Gasparilla Music Festival: Another Perspective
[Article by Jordan Smith]
For over a decade, the Gasparilla Music Festival has been bringing some of the hottest acts to the downtown Tampa riverside, filling city parks with grateful fans of all ages, local food vendors, and more. The eleventh year included Black Pumas, The Revivalists, Mavis Staples, and Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue headlining. From February 25-27, the Tampa Riverwalk came alive with over 50 acts on four stages. Arguably the best part: the festival is produced by the Gasparilla Music Foundation, a 501(c)-3 nonprofit.
The annual festival takes place in Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park and Kiley Gardens Park, featuring musical acts from a wide variety of genres and cuisine from the region’s top restaurants. As part of its mission to support and promote music and education, the Gasparilla Music Foundation is involved throughout the year in several initiatives including providing scholarships and instruments to music students.
Every ticket sold and note played helps support big goals now being actualized based upon the tremendous success and support of the festival year after year. Big names draw out-of-town fans, but more than half of the lineup is made of local or regional artists. Gasparilla Music Festival (GMF) provides financial assistance for local music education, has contributed to the rejuvenation of Tampa’s urban core, promotes the region’s cultural heritage, public and alternative methods of transportation, and minimizes the environmental impact of festival production.
Friday night began with a bang with a mix of new and returning local acts to get things moving. What started as a one-day festival in 2012 grew to two days in 2014, and for the first time in 2021 a third night was added. Last year, only two stages ran on Friday, and it felt much more like a pre-party.
Music kicked off at 4 p.m. this time, with all cylinders firing, food vendors ready to go, and happy hour for all drinks sold in the festival half off until 7 p.m.
The Replay Guitar Exchange Stage, nestled in “Tibbett’s Corner” between dozens of craft and small business vendors, hosted Camille Trust at sunset, a soul/pop singer based in NYC who put it all out there for the growing nighttime crowd. She let us all know she was born and raised in the Sunshine State, finishing her set with the love song “Florida.” Her rhythm section remained on stage for a rousing grand finale that kept the high energy rolling.
G.W. Souther was just getting started in the Ferman Amphitheatre Stage, set in an actual concrete amphitheater built in 1988. A rock and roll four-piece band from Orlando, they got everyone grooving along the picturesque Hillsborough River.
Over on the main JW Marriott Stage, Grouplove came out and whipped their fans into a frenzy on the massive dance floor. The alt-rock quintet played their biggest hits: “Tongue Tied,” “Ways to Go,” and “Colours,” and they threw in a cover of Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own.”
People were definitely dancing. There were LED hoop dancers and winged stilt walkers making their way through the crowd, local performers provided by Aerial Dragons Entertainment and the Hoola Monsters. Back in Tibbett’s Corner, Sam E. Hues packed in a dozen instrumentalists who flowed through his soul-drenched hip hop smoothly. The Tampa native rapper put together a roster of local legends in their own right, giving each one an opportunity to shine.
Cimafunk came out hot at the Morgan stage with a ten-piece band supporting his “AfroCubanFunk.” Female vocalists Ilarivis Garcìa and Katerin Llerena wowed the crowd when they picked up their instruments, trombone and saxophone, respectively. Their tropical grooves blended into the just-barely crisp night air. So many artists and fans enjoy the break from winter at GMF. Very few places are as comfortable as Florida in February.
The music flowed Friday night until there was only one act left to play on the main stage: Black Pumas. This was the Pumas first-ever show in the Sunshine State, and they quickly got down to business, Eric Burton pumping up the fans with gratitude as he spoke to the return of live music. Music, he emphasized, not played through a stream, but LIVE. They ran through their set as the night wound down, and after a brief break, announced they had a special guest for the last song. The energy was electric as the legendary Mavis Staples walked out. They performed Crazy Horse’s “Dirty Dirty” in what could not have been a more epic encore.
The sun came up quickly with gates opening at 1 p.m. for Day 2 at GMF. Local public radio station WMNF set up to broadcast live and direct from the Morgan stage. They played Cimafunk on the airwaves the night before and broadcast four of the five Saturday acts, starting with Seranation, pop-reggae from St. Petersburg, and Have Gun, Will Travel (HGWT), alternative folk-rock from Bradenton. HGWT, a local staple since 2006, put on a rocking afternoon set, their first of an eight-show run after performing only twice as a group in the previous two years. They are riding high on the heels of their single “Buyer’s Remorse” released February 18.
Arrested Development brought their unique ’90s hip hop to the main stage, the audience singing the lyrics along with frontman Speech. Fareedah Aleem got down with her bad self not only singing but hyping the crowd up dancing and waving a Black Lives Matter flag.
Over in Tibbett’s Corner, Moonthing was hypnotizing their fans with their cinematic psychedelia sound.
It was an honor to have not only two headliners from the great city of New Orleans but also Mardi Gras Indian funk band Cha Wa as well. Led by drummer Joe Gelini, the fresh-faced lineup came on the Morgan stage and began playing as Gelini announced the immaculately dressed Big Chief of the Golden Eagles, Monk Boudreaux, and grandson J’Wan Boudreaux. “Cha Wa” is a phrase used by tribes that means “here we come,” and they sure did, all on a Mardi Gras weekend day.
Margo Price and her rebellious group of cowboys shook us into the sunset on the main stage, with the University of Tampa minarets as a backdrop along the river. She alternated between playing guitars and tambourine, but always singing her country-rock tunes from the heart. The GMF crowd was treated to Price’s sultry version of the Lesley Gore classic “You Don’t Own Me” as golden hour light dappled the palm trees and downtown Tampa skyline. In the ampitheatre, Vinny Virgo, a Tampa-grown hip hop artist, blended trap sounds with experimental idealistic waves to keep the vibe up.
Meanwhile, Andy Frasco and his wild party band kept the Morgan stage audience moving, including bringing the Cha Wa Indians back out for a song. Frasco connected with the crowd, eliciting lots of laughs, leading a sing-a-long of Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend,” and at one point choreographing some sort of rowdy square dance.
He even called the cylindrical Rivergate Tower a “penis-shaped building.” It’s supposed to be a beer can, ok?
The sun was now down, the stars were out, and Band of Horses were playing a thunderous set on the main stage. The start times were staggered between the four stages, keeping the flow of people moving between the two parks seamlessly. There was plenty to do and look at while listening to the music.
Tampa art collective Crab Devil set up an immersive shipping container display that attendees could walk through for a taste of their upcoming permanent installation, the Peninsularium. The Louver Fountain, with color-changing lights, provided relief from the heat for those willing to get wet. Re-entry was also an option for anyone who needed it. With downtown hotels at 100% capacity, there were more than a few festival patrons just visiting Tampa for the weekend.
Back on the Morgan stage, the two very unpretentious, polite, and total badasses that make up Bob Moses came on. The Canadian electronic duo is Tom Howie and Jim Vallance. Howie started by simply stating, “It’s good to be here. Let’s have some fun!” Their club set flew by with a mix of their own smoldering ambient tracks and moody covers (INXS, anyone?)
The Revivalists wasted no time with the sold-out Saturday night crowd, diving headfirst into their catalog of celebratory and cathartic hits like “Criminal,” “You and I,” and “All My Friends.” The eight-piece band’s sound is tighter than ever, each player completely dialed in. This was their first show together in five months.
Singer-songwriter David Shaw walked along all sides of the stage, slowing down, speeding up, and speaking directly to fans in the front rows. Guitarist Zack Feinberg and saxophonist Rob Ingraham took turns walking around and out into the crowd too. They were joined by Shaw and Michael Giradot on trumpet for “It Was A Sin,” leaning against one another, still playing, in a truly rock-n-roll moment. The band took a breather after their 85-minute set and introduced their manager Amy; it was her last night with the group. After hugs, posing for photos, and cheering for Amy, the boys finished strong with the heartfelt chart-topper “Wish I Knew You.”
To further the mission of music education, kids under 12 enjoyed free admission all weekend at GMF. “Kidsfest” is on Sundays, a festival within the festival featuring family-friendly music and activities. This year’s Kidsfest featured another New Orleans act, the Imagination Movers, plus the Tampa Metro Youth Orchestra, School of Rock Tampa, and a disco dance party with DJ Kitty, a mascot of the Tampa Bay Rays.
Beyond Kidsfest, Sunday brought WAHH World Fusion Band to Tibbett’s Corner, a local seven-piece blend of “East meets West” including sitar, tabla, and sarod playing a unique mix of jazz, rock, and funk. Kenzie Wheeler, Dover native and finalist from The Voice, led a country classic sing-a-long over on the sunny Morgan stage.
Soul music legend Mavis Staples gave us a taste of her deep, strong, 82-year-old voice Friday night with Black Pumas, but Sunday afternoon was all hers. She took us to church on the main stage. Her full touring band and two backup singers warmed up with Staples Singers classics, sliding into the motivational “Brothers and Sisters,” written for Mavis by Ben Harper.
She got the crowd grooving with her cover of Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That,” spiritual “Wade in the Water,” and Talking Heads’ “Slippery People.” No one was still while Staples was singing and dancing across the stage. She told the enthusiastic crowd we were her friends now, as she shared her father’s song “Friendship.” She snuck in a little Buffalo Springfield “For What It’s Worth” before finishing strong with “I’ll Take You There,” the number one hit from her family group, The Staples Singers. Everyone was positively glowing after this set, and we were only just halfway through the day.
Neal Francis, another Chicago-grown talent like Staples, played almost every track off his November release In Plain Sight. His refined yet free-spirited piano-playing permeated throughout Kiley Gardens while his band appeared to be having the time of their lives on the Morgan stage. For their last number, “Can’t Stop The Rain,” Francis was joined by co-songwriter David Shaw. Each collaboration this weekend made perfect sense, yet somehow was still a joyous surprise.
We were treated to the most colorful sunset of the weekend as The Allman Betts Band came on. The scenic main stage was alive as they took their time jamming through a mix of originals and Allman Brothers Band classics along the river. This was the last show for the group until the end of 2022, due to a scheduled hiatus. Soaring and scorching guitar solos lit up the night.
It was getting close to the last call at “Calle Cocina,” the block of food vendors in the southeast corner of Curtis Hixon Park. Local restaurants, caterers and vendors came together to showcase Tampa’s rich culinary history and creativity while representing the area’s vast cultural complexity. Selections vary from Cuban sandwiches to boiled peanuts and gourmet ice pops to fresh-caught blackened grouper.
Khristopher James shut down Tibbett’s Corner this year with another all-star band of local musicians. They delivered a fluid blend of Southern R&B, with swoonful keys and in-pocket rhythms – as well as sincere stories and recognition of how important community is to our continued growth.
Pinegrove, from New Jersey, closed Kiley Gardens and the Morgan stage with their alternative, emo-tinged indie rock. They shouted out some of the progressive organizations they work with and gave the audience a healthy dose of the Sunday scaries.
With only one act to go, the crowd had thinned and slowed down, but Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue was the perfect closer to get everyone dancing again if only for just a little while longer. Troy Andrews and his out-of-sight band got to work reminding us that there were just two more sleeps until Fat Tuesday. They brought the New Orleans funk and spirit, with boisterous horns and authentic style. A young girl in the front was taking it all in sitting high on her dad’s shoulders, reminding us of the spirit of GMF, music education.
Towards the end of the set, Andrews took a moment to pay respects to some of the Crescent City greats: Allen Toussaint, The Neville Brothers, The Meters, and others! The band then played a blistering hot cover of “Fiyo on the Bayou.” Whew! But they weren’t done yet; they finished the job by making sure everyone was moving with a James Brown medley that included parts of “Cold Sweat,” “Get Up Offa That Thing,” and “I Feel Good” among others. A perfect festival ending, pushing boundaries of tradition and moving music forward.