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Hot Bands, Happy Crowds at Tropical Heatwave

Naveen Sultan about 5 months ago

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photo by Sean Kinane

Hot Bands, Happy Crowds at Tropical Heatwave

By Amy Beeman

After two nights of non-stop live music and communal fun, I’m basking in the afterglow of WMNF’s 33rd Tropical Heatwave. Tons of people, sweat and beers, intermingled with all sorts of musicians, both local and from as far away as New Zealand, all worked together to create a fantastic party with the back drop of Ybor City, with its mix of young folks going to ‘the club’, and even younger folks dressed up for prom, silver-haired men with cigars and a couple of happy trannies.

The good times started right away, with an early Cuban Club Main Stage act, Victor Wainwright & The Wild Roots, and their high-energy-ass-shakin’ memphis piano blues. The infectious vocals and serious piano playing of Mr. Wainright pulled people toward the stage and got them dancing as the sun lowered and a nice breeze kicked in. Wainwright slapped his thick pudgy fingers on the “Piana from Savanna”, banging away with the delicacy of a two-year-old boy, often with his eyes closed, but he never missed a note. After all, this is the guy who was named the Blues Music Award’s “Piano Player of the Year” the night before he played Heatwave. Clearly, he was born to be a blues man. Still, no one looked like they were having more fun than that young, skinny bass player shaking his head, jumping around, smiling and full of facial expressiveness. This band makes the party happen wherever they go, I suspect.

Afeefa & The Boy played in the Cuban Club Theatre to a half-full room. Singer Afeefa Ayube played acoustic guitar and sang, her velvety voice punctuated with a low-growly moan. Accompanied by cello, their songs had a melodic haunting sound. Over at New World Brewery, The People’s Temple out of Michigan had a lot of heads bopping as their garage rock scratched that itch inside my eardrums. I like when that happens. But then it was back to the Cuban Club Theatre to check out some world fusion band…

Who were absolutely amazing! WAHH World Fusion Band was stellar, playing to a standing room only theatre. This five-piece of clearly superior musicians created sounds from modern guitar shredding, to dueling sitar and guitar, funk, organized frenzy, and what I can only categorize as Hindi-scat, as performed by a well-groomed man who played the tabla (drum). The whole group looked like they smelled good, and they smiled at each other and at the audience relentlessly. They were having a great time. Here again was a bass-player who seemed to be having more fun than anyone else, as he plucked away on his red six-string bass, wearing a sparkly pink scarf over white linen. The crowd gave huge praise between songs and the guys looked genuinely touched.

Next I checked out Hayes Carll. He and his band mate, who played the dobro like a lap steel and harmonized beautifully with Carll, alternated between introspective songs; One about having “a bad liver and a broken heart,” and humorous songs. Truly this guy seems like half a comedian. The duo played a song about having a three-some, lamenting that it was more of a challenge than he realized. He sang, “wishin’ I’d done better in what was a surprisingly complicated situation,” between chorus’s of “One bed, two girls and three bottles of wine,” all under a waxing gibbous moon, though the breeze seemed to be taking a break.

Back at New World Brewery, Lauris Vidal, the oft-solo man of many musical talents played to a packed house, hot and sticky and too crowded to see really well if you showed up late...as I did, but I heard a laid-back grooving tempo accompanied by a rapper who seemed to be having a great time. Vidal is always mind-blowing though, in that he creates truly unique songs and his delivery is like none I’ve seen elsewhere. Bummer it was too packed to really see. Then Dropin Pickup played and with the first note it was all dancing and hair shaking as this seven-piece, (they’re usually six, but they had an additional female vocalist) complete with trumpet and violin to class up their big folk-rock sound, all conspired to out-dance the audience. Even the drummer could barely keep his behind on his stool for bouncing while he played.

Meanwhile, Elephant Stone took the main stage back at the Cuban Club. With hip haircuts and serious demeanors, these guys’ trippy shoe-gazer music made me sure I was going to start smelling marijuana wafting through the night air. The five-piece from Montreal had the crowd somewhat mesmerized as they used keyboards, a sitar and a healthy dose of resonance between songs to create a somewhat ethereal feel, complete with a cover of The Doors’ “L.A. Woman” to close out their set, which they made their own by trading Jim Morrison’s growls and screams for a softer lead vocal, and playing it with less of a roadhouse sound in favor of more psychedelic instrumentalization.

By contrast Orlando’s Rocket 88 and their good ol’ Rockabilly rockin’ had people dancing away inside the Cuban Club Cantina. You gotta just love that bass-a-slappin’ happy-heartbreaky rockabilly sound, and Rocket 88 were great, complete with lil’ pompadours and a frontman in leopard print pants.

Back upstairs at the Theatre a whole different thing was going on when Deland’s Beartoe took the stage. This six-piece, including two blonde back-up singers, kicked it off with great energy, playing to a just-about-full house. The group, who dressed down, like they were going out to dinner at Applebees (save the frontman’s leather vest with fringe) wanted for nothing in the performance department. The singer’s soulful, captivating voice, led the group in songs that mixed blues, soul and rock. The songs were original, yet somehow familiar and easy on the ears, like an old friend you forgot about. The group seemed to be having fun with each other on stage, and they inspired the best spontaneous dance break-out I had the pleasure to watch, considering we were in a sit-down theatre.

Amandla Tunesmith’s blend of various percussion instruments and sweet-sounding stringed melodies to an up-tempo beat filled the room in the Cantina, as the group of eight men in bright patterned clothing performed for a happy audience. The bongo player even managed to take a selfie. Then on the main stage Katchafire from New Zealand played some sweet, groovy reggae jams under a moon-lit sky and gentle night breeze. The eight-piece of men played together to create a tightly woven blended smooth reggae sound, with lovely harmonies, and had another one of the coolest bass- players of the night. A big polynesian man with long grey dreadlocks was locked into a small white bass with no headstock. The man was feeling it, no doubt, as he was steady-cold-groovin’ with his eyes closed and body rocking to the beat...and that was just Friday night.

On Saturday at NWB the first act I caught was the John Clark Band, who were finishing up their set with a rendition of Neil Young’s “Cortez”, and shredding it proper. Then it was over to the Cantina to see Loves It. Usually a duo, the pair added a stand- up bassist, who was killing it. The Austin group’s two regular members played guitar, harmonized and traded vocals, with the female taking most of them. The sound was upbeat cool folk, the kind of music that’s good to have on during a cook-out with friends or family, just plain fun to listen to.

Outside on the main stage it was hot and sunny, but thankfully breezy when the Deadfields out of Atlanta took the stage. The Alt-Country-rock quartet thanked all us “music loving drinkers,” for coming out, signally he knew his audience. Then went into some toe-tappin’ tunes as folks danced where they stood.

Still, I really wanted to check out Hymn for Her, who were playing at the Crowbar, and holy-hell were they amazing. Of course reviews are subjective, but this was easily my favorite discovery in all of this year’s Heatwave. This couple had it all working, great aesthetic, excellent energy, and plenty of grit intermingled with humor and each wonderfully arranged song was my new favorite. Just sayin’. They were the best of all possible worlds. Mama (Lucy) wore blue-green panty-hose under jean shorts, glasses and braided pigtails, alternating between a full-smile and a Mona Lisa smile for the duration. She straddled while she played a homemade cigar box two-stringed guitar with something like a broom stick for a neck, often with a slide and wah-wah pedal, and daddy (Wayne) wore Elvis sunglasses while he played a painted acoustic guitar and sat a little carnival looking kick-drum with high-hat and a pedal cymbal. The music had elements of rock, punk, bluegrass, and a pinch of old-timey goodness, and they even got their 7-year-old daughter on stage to sing “It’s Only a Paper Moon” made famous by Ella Fitzgerald, to the packed room. The whole thing was the height of entertainment. To see this band is to love this band.

Next was Bright Light Social Hour at the Cuban Club main stage. Looking like four of Jesus’ disciples in tight shirts, the group told the eager crowd how happy they were to be back, saying Tampa is “our home away from home. You guys were the first people to open your arms to us outside of our home in Austin. We still remember that and it means so much to us.” Then they went into some of their full-on big anthem alt-rock jams under blue skies with lots of small clouds and a waning breeze. It was hot but it didn’t matter, because when the singer belts out “I Need Your Love,” damn it, I believe him. And it felt so good to shout it out at the top of our lungs too, admit it. Those guys have the big-anthem rock thing down to a science. Still, Good Graeff was playing at the same time at NWB, and that begged to be inspected.

The band, made up of twin sisters, Brit on cello, and Brooklyn singing and playing guitar, a drummer and a bassist, played to a super-packed crowd. Brooklyn’s voice was sweet and high as she sang in earnest over a quick drum beat. She embraced her inner-rock star, complete with a hair-flip. The sound was upbeat, poppy, and it was great seeing these girls rock-out from a truly genuine place.

I barely made it to the end of New Madrid at the Crowbar, but these jam heavy guys, I was told by a fan named Joe Lawrence, “played three songs...in an hour and a half.” Lawrence meant that in a good way though, the word “phenomenal” came out of his mouth a few different times when describing the groups musical prowess.

Making my way down 7th Ave. to Carmine’s Courtyard, Tropical Heatwave was in full swing as Come Back Alice shredded guitars to an absolutely packed outdoor space, then the four players went into a cool, funky minor-key-laden jam as their female lead switched from guitar to violin. Next door at the Market on 7th, Ober Rivers and his D.U.I’s sang about dancing “drunk in the middle of the road” as befitting their name.

At this point I was feeling a little sensory overload, between the sweaty crowds and the high-energy music, but I had a job to do, so onward I pressed. After all, I hadn’t even been to the Orpheum yet... but Roadkill Ghost Choir was playing at the Crowbar. The Crowbar’s temperature was steadily climbing, yet the frontman of RGC, who had hair to his hips, wore a jacket. That’s commitment. The five-piece’s sound alternated from haunting to ambient psychedelic, to bonafide hard rock.

Being that WMNF described The Wholetones as folk-metal-bluegrass, I was intrigued and made my way back to NWB to see them. These guys were truly incredible, playing to a still crowded, even hotter and stickier New World crowd. When I arrived the quartet was banging away on acoustic instruments including a mandolin, guitars, and a cello, whose player worked it in a mad beautiful frenzy. Alternatively to standard bluegrass bands, which of course these guys don’t identify as, they have drums, which are essential to metal. These cats just tore it up, speeding up the tempo, at one point building to a crescendo reminiscent of some kind of Jewish celebratory dance song. This band is tight! Though so many bands were amazing at Heatwave, for some reason this band gave the impression they spent hours upon hours in their rooms as kids practicing their instruments. Exemplary.

Meanwhile, Joseph Arthur was playing at the Cuban Club main stage. A critically acclaimed singer, songwriter, by the time I arrived at his set he had already finished a painting (he’s also a painter) which stood on the stage. Besides his original songs, many of which I missed, Arthur played two covers of Lou Reed songs, Heroin and Walk on the Wild Side, which he lovingly made into his own while still retaining Reed’s original arrangements, as he recently released an album of Lou Reed covers since the iconic musician died in October of last year.

Ping-ponging back to The Market on 7th, the Wooly Bushmen, a three-piece 60s- garage rock band out of Orlando wailed on some good thumping jams punctuated with high-pitched woos! and hehs! and squeaky-screams to the attentive, smiling crowd. The much buzzed about Matrimony played some poppy sounding tunes to a lovin’, screaming crowd at the Crowbar, and St. Pete band Red Feather played at the NWB as the crowd finally thinned a bit due to the main act playing on the CC main stage. Red Feather’s front man sang with a lovely Jim James-esque voice under a mop of long, orange, wavy hair.

Finally, the highly anticipated group The Hold Steady, took the stage. The nerdy-cool frontman half talked, half sang his lyrics, dressed like a PTA dad with the dance moves to boot. He was fun to watch, and seemed to be thoroughly enjoying entertaining and interacting with the huge crowd under the hazy night sky. Meanwhile, inside at the cantina Ari and the Alabis played a high energy set with good rockin’ guitar, a sexy blonde barefoot singer, and a trombone player. Then I hit the wall. And I never even made it to the Orpheum.

That is to say, I was exquisitely exhausted, and missed the last few bands. But I did get to see a couple of the members of Bright Light Social Hour, seemingly inebriated, working on a hook-up situation with some interested ladies at Fuma Bella when I went in for a quiet cocktail in a real glass before heading home...so that was its own entertainment.

Though it’s a bummer that it’s impossible to see every band who plays at Heatwave, I’ve concluded that the best way to deal with it is to focus on the bands we did get to see. Let’s rejoice in the wonders of live music, and how cool it is that WMNF, community members, and so many musicians come together to make Tropical Heatwave happen year after year, for 33 years in a row. Wow!

Can I get a “Hell Yeah for Heatwave!”?

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