Downtown Tampa couldn't have been blessed with more pristine conditions for the inaugural Gasparilla Music Festival. The temperature reached into the 80s in the daylight hours, but the skies were clear, a steady humidity-free breeze blew all throughout, and it cooled off quite nicely as the shadows grew longer and afternoon faded into evening. [Text by Leilani, photos by Phil.]
The fest setting drew attention to the most scenic part of downtown and engendered renewed feelings of appreciation for our evolving cityscape. Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park and Kiley Gardens Park and Amphitheatre are the lovingly maintained jewels nestled amid a hub of cultural offerings, with the hulking Glazer Children's Museum and artistically-lit Tampa Museum of Art situated along Curtis Hixon on one side and the Rivergate Tower (aka Beer Can building) standing tall on the far side of the architecturally relevant gardens, the two connected via a wide concrete walkway.
Kiley was the site of the smaller-scale Amscot Stage and the tiny Amphitheatre stage. The latter was a pleasant acoustic detour on the way to or back from Curtis Hixon's Tech Data main stage, which was set against the Riverwalk, its backdrop the Hillsborough River and the University of Tampa. The stage faced downtown and the lush rectangular lawn rose in a gentle incline toward Ashley Street to create a natural amphitheater, the music echoing off the giant glass-and-metal Skypoint condo building that flanked the far corner of the fest grounds. The overall effect was a satisfying coziness, like being hugged by the city or held in its palm.
There was a little sound seepage, most noticeable in the acoustic amphitheatre stage, but the set times were staggered well enough that none of the bands were playing much longer after another had started.
Curtis Hixon has facilities with running water (though for the fest, there were also Port-o-Lets tucked discreetly in a corner), and beer tents and food stations, booths and trucks by local eateries and vendors were scattered in and along the side of the park for the day. We stopped here first and wasted no time putting away some pulled pork sliders and nachos from 3 Suns Organic Bistro and Korean style sticky buns from Stinky Bunz Food Truck, all munched in the shade of a palm tree as we listened to the blues-fired sounds of Alvin "Youngblood" Hart as he sang and wailed through licks and riffs on electric guitar with accompaniment by his full rocking band. We were also entertained by Tampa's own horn and percussion ensemble, Distinguished Men of Brass, who incorporate dance moves, hat-tipping and pageantry into the marching instrumentals they deliver in full-on suits. The Men paraded all the way around and through the festival grounds in stop-start formations that led up to their amphitheatre-closing set before their big-time brethren, Rebirth Brass Band, took the Kiley stage.
We also grazed on prime steak sandwiches from Malio's, a single serving-size pizza from Your Pie Pizza Food Truck, and my favorite treat of the night, donuts from Hot Donut Company, the truck's still-hot donuts served plain or sprinkled in powered sugar or sugar and cinnamon or slathered in chocolate frosting, best with a cup of fresh-brewed gourmet coffee.
Yes, I could've been shaking my money maker, but I was soaking up the laid-back vibes and overall mellow contented atmosphere, so I felt good about spreading out a blanket and listening to Deer Tick while kicking back. Ironically, it was one of the loudest, most raucous points of the day and the one that drew the most people to the main stage.
Deer Tick's live sound was grittier and more reverb-drenched than I'd expected from the alt country band's studio records, their booze-schwilling barroom-brawling rock marked by sweaty Southern roots and blues influences, and stomping punk-grunge drive. Their noisy set carried frontman John McCauley's scratchy twangy howl as he raged with the band on verses like "We're full grown men but we act like kids" and through a riff-raging close-to-original cover of Nirvana's "In Bloom" (Deer Tick has apparently devoted entire sets to renditions of Nirvana songs, as Deervana). They even threw in some sexy sax and keyboard melodies, teased "Fear the Reaper" by Blue Oyster Cult (though never actually played it), and generally had a rowdy good time.
We headed over to check out Tortured Soul as the sky deepened, the indietronica trio's disco house sounds and the velvety R&B croons of drummer/singer John-Christian Urich ushering in the evening and making for a lounging, grooving after dark dance party filled with swaying and bobbing bodies.
We returned to the main stage to find The Expressions warming up the crowd with a funky instrumental intro before Lee Fields made his grand entrance clad in a retro white suit and black dress shirt. He performed cuts off his two most recent warm vintage albums, 2009's My World, and his just-released Faithful Man, collar loose as he crooned his tender soulful serenades and expelled positive uplifting energy in generous bouts, voicing his feelings of love and appreciation unabashedly and making everyone lucky enough to witness his set feel great.
A brief sojourn back to the gardens to check out Rebirth Brass Band found a nice crowd jamming to their New Orleans flavor, but I was losing steam and wasn't lured into sticking around, so I got some more gourmet coffee and hot donuts from my new favorite truck before catching Ra Ra Riot's fest-closing set.
The New York chamber rock sextet are young and exuberant, Wes Miles a wildly yelping frontman who led his bandmates through Ra Ra Riot's grandiose instrumentals, the tight violin and cello work of musicians Rebecca Zeller and Alexandra Lawn adding symphonic flourishes to the upbeat dance pop and drama to the band's anthemic crescendos. Ra Ra Riot wasn't quite able to draw out their performance and fill up the full 90 minutes they were scheduled for — with the encore, they were off the stage by around 10:30 p.m. (and at some point they admitted this was the longest they'd ever played) — but they added a nice exclamation point to a tremendously satisfying day.
At the end, watching fest goers trickle out to their next or final destination on a still-early night (The Hub was jammed), I felt contented with how it all turned out, and I didn't hear any complaints from anyone I talked to about it. In fact, I can't tell you how many times I ran into someone who expressed how great the day was going, who brought their kids with no fuss, who were already planning on getting a hotel downtown for the next one.
The groundwork has been laid and the stage set for a second annual Gasparilla Music Festival. If all goes right, things can only get better from here.