Here are three things you might have missed at Saturday's Gasparilla Music Festival in Tampa:
1. A roving golf-cart soundsystem with a cadre of break dancers who dropped down to bust moves next to picnic blankets.
2. An entirely unplugged bluegrass set by Georgia's Packway Handle Band in the middle of Curtis Hixon Park.
3. A second line march through the crowd, led by New Orleans' Hot 8 Brass Band, by a juggler, a humanoid octopus and a living, walking replica of Tampa's "Beer Can" building.
Yeah, it seems like that last one would be hard to miss. But each of these was, in fact, a surprise, pop-up performance, an honest-to-goodness you-had-to-be-there moment. You were off at some other stage? Sorry. You missed the dancing octopus. Better luck next year!
In its fourth year, the Gasparilla Music Festival bet big that surprises like this would enhance what is already widely considered one of Tampa's coolest cultural events. Not that it needed the bump – word of mouth on GMF is so strong that, for the first time, Saturday's opening day sold out well in advance, a huge step forward in its quest for national renown.
Still, the pop-ups were yet another reminder that GMF keeps aiming to please year in and year out, and few and far between are the fans who leave unhappy. So thoroughly does GMF understand its target demo, it's hard to tell who in the crowd of 10,000 is a performer, and who's a Seminole Heights hipster just there for the pork banh mi tacos.
GMF's biggest risk this year was arguably its choice of headliner, Modest Mouse, beloved indie-rock veterans who've nonetheless been largely off the mainstream radar since their 2004 hit Float On. They are, however, on the cusp of releasing their long-awaited first LP in eight years, which has made them a coveted booking at spring and summer music festivals – and yet Tampa's their first stop of 2015, yet another feather in GMF's cap.
Tampa was graced with the live debuts of several songs from the new album, Strangers To Ourselves – clashing, stomping opener Of Course We Know; jabbing post-punker The Best Room; and The Ground Walks, With Time In A Box, a plugged-in dance jam that seems mined from the same vein as Arcade Fire's Reflektor. Each sounded as intense and polished as the other new songs that have been kicking around Modest Mouse shows for months, if not years, including the downbeat S--- In Your Cut and ragga-flavored Lampshades On Fire.
Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock isn't known for pulling back, even on waltzier numbers like Dramamine – and his manic intensity buoyed the crowd's energy, too. The multi-instrumentalists in the band layered on deep wells of guitars, strings, drums, horns and banjos – the Southern Gothic This Devil's Workday and clickety-clackety Here's To Now were prime examples of their kitchen-sink, put-a-bird-on-it sonic cornucopia. But guitar-grinding rockers like I Came As a Rat and closer A Different City had the crowd cheering as Brock, snarling and barking, refused to let the park's energy flag. GMF is a festival that loves its funky dance-rock, and Modest Mouse did their best to deliver just that.
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Modest Mouse wasn't even GMF's only newsworthy "get." Another was New Orleans alt-rock outfit Mutemath, who peppered their set with new songs likely tabbed for their long-awaited, as-yet-unannounced follow-up to 2011's Odd Soul. Their GMF set – one of only a couple on the books so far this year – portends a moodier, more synth-driven Mutemath – even guitar-driven Odd Soul cuts like Blood Pressure and Prytania felt looser, calmer, jazzier than fans may be used to seeing.
Unreleased songs Used To, Monument and closer Light Up had strong New Wave blood, dark and downbeat in places, bubbly and atmospheric in others. Light Up, in particular, let the band cut loose around irrepressible drummer Darren King, who earlier in the set pounded his kit so hard it partially came apart. At the end, he was playing drums atop a stepladder perched by the VIP pit.
After Mutemath, the main stage crowd thinned just slightly for Jersey boys The Gaslight Anthem – possibly because Ivan Neville and Dumpstaphunk were soundtracking an earth-shaking party in Kiley Garden – but Brian Fallon's passionate howl reverberated throughout Curtis Hixon Park on furious tracks like 1930, 45, The '59 Sound and even a few songs that didn't use numbers in the title.
As the sun warmed the afternoon crowd, Durham, N.C. folkies Hiss Golden Messenger grooved through a set of countrified, Petty-fied smoke-rock, with fuzzily mustachioed singer M.C. Taylor bopping along in the breeze, especially on the uplifting jam Blue Country Mystic.
"To break a sweat outside? That's unheard of in our world right now," Taylor said.
Staten Island funk outfit the Budos Band kept the sweat going, with horns and distorted guitars fueling their wordless African-inspired jams. Wild-haired bassist Daniel Foder – looking like a cross between Rick Rubin, Kim Thayil and Tommy Chong – loped across the store like the band's shaggy spirit animal, hair and beard askew, bass tilted outward from his pelvis like a cannon.
Wonderful as their whiskers were, Taylor and Foder couldn't take home this year's J. Roddy Walston Memorial Award for Outstanding Achievement in Hair. That honor went to DeLand's Roadkill Ghost Choir, with singer Andrew Shepard rocking a shagadelic Cousin It 'do befitting their swampy, stompy, backwoods voodoo.
Roadkill Ghost Choir were but one of many Florida bands who made the most of their time on the big stage – including a handful of St. Petersburg artists, such as RedFeather and main stagers The Hip Abduction. Young St. Pete ska troupe UNRB stole the show, and the hearts of native Tampans, by embracing the "Gasparilla" part of the festival, donning full pirate regalia for a high-energy set that got the crowd up off their kiesters and skanking in the shadow of the Beer Can.
The Gasparilla Music Festival continues Sunday with Gogol Bordello, Trampled By Turtles and more. Much more. So much that the festival is probably still a few things secret.
If you're going, get there early and keep your eyes peeled. Hot 8 Brass Band plays at 3:15. Keep an eye out for the dancing octopus.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*