Gasparilla Music Festival Lit Up Downtown Tampa
After this year’s Gasparilla Music Festival it is safe to say that Tampa knows how to throw a party. Downtown Tampa was a sight to behold this weekend, as over 50 bands took to 5 stages along the water over two sunny days. It almost felt like summer as crowds strolled through the festival grounds checking out eclectic vendor booths, ate their way down “Calle Concina,” and danced all day into the night. For many, the eclectic festival exceeded all expectations.
Day one started off with a local gospel choir taking the main stage to kick the weekend off. You can’t not be in a good mood watching a stage full of powerful singers joyously offer their voices as a gift to the heavens while the band takes them to another level. It’s no wonder that some of the best players and singers come from the gospel world — these guys can play. A couple of soloists stepped out in front and took turns belting it like Aretha. The energy was infectious. It was the perfect start the day that was jam-packed with music, spanning from jazz, Latin, folk, rock, and everything in between.
If the crowd was not ready to party after the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir exploded onto the stage, they had no choice in the matter once Serotonic started playing. The five-piece funk unit out of Tampa is one of the tightest bands in the area, and this show was no different. They amped up their set with some bonus percussion, and laid down some high energy funk that kept the crowd moving. I have seen Serotonic more times than I can count and, even with a new bass player in the mix, this was the best I have heard them sound. As I was getting my groove on right up front, passerby after passerby stopped in their tracks to join in. By the end of their hour-long set of all original tunes, there was not a stationary foot in the grass – and that’s how you know you’re doing it right.
I had planned on doing a little bit of wandering around after Serotonic, but then Gumbi Ortiz and New Groove City hit the stage, and I could not go anywhere. It was a seamless transition from Serotonic’s jazzy funk to New Groove City’s jazzy Latin/World/Soul. Gumbi is a world-renowned congas player, and his unique style blends Latin rhythms with jazz and soul grooves. Lead vocalist Marino Zayas commanded the stage and got the crowd participating throughout the set.
At this point, I had worked up quite the appetite, so I headed over to “Calle Cocina” to see what was going on. I have been to a lot of festivals in my day, but none has rivaled GMF in the food and beverage department. Some of the best local restaurants that the Bay Area has to offer were on site serving up eats as eclectic as the weekend’s music lineup. From chicken and waffle cones and crispy pork belly with pickled apples, to fried eggplant biscuits and “Kick Ass Vegetarian Nachos,” it felt like its own food festival within a festival. I went with the vegetarian nachos and, I will just say, that was not my last visit to the nachos tent.
With my hunger satisfied, it was time to get back out on the dance floor. I followed the sounds of finger-pickin’ and bluegrass harmonies over to the Channelside Bay Plaza stage where Whiskey Gentry was raising Cain with their unique blend of country, folk, and bluegrass with a hard rock edge. Lead singer Lauren Stanley’s powerful voice cuts through and it is clear that this band is more than just a real good time. Her poignant, heartfelt, and at times funny lyrics are a perfect balance to the band’s downhome edge. Whiskey Gentry was a surprising highlight of the day, and I will definitely be checking them out in the future.
Keeping the Americana theme going, I moved back to the main stage to check out Portland’s Blitzen Trapper. With a sound reminiscent of Tom Petty meets Wilco, a touch of hillbilly and a dash of punk, Blitzen Trapper had the crowd singing along. From there it was time to change it up and get a little New Orleans in my bones. Kermit Ruffins & The Barbeque Swingers do old-school New Orleans right. With Kermit leading the way on trumpet, they covered New Orleans jazz classics like “Iko Iko” and “Sunny Side of the Street,” and mixed in funky originals as the sun began to set over the water.
This year, GMF added a fifth stage to the lineup. It was at least a five-minute walk over to the Macdill Park stage, so I didn’t make my way there as often as I liked, but I did make the journey to see Tampa locals Displace. They were already midset when I arrived and the crowd was digging it. Fresh off of a successful set at Aura Music and Arts Festival, the band was on fire as usual. When they launched into a cover of crowd-favorite “Valerie,” the field sang along, smiling from ear to ear.
I caught the beginning of theNewDeal, who I wasn’t expecting to enjoy as much as I did, and then made the journey back across the river walk for the day’s headliners Antibalas and Erykah Badu. I had never seen Antibalas live, but had high hopes for Brooklyn-based ensemble, and they did not disappoint. The 12-piece band, led by vocalist Amayo, lit up the stage. You can’t take your eyes off of the party that they’re having up there. A little big Afro-beat, a little bit jazz, a lot of fun, Antibalas may have been the highlight of the day for me. And then there was Miss Erykah Badu. Despite the fact that Queen of hip-hop/soul was over an hour late, the crowd did not seem phased, and when she finally emerged, towering mane and all, she did not let the masses down. She was hypnotizing as she stood at the front of the stage belting out “Out of My Mind,” “Just in Time,” “On and On,” and the newer “Phone Down.” She was a fitting ending to a beautiful first day at Gasparilla Music Festival.
Day two brought clouds, but no one was complaining after a sweltering first day at Curtis Hixon Park. Even before entering the gates, the sounds of jazz could be heard sweeping down Ashley Dr. through downtown Tampa. Tampa’s own Acme Jazz Garage was setting the mood for day two, and while I only caught the tail end of their set, they were at their best with the addition of Gumbi Ortiz on congas. Moving from traditional jazz tunes to more upbeat, funky grooves, the sounds were a welcome start to the day.
Next it was more Americana/Folk with Fruition, who won me over with their three-part harmonies, roots-rock instrumentation, and rock and roll vibes. Fruition was the biggest surprise of the weekend for me, and they had gained a grateful new fan by the time they were done. After Fruition, I was no going anywhere, because New Breed Brass Band was up next on the same stage. I am a sucker for New Orleans sounds, and New Breed is as New Orleans as it gets. The brass band made up of New Orleans natives takes you to the streets of New Orleans with a rough around the edges second-line feel. They offered the perfect transition into a set from Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires.
Charles Bradley may have been the set I was most looking forward to throughout the weekend. I had seen the 2012 documentary Charles Bradley: Soul of America and was intrigued by his story, as well as his music. When Mr. Bradley took the stage in a bright red suit jacket, no shirt underneath, and began seducing the crowd like only a 76-year old soul powerhouse can do, the crowd went nuts. His voice is authentic and passionate, his band hangs on every word, and he grabs your attention and does not let go until he says it’s time. Frankly, I was not prepared for the show that Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires unleashed on Gasparilla Music Festival. This man was born to be at the front of a stage, and I will happily be at the foot of that stage with a silly grin on my face any time he is in town.
Finally, the weekend was coming to an end and it was time for the festival’s closing act. Stephen Marley and his band took the main stage to roaring applause on Sunday night. I have been a long-time Marley fan, and Stephen does the family proud with sincere renditions of Bob Marley favorites and powerful originals. His band took the reggae tunes to another level with searing guitar and soulful keyboard solos. Toward the end of their set, Stephen Marley and crew broke into a string of Bob Marley classics, including “Is This Love,” “Roots, Rock, Reggae,” and the kicker “One Love.” With Stephen leading the way, and offering the microphone to the audience to fill in the gaps, Curtis Hixon Park was lifted up as we held shoulders, danced and sang out, ‘One love, one heart, let’s get together and feel alright.’
One could not have asked for a better, more appropriate send off for a beautiful weekend of good music, friends and family, and good times. Gasparilla Music Festival 2016 will be one for the books, and I’m sure I am not the only one who is already ready to do it again next year.