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