By MusicFestNews contributor Kristin Jennings with Scott Hopkins
In Tampa, Florida, breezy, 80-degree days are best spent near the water, and Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park is no exception. This beautiful site perched below Rivergate Tower hosted another year of the Gasparilla Music Festival, a two-day event boasting local and national musical artists and a healthy number of local restaurants and shop vendors. GMF isn’t your typical sprawling, camp-out festival — t offers a quieter, relaxed vibe that matches the reserved temperament of the city’s inhabitants and an environment that allows participants to worry less about ruining their attire or developing sinus infections from too much dust.
The mood is light and even from the William F. Poe parking garage, you can hear easy, rambling country notes from Have Gun Will Travel, a Florida outfit who mixes several genre influences into for an energetic and passionate Americana, drifting over the light Saturday city traffic. Their performance of the rousing single from their fifth studio album, “True Believers,” is the perfect complement to the sunshine and breezy waterside Sykes stage, just as HGWT is the perfect follow-up to St. Pete’s own Mt. Zion Gospel Choir, who fill your bones with energy with or without your choice of spirituality. These openers reflect the rejuvenating brightness of the day, readying spirits for the soulful acts to come. The festival has four stages perfectly positioned throughout the area. Climb the cement stairs or take a brave roll up the ramp, and you’ll pass most of the food vendor tents from several Tampa restaurant favorites: grab a chicken & waffle cone or pork tostada from Ella’s Folk Art Café, karaage from ramen purveyors Ichicoro, vegetarian and traditional corn dog offerings out of The Refinery, while resisting temptation from Rooster & the Till’s kickass vegetarian or pork mole nachos.
Kicking off the second-largest Channelside Bay Plaza Stage is New York’s sibling-led Lawrence, a soulful, funky, eight-piece assortment full of in-your-face, swinging, wailing vocals and dancing from Gracie Lawrence, trading with brother Clyde Lawrence’s own rich vocals and Randy Newman-style phrasing and masterful keyboard skills. The entertaining synchronized movement on display from the horn trio—Sumner Becker on alto sax and Jordan Cohen playing tenor, with Marc Langer rounding out on trumpet—matches their joy as they delight with original material, like the snappy “Superficial,” interspersed with a few covers like the sassy, jazzy breakdown of “Get Busy” by Sean Paul or the singalong-and-grind-inspiring early single from Nelly, “Hot in Herre.”
The easily accessible water fountains provided refills of water boxes before sweating it out in the limited shade back at the waterside stage for Shamarr Allen & the Underdawgs, another groovy collection of six musicians plus a guest on turntable and Shamarr Allen’s own pocket trumpet. Their material pours over reggae and island ska undertones with cool jazz licks sprinkled with hip-hop, R&B, and rock. They demonstrate their breadth of experience, in sync as if they’d played together for decades, always fun. While the lot was light due to either the high peak of the sun or coordinating babysitters, the humor-filled “Typical Rock Star” got people moving as much as they could muster. Following the crowd’s reluctant vocal participation during a rendition of “I Gotta Feeling” by The Black Eyed Peas, the party onstage didn’t stop as the band continued to woo with original material punctuated by Maroon 5 and Prince covers.
Back up in Tibbett’s Corner is the home of the Shea Barclay stage and clothing and accessory merchant stands, like the intriguing Damlo Designs’ record purses next to the stage. Tucked in the corner but undaunted by limited accessibility, Parrotfish, a Tampa-origin band, thrashed about to recreate a nostalgic performance you’d see high school kids enthusiastically bobbing to in a neighbor’s backyard. Their fervor inspires smiles in response to a variety of styles embedded in their garage rock explosion: funk, ska, psychedelia, classic rock, and hip-hop.
The slightly unkempt and humorous display is perfectly timed before Twin Peak’s arrival back on the Channelside stage, and the anarchic rowdiness continues the aura of sentimentality permeating the grass-and-cement-sprinkled Kiley Gardens. A throng of urbanites draws toward what recalls the oblivious and adorably bed-headed high school boys you see in John Hughes films. Chicago-born and ravaging through ’60s-’80s classic sounds, these five young gentlemen have The Kinks and Minutemen clashing (pun intended) in a refreshing display of rock musicians having the most fun they can without sacrificing musical integrity.
While the music plays on, families supervise young ones running out their boundless energy with a surprising number of hula hoops at a small city festival, often used by toddlers in creative ways. We reach the heat of the day, and many are inspired to seek shade in front of the space where Lady Wray’s band launches into a fantastic Michael Jackson instrumental as an apt introduction to the lady herself, Nicole Wray, who hails from Atlanta. This fiery, grand, sultry queen takes the stage and woos with her bright smile and swagger through jazzy and soulful R&B. “Do It Again,” before which the lady supreme remarks on those friends, lovers, family for whom you’ll make questionable decisions repeatedly, emotes both a Nineties and Sixties yearning groove and generates some two-stepping and swaying from the spectators. “Make Me Over” transports you back to a dimly lit, hazy jazz club under which she might be performing dressed in sequins and blue light. When she removes her sunglasses, the fierce smile in her eyes connects and moves you more.
Limbs loosened and soul exposed for some more carefree dancing, it’s time for The Dirty Dozen Brass Band to bring New Orleans to life near the breezy Channelside Bay Plaza stage. The audience appreciates the bass-thumping groove coming from Kirk Joseph’s sousaphone, and the slow wail of horns sends tingles up your spine. Afro-Latino and Caribbean-tinged percussion driven by Terrence Higgins rounds out phrases and punctuation from trumpeters Gregory Davis and Efrem Towns get shoulders and hips rocking. This scene is not the typical dance party one’s accustomed to seeing at a Dirty Dozen set at another festival, but the crowd embraces the warm, sensational saxophone out of Roger Lewis’ baritone and Kevin Harris’ tenor. Jake Eckert’s guitar finds space amidst that brass band sound to fill out the sound, one of the many tools this group employs to stand out from other traditional Southern jazz ensembles.
Superb music-filled days and the evening sun would not be complete without a festival favorite, Nashville’s Moon Taxi taking roughly the same slot Lucero did in 2016; Tennessee just seems to house the best sunset bands. A personal favorite of this attendee, Moon Taxi never fails to bring joy and energy to a crowd, even a subdued one. The easygoing island riffs and alternative rock combination is pleasing to most musical palates, and it’s hard not to know they’re having an excellent time whenever frontman Trevor Terndrup breaks into a contagious grin as he watches the dancing and singing happening below him. This five-piece knows how to rock hard and groove, with recent tracks like “Red Hot Lights” and TV-inducted “All Day All Night” inspiring the feminine energy on the field to move and classics like “Mercury” and “Whiskey Sunsets” providing the perfect chill backdrop to the setting sun and breeze off the water. True to form with strong covers near the middle and end of their sets, Moon Taxi launches into Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part II),” and I’m finally proud of the crowd participation with fists pumping and voices shouting the anthemic classic—also perfect for visiting spring breakers.
For those who could break away, Michal Menert & the Pretty Fantastics were pounding out their electro-soul, trip-hop, jazz-infused fury out of the blaring speakers up in Kiley Gardens. Between Menert’s precise electronic production and sampling tastes and the virtuosic saxophone interludes from the sextet, this modern sound attracts classic festival-goers seen at larger Florida festivals; when a basshead jumps the VIP fence to get in on the action, a dance party breaks out and makes the set feel like a proper festival jam.
Los Amigos Invisibles make their fifth incursion into the Tampa area and first since the 2014 GMF. An LAI show is one perpetual motion dance party; that disco funk and acid jazz prevent you from sitting. Fans might have been concerned that two of the bands founding members, Armando Figueredo and José Luis Pardo, were no longer with the band. There was no reason to worry, as the new keyboard player and guitarist are perfectly in sync.
It is a joyous, bouncy party, mostly in Spanish, and this sextet would crush at any funk festival anywhere. Singer Julio Briceño has such an impressive presence on stage, leading the band through a string of older songs and great new ones as well. José Rafael Torres has a more prominent place now, up front with Briceño, a beast on bass, great on the vocals and bouncing the entire set. The highlight, as usual, comes as percussionist Mauricio Arcas and drummer Juan Manuel Roura play the 22 beats letting every LAI fan know that “Ponerte en Cuatro” is about to unfold, and this version is simply amazing.
Bangarang, another Tampa act, rocks the stage back in Tibbett’s Corner, mixing hip-hop vocals over dueling guitar riffs to get fans bouncing, notably through their hometown pride salute, Jose Gaspar. Over on the Ferman Amphitheater stage the crowd packs in for an intriguing performance from Rogerthomas, who filled in on drums for QueenOfEx Carter’s passionate set earlier in the day. This multi-instrumentalist sets up with minimalist guitar and percussion into synth programming then hops on drums to create a full sonic experience that bounces off the concave surfaces in the venue.
Ghostface Killah‘s audience consists largely of Gen-X attendees all too eager to revisit his solo material and Wu-Tang Clan classics, and, after a brief delay, the air is soon filled with arms thrust into the air and synchronized bobbing belonging to a well-lubricated congregation. Despite the influence of sun and libations, two such audience members are invited onstage to provide supporting verse on “Protect Ya Neck,” impressing Ghostface enough to hang out on stage as he rhymed his way through more Wu classics and Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya.”
As night cools the earth and offers respite to sun-worn concertgoers, Saturday’s headliner Cage the Elephant commences the closing set with “Cry Baby” as Matt Shultz spins and bounds across every inch of the stage, his moves channeling the likes of a younger Scott Weiland and Mick Jagger as his limbs attempt to escape his body. Dressed sharply in a Sixties-inspired ensemble of a suit, stripes, and glam gold boots, he persuades the fans pressed into the corners of the platform stage to rally one last time through rambunctious performances of “Spiderhead” and “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked,” during which sibling guitarist Brad Shultz submerges himself in the mob. Cage’s relentless energy keeps them at the top of fan favorite lists for live shows, and this set upholds the high standards they’ve set. After the shimmying and cacophonous “Teeth,” Matt Shultz collapses into a trust fall and surfs the probing and clasping hands in waves of adoration, and the night comes to an end.
See what we thought of Sunday at Gasparilla Music Festival: