Gasparilla Music Festival: YMMV*
Indeed, your mileage may vary*. The three-day Gasparilla Music Festival provided a boatload of fabulous music, but Saturday and Sunday featured different vibes, depending upon your perspective. Most importantly, musicians from the Tampa Bay area and throughout Florida really showed out and shone brightly, including, as is often the case at Gasparilla Music Festival, artists and bands many of us were not aware of before. Phil Benito and staff responsible for the lineup: TAKE A BOW. There was also a decided lean toward music of the ’80s and ’90s, with plenty of power pop, new wave, indie rock, electronic pop, garage rock, and much more.
We have tried to provide photos of as many of the weekend’s performers as possible. We also tried to catch part of every set while we were there (with two misses on Sunday).
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 1
Night one featured DJ Casper, Cade, Babyjake, Mod Sun, Young MC, Sofi Tukker, and silent disco.
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 2
The gospel choir and Harp & Cello were finished by the time we arrived, parked, and cleared customs (they were very efficient). There are four stages at GMF: JW Marriott Stage (main stage), the secondary Morgan Automotive Stage, and two smaller venues: Replay Guitar Exchange Stage, and Ferman Amphitheatre. The bands on the latter two stages only had half-hour time slots, which, as Joe Roma of Row Jomah pointed out, is more difficult than planning a two-hour set. For us, it meant trying to catch about 15 minutes of each of the two simultaneous performances. A fifth area was used for silent disco Friday and Saturday.
The first surprise was that a Nashville group had cancelled, making way for a late addition and moving several groups up to the next time slot on the Morgan Automotive Stage. We were blown away immediately by that late addition, Roxx Revolt & the Velvets, with a power pop trio backing dynamic vocalist Roxx. This was such a superb way to begin the afternoon!
On the huge main stage, The Wildmans were holding forth. This fine Americana/folk quartet from Floyd VA did a wonderful job of filling up the space, with upright bass, guitar, banjo, and lead vocalist and fiddler Aila Wildman. Several members sang, and the playing was really good. They made the big stage work, but they deserve to be heard in a smaller setting.
The Drain Outs (Tampa) offered up more power pop and garage rock and had a great time doing it.
Noan Partly featured an accomplished female vocalist who played banjo accompanied by bass and drums, with indie folk from Lakeland.
Artikal Sound System (Delray Beach) pumped out some spirited reggae and more, also with a female vocalist.
Great jazz writer and bassist Philip Booth observed that the version of Preservation Hall Jazz Band we got to see in Tampa is not what we might see in New Orleans, where the revered older members still perform. That in no way diminishes the fine set this great sextet blew out, kicking off with “I Ain’t Mad at You,” and it just got more fun as the set progressed. Each of the members had the opportunity to strut his stuff, and, boy, did they strut! It was perfect on a miserably hot afternoon.
Oxford Noland, who call Plant City home, made the most of their time with some great rock music, featuring Aaron Buckingham, who plays drums with his right hand and keyboards with his left, and Shua Harrell on left-handed guitar.
Back in the Amphitheatre, which continued to be packed for almost every show all weekend, Row Jomah (Clearwater) nailed their set of original tunes to great support.
Glove had a magnificent and dynamic set crammed full of indie and electronic pop and new wave. The musicians moved from instrument to instrument; at one point, we had bass, drums, keyboards, and guitars; at another, three keyboards and a vocalist.
Parquet Courts brought their NYC indie rock grooves to the main stage. There was almost a Velvet Underground approach, with drone-y guitar and Farfisa organ from the quartet. They were good but perhaps not as riveting as Glove or Roxx Revolt and the Velvets.
Clearwater’s Badcameo combined great vocals, good songs, and uplifting, uptempo beats during the trio’s short power pop set.
Pusha Preme had just won the title of best hip hop artist in the area. Unfortunately, this 30-minute set began 18 minutes late, and for me it just never got off the ground, plagued by sound issues.
Few “local” bands have greater visibility or charisma than The Hip Abduction (St. Petersburg), and the sextet — David New, Matt Poynter, Chris Powers, Cody Moore, Justino Lee Walker, and Dave Johnson — delighted time and again with their regga/ska mix and plenty of rock and great pop. Their music simply bounces and takes the audience right along with them.
And here, precisely, is where you mileage may vary. Mine is the minority opinion here; many loved sets from Sylan Esso, Matt & Kim, and Nas. Part of that, of course, deals with musical genres you listen to most often versus those you don’t.
Amelia Randall Meath of Sylvan Esso (Durham NC) was an engaging singer who covered the length and breadth of the main stage, accompanied by production DJ Nicholas Sanborn. As a respected music journalist observed, “What’s not to love?” My answer was that I saw five female vocalists throughout the day that moved me at least as much if not more than Meath.
Katara featuring Perception (Tampa) had a short set stacked with decent hip hop and some very nice jazz with Jon Shea on bass, a keyboard player who also played harp (not the harmonica kind), and a great female drummer.
Speak Easy from St. Petersburg was a nice indie rock quartet with lead vocals from the keyboard player.
Matt & Kim are from Brooklyn. I guess this was supposed to be a big frat party (the blowup sex dolls were a dead giveaway). They had a large crowd engaged in their party; I was not one of them.
Most people I know really enjoyed the set put on by Nas and his musicians, cycling through decades of his hit hip hop grooves, and the crowd was huge.
Silent Rhino ran the silent disco program both evenings. This featured three different channels, and you could change back and forth any time you like. My favorite was MOMS (Moon Over My Sammy); she was really good. The unusual aspect to this silent disco was that you were not confined to one area with your headphones; you could wander anywhere. But that required two aspects that were time-consuming. You had to provide a credit card deposit on your headset to ensure you would bring it back. That wasn’t too bad. The bottleneck occurred when you returned your phones; you had to wait in line for them to be checked in to clear your credit card. The line got long, and many people didn’t respect those already in line, butting in ahead. Interesting concept, though, with aspects to be tweaked.
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 3
For a number of patrons, especially those in the jam community, Sunday was a better kettle of fish, especially given the mantra NEVER MISS A SUNDAY SHOW.
We missed Stillhouse Shakers early set but arrived in time to see the delightful children’s favorite Bears & Lions. This Gainesville band performs in animal costumes, and every parent there felt for these guys melting in their outfits. The giraffe drummer was our fav!
Mississippi Hill country blues represented with Cedric Burnside, a fine guitarist and singer, paired with a drummer. Grandson of the legendary R.L. Burnside (“It’s Bad, You Know”), Cedric played an honest, soul-seeking set of blues to open the main stage.
We were knocked out in 2019 at Visit Neptune’s 30-minute set, and let’s just say they’ve upped the ante this year. They threw out a fine mix of indie/alt/power rock, raw and reminiscent of Flock of Seagulls and other bands of that era, not bad for a bunch of youngsters born more than a decade after that.
Leon Majcen and quintet filled the Amphitheatre with solid Americana.
As noted earlier, there were at least ten really great sets of music presented on Sunday, but anybody who was anywhere near the vicinity is still raving about Vella, a 17-year-old soul belter from Tampa who put on a performance befitting someone at least twice her age. Comparisons were made to the late Janis Joplin, who was also a great soul belter, but Joplin was not a good singer. Vella is, and her hot vocals and stunning stage presence backed by a smokin’ power trio blew up the Morgan Automotive Stage.
Other than sets we missed due to late arrival, the only two we missed occurred during the middle of The Motet, the Denver jam kings. Someday River, from Orlando, played folk and indie pop. The other was the silky smooth vocals of Ella Jet, a wonderful young St. Petersburg singer/songwriter who always delivers.
The Motet have been on the scene since 1998 in one form or another, founded by drummer Dave Watts, and their performance on the main stage strung together elements of jazz, soul, funk, jam, Latin, Afrobeat, and so much more in their tight 75-minute set.
The Motet haven’t played in this area in about five years, so this was heavenly, start to finish, including the brilliant Afrobeat of “Fearless” mid-set and the introduction of singer and guitarist Collin Miller. Check out our complete review here.
The Bright Light Social Hour have also been around for a decade plus. Their bouncy, uplifting shows have always been gathering places for happy faces, and this one certain was. They reminded us that last year should have been the tenth anniversary of their first album before the pandemic intervened, so we got a track from that (the eleventh anniversary edition comes out in November), followed by “I Need Your Love.”
Sometimes Keller Williams shows up by himself plus his looping apparatus, other times he presents Grateful bluegrass. For Keller Williams’ Grateful Gospel, Keller arrived with one kickass jam band ready to do the Dead proud, which is exactly what went down. The quartet and two wonderful female vocalists helped reaffirm the “Never miss a Sunday show” adage.
In the middle of Keller’s set, we ventured to check out the last two competing half hour sets. This turned out to be a superb decision. First on the menu: Mike Mass & Wave Theory. This group needed at least an hour, featuring an excellent jazzy band and a parade of hip hop artists, rappers, and singers, a true extravaganza. Follow them.
At the Amphitheatre (which is actually pretty small), Ivy Alex and band were under way. Alex is a strikingly beautiful keyboard player and vocalist who spent years performing on cruise ships. As we would discover later, this was the very first time that this collective had played together. As memory recalls, she was joined by an excellent rhythm section (bass & drums) and two absolutely magnificent singers. To say that everyone there was completely bowled over would be a gross understatement; we cannot wait to check Ivy Alex and her group out in an intimate setting for a lot longer than 30 minutes. When they got to “Call Tyrone,” you could have heard a pin drop (well, except for the occasional hoots and hollers, probably mine). IVY ALEX. You can thank us later.
Back to Keller Williams’ Grateful Gospel, where the crowd was joyously weaving back and forth, especially as the set exploded with the runaway train of “Eyes of the World > Saint Stephen > Samson and Delilah (a capella) > Riding Mighty High > My Brothers and My Sisters > Feel Like a Stranger > Ripple.” Grateful Gospel indeed!
The penultimate band at GMF 2021 came from Philadelphia: Mondo Cozmo. The festival program guide asserted that they played rock ’n’ roll and folk/rock. The first part was accurate; the second was not. These boys ROCKED! They, like The Bright Light Social Hour, bounced and engaged the crowd with some great tunes, including “Generator” and a fine cover of “You Wreck Me.”
It was time to shut down the festival, and who better to turn that job over to Gov’t Mule? This former trio now quartet has been kicking so much ass there are rarely any names left to take. Simply put, 26 years after the band blew on the jam scene, they’ve lost not one iota of their power, energy, or inspiration. For the next hour and a half, Gov’t Mule delivered a simply magnificent set. Interestingly, they did not follow the printed setlist, which would have been good, but what actually emerged was… as good as it gets. Read our full review here.
They dug deep into their catalog for classics such as “Thorazine Shuffle” and “Banks of the Deep End”; an astounding middle set sequence; a tune from the band’s new blues album “I Asked Her For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)”; and two of the band’s signature songs: “Mule” and “Soulshine.”
If was a brilliant ending to a brilliant weekend of brilliant music. There was so much done properly: volunteers, security, food, water, beverages, merchandize, sound production (A+), silent disco, and more.
the headliners and bands from out of state were outstanding.
More importantly, music from the Tampa Bay area and Florida was constantly on display, and the only man with a Segway — Phil Benito — and his crew deserve all the kudos you can heap upon them.
See you next March, Gasparilla Music Festival?