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After 34 years, WMNF's Tropical Heatwave leaving Ybor City's Cuban Club — but why?

Singer Sarah Borges jumped into the crowd during her performance at Tropical Heatwave at the Cuban Club in Ybor City on May 16, 2009. Jay Cridlin, Times.
Singer Sarah Borges jumped into the crowd during her performance at Tropical Heatwave at the Cuban Club in Ybor City on May 16, 2009. Jay Cridlin, Times.
Published Jan. 26, 2016

Alabama Shakes get solid airplay on Tampa's WMNF-FM 88.5. The station has even tried to book the group to play Tropical Heatwave, its eclectic, long-running music festival in Ybor City.

So, how's this for irony? Tropical Heatwave is leaving its home of 34 years, the Cuban Club, and Alabama Shakes may be to blame.

For months, Tropical Heatwave 2016 was scheduled to take place April 30 at the Cuban Club — until last week, that is, when the venue announced it was partnering with concert promoters AEG Live to bring the acclaimed alt-rock band there for a concert April 29.

At first, this looked like a win-win for local music fans. Alabama Shakes one night, Tropical Heatwave the next, would make for a potent double bill.

Behind the scenes, that wasn't quite the case.

Cuban Club president Patrick Manteiga said April 29 has been on hold for Alabama Shakes for at least nine months, and the show was looking solid by December. The entire time, he said, the Cuban Club kept WMNF in the loop.

But WMNF program director Randy Wynne said last week's announcement took the listener-supported station by surprise.

"As of a week ago, we were totally planning to be in the Cuban Club," he said Monday. "Then when we got that news about Alabama Shakes being there the night before, it kind of threw us."

For one thing, Wynne said, any lineup they could present would probably pale in comparison to Alabama Shakes, whose latest LP Sound & Color debuted at No. 1 and is up for Album of the Year at next month's Grammys.

More daunting to WMNF was the prospect of tearing down one big concert, with an expected crowd of more than 3,000, and setting up an entire festival in less than 24 hours. Stages, fences, tents, outdoor toilets — the logistics seemed untenable for the largely volunteer-run station.

From the venue's perspective, none of this was a problem. The Cuban Club has hosted many events on back-to-back nights, from concerts to weddings. Manteiga said he thought WMNF could even save a little money by sharing some infrastructure from the previous night's show.

"We still don't have a problem with turning around the venue in a day," he said. "This was not our issue."

Instead, days after the Alabama Shakes announcement Jan. 19, the station announced it was pulling Heatwave out of the Cuban Club and onto eight stages in various clubs around Ybor City, including Crowbar, New World Brewery and the Ritz Ybor, the likely main stage. All have a smaller capacity than the Cuban Club courtyard, but Wynne doesn't anticipate a major dent in ticket sales. He believes the move will save the station money "because it's quite expensive to do the Cuban Club."

Tropical Heatwave has had stages in many of those same Ybor City clubs for a few years now, but the nearly century-old Cuban Club has always been its physical and spiritual home.

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"We always thought, would it really be Heatwave if it's not the Cuban Club?" Wynne said. "This kind of pushed us to test that."

Heatwave aside, the Alabama Shakes booking is a big deal for the Cuban Club, which has long sought to become a bigger player in the concert industry.

In 2014, the club razed its bifurcated courtyard to make room for larger crowds, specifically in hopes of booking acts like the Shakes — too big for a theater or club like Jannus Live (which the band sold out with ease in 2013), too small for a venue like the USF Sun Dome or MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre.

Eventually, Manteiga said, the Cuban Club hopes to host 15 to 20 concerts a year. He still hopes Heatwave can be one of them, but he said at this point, the station is not returning his calls.

"I frankly looked at it as a big opportunity," he said. "We would love to have Tropical Heatwave there. We still want to see Tropical Heatwave there. We would love to work with WMNF on making Tropical Heatwave happen."

For his part, Wynne doesn't sound too bitter about WMNF leaving the Cuban Club and supposed Tropical Heatwave could return there in 2017.

He harbors no ill will toward Alabama Shakes, either.

"I'm happy for the Cuban Club because that's a great band to have," he said. "A lot of the WMNF crowd will be there the night before."

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.