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Catching Ybor’s biggest wave

The community-oriented Tropical Heatwave celebrates 33 years this weekend.

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Last weekend, locals flocked to the fairgrounds for Big Guava, an inaugural three-day music festival staged by corporate sponsors Live Nation. This weekend, beloved community radio station WMNF throws its own biggest music fest of the year, the Ybor-centric Tropical Heatwave. The 33rd installment of one of the area's longest-running parties continues its new practice of running over two days, with a smaller kick-off on Friday evening featuring 19 acts and the main event all day on Saturday with upwards of 40. In anticipation of Heatwave welcoming a very special headliner to its stage — Brooklyn indie rockers The Hold Steady, which immortalized Ybor City in two songs from hard-partying 2004 debut Almost Killed Me — we reached out to some of ’MNF’s most devoted programmers and asked for some memories of times they probably should’ve turned it down a notch at the annual bacchanal of fellowship and eclectic live music. The culprit behind Lee “Flee” Courtney’s wildest Heatwave? Tequila. “I’m not saying I partied too much,” adds the WMNF music director, “but I did find myself in a ripped and fake-bloodied wedding dress at one Tropical Heatwave.”

Saturday Asylum host Scott Imrich stage-managed New World Brewery when it joined Heatwave as an official venue. How did he handle the stress of having to use a piecemeal PA system while dealing with the crush of people that inundated the place? “When I could sit and enjoy a beer, I did. For hours. Until the sun came up,” Imrich recalls. “I got to bed Sunday around 10 a.m. It was one of the longest and best 24 hours of my life.”

Others programmers, like Nancy Cee and Amy Snider (who helm WMNF’s It’s the Music programs on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, respectively) hint at an affection for wine, but the most common thread across the board is a love for bands — both old and yet-to-be-discovered — that has cemented WMNF’s and Heatwave’s reputations as incubators of good music in Tampa Bay.

That reputation is almost unrivaled. However, in a world where new, top-dollar festivals like Big Guava pop up every few weekends, it’s no small task for a listener-funded, volunteer-powered nonprofit radio station to book bands for its own music fest while maintaining sustainability. This means regular attempts at evolving and improving Heatwave, like last year’s move to extend the party to Friday evening and make Saturday’s day-long schedule more manageable. The formula has been refined for the 2014 edition. “We’ve reigned it in,” Program Director Randy Wynne Wynne explains. “There are less bands, but it’s more spread out between two nights.”

Heatwave — which originated in the Cuban Club before expanding to multiple Ybor City venues — does have a different look this year. Orpheum and Market on 7th host stages, while The Ritz Ybor and Cuban Club ballroom do not. The most glaring absentee from the 2014 festivities, however, is the Cuban Club bandshell, which played host to countless Heatwave and non-Heatwave shows alike, but was demolished two weeks ago. The adjoining parking lots that once held Heatwave’s bandshell and El Pasaje Plaza stages are now one big lot that will feature the Cuban Club Mainstage. Wynne imagines the final layout looking something like famed Austin venue Stubb’s BBQ, if the club decides to build it out. But for now, the stage will be situated on the lot’s far Palm Avenue side, facing 9th Avenue and the thoroughfare of vendors that usually flank it. While it’s a bittersweet change, it should alleviate some of the overcrowding that used to occur when big name acts performed on Heatwave’s former El Pasaje stage.

The WMNF crew has done its part by throwing in all the chips to make the festival a success in 2014. Tickets cost just $40 in advance for two days, with single-day options available as well. And the lineup — more than 40 bands on Saturday, and nearly 20 on Friday — is as eclectic and demographic-smashing as it’s ever been. There’s even a trolley that stops at every Heatwave venue; $5 gets you unlimited rides all night. Wynne is certain The Hold Steady’s mainstage performance at 10:30 p.m. on Saturday will be well attended. Whether the crowds will spill into the streets as in past editions of Heatwave remains to be seen. “But we’re still doing new things after 33 years,” Wynne says. “It’s the reason we’ve been able to last so long.”

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