Calling this year's Gasparilla Music Festival its most diverse event yet is no small compliment.
This is a festival, after all, that books everything from funk and soul to Americana and indie rock, with some hip hop, reggae and jazz mixed in for good measure. It's the everything bagel of music festivals.
But its fifth incarnation, which kicked off Saturday in Tampa, took this mission to a new level – not just on stage, but off it as well, with more fans from more walks of life streaming into Curtis Hixon Park to see black, Latino and foreign artists like Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli, Kermit Ruffins and Antibalas. Tomorrow it's more of the same with Stephen Marley, Charles Bradley, Carlos Varela and others.
Somehow, after five years, GMF has managed to find yet another side of Tampa to show off.
"It feels like hip hop is a part of the Gasparilla Music Festival right now!" Tampa rapper Mike Mass told a jam-packed and amped-up amphitheater stage. "It feels like hip hop is a part of Tampa's music scene right now!"
Diversifying the lineup isn't just window dressing, either. It could be a smart strategy for future growth. At many major festivals, DJs, rappers and genre-fluid jam bands are a bigger draw than rock groups. At around 6:30 p.m., Kweli might've had more fans at the second stage than the day's biggest rock band, Lucero, had at the main stage.
Did this sonic diversification pay dividends? That's harder to say.
Unlike last year, when the headliners were rockers Modest Mouse, 2016's first day didn't sell out. Moreover, this was the first GMF where not everything seemed to go exactly as planned. The night blew more than an hour past its planned curfew, ending at about 11:45 p.m. due to technical setbacks that forced several sets to start late – Antibalas and electro-rockers Savoy by 30 minutes; indie pop duo MS MR and jamtronica trio the New Deal, 15.
And arriving a staggering 70 minutes late was Saturday's headliner, neo-soul heroine Badu. She emerged not giving a damn, wrapped in several coats and buried in a supernova of hair, all of it worn like armor as she grandly delivered cool jazz numbers 20 Feet Tall and Out My Mind, Just In Time, standing nearly stock still.
But she softened soon enough, shedding layers both literal and metaphorical, as her whip-smart band of seven warmed up the stage. On On and On, Back in the Day (Puff), Appletree, Phone Down and particularly a wild, orgiastic Otherside of the Game, Badu was alternately slinky and sultry and spiritual, at times flirting with avant garde jazz, at others simply flirtatious.
Badu shimmied, twirled, tapped out beats on a synth pad and sold each song like a sorceress, weaving threads of jazz, hip hop, R&B and synth-rock into her own bespoke fabric of sound.
"Right now, in this moment, we have transcended race, color, religion, gender, size, shape, hair texture, technology," Badu said near the end. "We are all one in the divine love."
Badu was a fitting headliner for this particular Saturday, which had already seen strong sets of jazz (N'awlins hero Ruffins crooning Ain't Misbehavin'), head-trippy funk (the hypnotic African juju of dynamic Brooklyn ensemble Antibalas) and hip hop (Kweli and his full band, who could've manhandled the main stage with his vast array of head-bobbers, including The Blast and a smoking, noodly jam-out on Get By.
Sure, there was rock at this festival, just not as much of it. Portland, Ore.'s Blitzen Trapper dropped a loping, lumbering cover of the Beatles' Come Together near the end of their set. Tampa agit-rap-rockers Samurai Shotgun gave GMF one of its most punk-rock moments, as vocalist Matt Henley scaled the stage scaffolding on closer Force of the Shotgun, screaming, "Rise up!"
And raw, ragged Memphians Lucero scoured their souls to deliver songs from their anguished latest, All a Man Should Do. Singer Ben Nichols even debuted a new song he wrote two days ago.
"I don't even know what it's called yet," he said, "but it should be in a movie."
Gasparilla's other big experiment this year: A new fifth stage in MacDill Park, south of Kennedy Boulevard, accessible via the Tampa Riverwalk. The tucked-away greenspace was nice, but a tad too far for casual pop-ins. You could go all day without traipsing over there; many did. It'll probably work a little better as a themed stage, which it will be on Sunday, hosting all Latin acts.
One thing the MacDill stage did provide was an excuse for festival-goers to check out the Riverwalk, which remained open to the public all day. As you strolled from stage to stage, you passed joggers, skaters, bikers, buskers, crew teams and pedicabbers. You passed dapper date-nighters from the University of Tampa, a family taking their macaw out for a stroll, a double-amputee veteran snapping photos with his bride on their wedding day.
What you saw on the Riverwalk was Tampa, in all its diverse and eclectic glory. If that doesn't scream Gasparilla, what does?
-- Jay Cridlin