Gasparilla Music Festival: The Perfect Last Fling (For a While)
If that was going to be the last music festival for the foreseeable future, at least we ended with a bang. Gasparilla Music Festival once again exploded across Curtis Hixon Park in Tampa and the adjoining Kiley Gardens for two spectacular days of headliners and undercard acts, national and local, seasoned and just hitting the festival scene. Phil Benito and his crew curated a brilliant mix of music for us to enjoy, covering most bases.
We made a diligent effort to hear and see as many performers as possible over the two days. By our count, we missed only seven of 43 sets over the two days. With so many sets going on at the same time, we caught at least a portion of those.
Florida Gospel and Stillhouse Shakers were finished by the time we got to the press gate and checked in. The way the schedule was set up, there were always simultaneous sets on the Replay Guitar Exchange Stage and the Ferman Amphitheatre, running opposite the Ashley Homestore Stage sets.
We’ve seen Bears & Lions before. These guys play bouncy music in full animal costumes. They were amusing at Suwannee Hulaween in that trippy atmosphere, but here they made perfect sense, as dozens of small children were happily bouncing with them. In the amphitheatre, School of Rock Tampa was indeed a stageful of youngsters joyously rocking away. That’s how you get ’em hooked early on performing!
Someday Honey is the vehicle used by chanteuse Kaleigh Baker and her band, featuring Matt Walker on guitar. Their set was filled with originals and great covers such as “Jockey Full of Bourbon” by Tom Waits and Ruth Brown’s “I Don’t Know.” It was the perfect set to ease into the afternoon.
There was a spirited performance by Edan Archer, a Gainesville woman whose music spans country and Americana well. She was joined by another female vocalist and a solid band for some well-written tunes including “Dopamine” and “Bad Imitation of Something Good,” a real rocker from her 2019 album Journey Proud. Two more songs from the album closed the set: “Hard Liquor” and “Alcohol.”
There are lots of reasons to attend music festivals. You can go late just to hear the headliners or arrive just in time to see names you know. OR, you can arrive early and “discover” all sorts of gems. Visit Neptune were a quartet of gems. The MC explained that these young men, all 18 (or thereabouts), weren’t even born during the decade they were honoring: the ’90s.
These four young men — Riley Buchanan, lead vocals, guitar; Trent Alexander, drums; Justin Bailey, lead guitar; and Aidan Henriksen, bass — did precisely what they set out to do, and it was wonderful. They have an album out titled Life as a Hypnotist.
Kerry Courtney offered some nice indie-Americana music with a band and a violin player on loan from a band coming on later. He had a nice falsetto and good turn of phrase.
The Black Honkeys are some of the Bay area’s favorite funksters, and there is no question why the moment they hit the stage. It’s impossible not to watch Brother Phil and “Miss Groovalicious” (Nicole Simone) as they strut the stage!
The Tony Tyler Trance performed a set of music we all came to know thanks to Derek and the Dominos. Tyler had collected a crack band of musicians from several local bands to pull this set off, and it was brilliant. Read our full review here.
We got some honest ’60s soul from Curtis Harding all the way from Saginaw, Michigan. It was an honest performance from an engaging front man, and the crowd reacted accordingly to songs such as “The Other Side,” “Keep On Shinin’,” and “I Need Your Love.”
The small amphitheatre stage was packed as Ashley Smith and The Random Occurrence delighted the packed crowd (NOTE: every set at the amphitheatre was packed, and properly so). Smith on vocals was joined by a full band, including a guitarist who joined her on some vocals. That violin player was back for more, and the band was anchored by Andrew Kilmartin on drums, who spent the rest of the weekend as the sound engineer on the Replay Guitar Exchange stage.
Which seems like a good opportunity to talk about the sound engineers. Recently, we had attended a festival with the worst sound we’ve ever encountered in the past 14 years and hundreds of fests. How did GMF fare? Simply put: the best festival sound we’ve ever encountered! Because of the close proximity of all four stages, music playing from any one would conflict with another. That never happened. The engineers on all four stages get A+ for their efforts. It doesn’t HAVE to be loud to sound good; in fact, often the opposite is true.
There was some very good emo-indie music pouring out from Photo Fire, a sextet from St. Pete who call their music “art rock.” Fair enough. They had great harmony vocals, fronted by a female singer.
OK, first thing: The Nude Party were not, in fact, nude. But they were a boatload of fun, blasting out ’60s and ’70s pop-punk with great enthusiasm. This Boone NC sextet calls what they do “rock and roll boner pop.” We won’t argue!
New York’s St. Lucia hit the main stage with their indie pop, lead by Jean-Philip Grobler and Patricia Beranek, offering song’s from 2018’s Hyperion and their previous catalog.
Rapper FRE$H P, dressed in full fatigues, dedicated his set to enlisted men and women and veterans. Joined by turntablist Wally, he spit rhymes we could understand which were positive and refreshing.
Back at Tibbet’s Corner (the Replay Guitar Exchange stage), skyrocketing singer Shevonne Philador and her outstanding band, The Force, were trying to cram as much music as they could into their 30-minute set (all of the simultaneous sets there and in the amphitheatre were just half an hour). She offered some great new music and “Strange Lovers.”
Big Freedia. Well, just WOW. She’s a spectacular drag queen from New Orleans who is the leading exponent of the Crescent City’s new hip hop sensation: bounce music. Basically, twerking in your face and music and rhymes hitting you at 100 MPH. And it was gloriously, magnificently, stupendous! Big Freedia is a great rapper, and her three dancers were, let’s just say, in constant motion. Except for the time when Big Freedia invited 20 people on stage (there were more than that) for more twerking fun.
There was huge buzz ahead of the set by Rival Suns, a quartet who claim both Nashville and Long Beach as homes. That buzz paled in comparison the acclaim when their set was over. This was one of the best rock shows we have heard in years. There was so much going on. There are some similarities to Led Zeppelin, for instance. This quartet features an incredible front man in vocalist Jay Buchanan, who evokes images of Robert Plant, Paul Rogers, Sammy Hagar and others of that ilk. He was a vision in white as his band pounded out great rock.
Jordan Patrick had great flow to his rap at the amphitheatre, backed by his DJ. His delivery was great and got excellent response.
The vocals were deluxe on stage with Demi Nova, likely the only doctor of pharmacy performing all weekend. The striking singer dances over soul and R&B, and she was joined by a simply angelic backing vocal trio. Whether she was covering Aretha or performing an original about meditation, she had our attention. Properly, she sang “I’ve Got That Energy.” We would agree.
It’s hard to say exactly what was happening at the De La Soul show. One of the members was out sick. They were fortunate to get Talib Kweli to sit in with them. He was great! Secondly, the company that owns the rights to their early songs has them hog-tied, unfortunately, which is why they didn’t do a lot of the old songs. It was weird!
Many of us have been to festivals that had silent disco, but many have not. They had thousands of people check out silent disco Saturday night. For those familiar, this is the first time we’ve used headphones with three different channels rather than two. That means that there were three separate DJs playing a wide variety of genres; attendees could listen to any or all of the channels, one at a time.
The night’s headliner was Brandi Carlile. We’d seen her once and thought perhaps we would catch part of the set and split early. We love being wrong. Carlile and her band owned the crowd for the next 90 minutes, us included. After a song or two, she addressed the crowd:
The night is perfect. The vibes are perfect. We don’t get down to this neck of the woods very often, and quite frankly that’s bullshit. Also, thanks for letting music bring us together.”
Good news for us! The set built slowly, then slowed as the band left the stage with Carlile and her twin towers, Phil and Tim Hanseroth, both of them playing guitar. The three-part harmonies they concocted were heavenly, especially on “You Can Dance in a Hurricane,” “The Mother,” and “Fulton County Jane Doe.” We were able to move almost far enough from the people who talked through this whole segment (GRRR).
When the band returned, they stunned us with two astounding covers. The first was “Madman Across the Water,” and Sir Elton would have been on his feet cheering. Having a superb string section (two cellos and a violin) sent this one over the top. Then Carlile told us about her friendship with Joni Mitchell. She mentioned her three favorite songs: “Halleluliah” (Leonard Cohen), “I Will Always Love You” (Dolly Parton), and Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” which Carlile lovingly performed, incorporating that telltale Mitchell vibrato.
They played several more and left the stage, but we were having none of that! The encore? Simply amazing. Carlile, piano, strings, Joni vocal, band, Pachelbel “Canon in D.” BRAVA!
Arrival again thwarted our opportunity to hear the very first groups. Fortunately, however, The Wandering Hours, who had the noon set on the Ashley Homestore Stage, moved operations to the rise near the main stage and continued playing. This St. Pete group has a blast playing neo-traditional mountain folk music.
Will Quinlan and the Holy Slow Train took the main stage to kick the afternoon off with their Americana/folk-rock, nice bluesy rock with solid vocals and nice harmonies.
It’s possible you’ve never heard “Dance Rock Synth Jocks” before; we sure hadn’t. argonaut&wasp were a dynamic Brooklyn power pop quartet with production and excellent stage presence. This was a dance party all the way!
Tampa-based New Fang rocked us with blues, rock, and (more) power pop, very good harmony vocals to boot. There was so bouncy punkish rock as well. Meanwhile, Charles Irwin and quartet were pumping out some truly unusual indie stuff.
If you’re looking for a word to describe Marco Benevento, you should start with dynamic. He and his trio are all amazing on stage, with Karina Rykman on bass and Dave Butler on drums. Early on we heard “Send It On a Rocket” from last year’s Let It Slide and then the title track. If there was a sound issue, it was that Rykman was singing, but we couldn’t hear her.
Benevento was resplendent in his usual white outfit and top hat. What wasn’t usual was his keyboard rig. Normally, he plays this really funky player-piano-looking fair all electronics-up, but for this show he was playing two standard keyboards on a stand. However, through magic, with your eyes closed it was impossible to tell the difference! The set included “Why You Got to Throw It Away,” Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire,” “At the Show”, and the INXS song “Suicide Blonde.”
Earlier, The Wandering Hours performed. Now up were The Wandering Hearts, who call their music “harmony-laden folk-Americana.” Their set was, in a word, lovely. Forgive all of us for our surprise when they spoke to the crowd; they are from London, no question. The two ladies — Tara Wilcox and Francesca “Chess” Whiffin — sang, while A.J. Dean and a second guitarist accompanied. Sadly, their U.S. tour has been cut short; be sure to check them out when they return!
Time for two more 30-minute sets. Synergy in a Cup properly describes the hip hop flavors from this seven-man band. They took us through soul, blues, and R&B during their short set.
There were deep, infectious indie grooves from Tampa trio Vetnough, with Julia Powell, guitar and vocals; Christina Piasecki, drums; and Carlos Reyes on a huge bank of keyboards and synths. They offered new single “Bluebird” during the solid set.
You will forgive us if we missed the low country sound of Anderson East, because we were about to TAUK. This brilliant quartet from Long Island have been playing their updated version of ’70s fusion for a long time, and we just hope it continues a lot longer. They CRUSHED this set start to finish, beginning with “Horizon” and closing with “Friction.” There was a segment when “Dippin’” segued into “Weenus” where they deeper in the pocket that we’ve ever heard them before. The crowd was going nuts, properly so. Matt Jalbert’s guitar lines were so gorgeous and clean, matching the keyboard wizardry of Alric ‘AC’ Carter. Charlie Dolan was rocking the low end. Isaac Teel (drums) introduced the group’s new single “Come On Now,” said in the proper tone of voice. Out of the tune “Realize,” they launched into “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” with Teel on vocals.
We had two more short sets left. Discord Theory, a Tampa quartet, were doing the indie rock thing.
And, in the amphitheatre, perhaps the most unusual visual display of the weekend: PLEASURES. The music was fascinating. On their FB page, the St. Pete group throw together genres such as “Hypnotic//Dark//Groove, Progressive//Alien//Pop, and Strobing//Death//Cult.” The quintet were all dressed in white robes, as were the six young people standing in front of them the entire performance. Want to check them out again.
For those familiar, the fact that GMF had The Word on the lineup was drawing card enough. This quintet is completing its second decade of music, and there is no indication they will slow down. They come from different groups and don’t always tour, but when they do, make your way to the front! Robert Randolph (The Family Band) holds down the sacred steel chair (pedal steel guitar) in this collaboration full of gospel and funk and joy. He told us that the bass player was his cousin Ray-Ray.
The Dickinson boys of North Mississippi Allstars fame are there as well, Luther on guitar and Cody on drums. Add in keyboard master John Medeski (Medeski, Martin and Wood), and you’ve got a brilliant band. Randolph introduced “The Chocolate Cowboy,” a straight-up boogie (and who was on hand to boogie but the one and only Boogie Cat, making his first festival appearance of the year!).
Near the end of the outstanding set, they launched into this ridiculous jam. At some point, Randolph and Ray-Ray traded off, Randolph on bass and Ray-Ray on pedal steel. And Ray-Ray was magnificent! Then Randolph and Cody switched, Randolph to the drum kit and Cody to bass. And two more exchanges as Cody went back to kit, then Randolph back to pedal steel and Ray-Ray to his bass. DAMN.
We scurried back up to the Ashley Homestore stage to catch the last half hour of Sales, but they had ended early!!! So back we went for Portugal. The Man. Let’s be clear here. We were TOTALLY unprepared for what was about to unfold.
We caught at least eight music references woven into the set, and we suspect we missed just as many. After a Beavis and Butthead video which ended with “…the greatest band on earth… Portugal. The Man,” the powerful opener included “In the Flesh?” and “Another Brick in the Wall” (Pink Floyd) and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (Metallica). Next a modified version of Richie Havens singing “Freedom” from Woodstock morphed into the band’s song “Number One.”
After “Modern Jesus,” there was a quote from the black Sabbath song “Black Sabbath” about the time the graphic behind the stage declared “PTM Saves.” “Atomic Man” collided with “Gimme Shelter,” and there was a long sequence of the end of the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” which ended precisely correctly. After “Holy Roller (Hallelujah),” they said, “This is our last song. This is our best song.” And out came “Feel It Still.”
Of COURSE we demanded an encore and were rewarded with “Sleep Forever > Hey Jude,” which early on quoted the line “Live and let die” and closed with “Hey Jude.” And the music? Incredible. What a powerful performance. Here’s the setlist:
[For Whom the Bell Tolls > Another Brick in the Wall Part 2 / Purple Yellow Red and Blue, Number One, Keep On, Live in the Moment, Creep in a T-Shirt, Modern Jesus, Atomic Man / Gimme Shelter, All Your Light (Times Like These), Hip Hop Kids, Holy Roller (Hallelujah), Feel It Still, Sleep Forever/Hey Jude]
Everybody deserves props for Gasparilla Music Festival: bands, workers, staff, sponsors, Mother Nature, and attendees!
One thought for next year: some jazz and some Latin music in the mix