, 2020. [JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times]

Outside Carlile, the other set most anticipated on Saturday was by jazz-rap trio De La Soul, more than 30 years after their pioneering album 3 Feet High and Rising. The performance lost a tiny bit of luster when it was announced Saturday that rapper Trugoy wouldn’t be joining Posdnuos and Maseo in Tampa. The group didn’t elaborate on his condition, beyond sending him plenty of love from the stage.

Posdnuos, left, and Maseo of De La Soul perform at the Gasparilla Music Festival on March 7, 2020. [JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times]

But De La Soul came through with a surprise last-minute replacement in Talib Kweli, who flowed right in alongside the exuberant Pos. He tossed in a few of his own best-known songs, including The Blast and Get By, and delivered some lengthy, occasion-specific freestyles. And the crowd, packed shoulder to shoulder near the stage, seemed to love it.

“He wasn’t even supposed to be here today!” Posdnuos marveled.

Were any of us? Time will tell, I guess. But on Saturday, at least, it felt like the right place to be.

Ashley Smith and the Random Occurrence perform at the Gasparilla Music Festival on March 7, 2020. [JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times]
Photo Fire performs at the Gasparilla Music Festival on March 7, 2020. [JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times]
The Nude Party performs at the Gasparilla Music Festival on March 7, 2020. [JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times]

GASPARILLA MUSIC FESTIVAL

The event continues at noon Sunday with Portugal. The Man, the Word, Anderson East and more. Click here for details.

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