It’s hard not to gush over the Gasparilla Music Festival. The warm tingles take over every time I think about this bowl-of-chicken-noodle-soup festival located on Tampa’s beautiful Riverwalk. GMF is a non-profit music festival which aims to benefit a program called Recycled Tunes. It’s their mission to get musical instruments and education into the hands and minds of Tampa Bay’s youth. They even help teachers with instrument repairs, supplies, and moral support! As if that’s not enough to get you to come out, this festival also boasts beautiful views of the water, ample vending and food trucks, as well as a great kids space and stellar VIP accommodations. The musical lineup is nothing short of amazing with national acts like Nas, Gov’t Mule, Sylvan Esso and Sofi Tukker taking the stage!
I hear Sofi Tukker, MODSUN, and the rest of Friday’s music is great. My adventure, however, begins on Saturday with a trip to the West Coast of Florida from Orlando. Trudging through neck-deep traffic, I finally arrive at the festival mid-afternoon and get a great parking spot (pro tip: park under the bridge you walk over, there is a $20 parking lot underground). I breeze through check-in, health check, and security which are all run by happy smiling people. They make me feel so welcome back to the festival I love.
Today is beautiful with clear skies, but boy is it hot, so I’ve got my bandana and sunglasses ready. Upon entering, the sweet sounds of Wildman’s Band fill the air at the JW Mariott Stage (main stage). Fiddle player and lead vocalist Aila Wildman helps to cool me off with her beautiful voice and playing. Unfortunately, I miss much of their bluegrass performance, but am fortunate to see them finish their set with a spot-on cover of Tedeschi Trucks Band’s, “Midnight in Harlem.” Wow, her voice soars above the crowd on thermals provided by her band. I’ve been here less than an hour and I am so f*cking happy to be back in this beautiful place with people to see, bands to meet, and the freedom to do whatever I want!
I move to the Morgan Automotive Stage (side stage) across the bridge to Artikal Sound System from South Florida. This band has been together for a while, but the addition of their neighbor, female vocalist Logan Rex has helped them take flight. They get the crowd moving with “Firehouse” as Rex bounces around on the stage with a ton of energy. It’s at this point I get a surprise text from my friends who were miracle tickets for the weekend! Excited to meet them, I head back to the beer garden for a cold Coppertail Free Dive IPA and a few hugs from my squad! A couple of suds with my buds gives me a chance to cool off under the canopy while enjoying, “You’re An Asshole” and their steppin’ song “Spiritual Broadcaster.”
By this time Preservation Hall Jazz Band from the Crescent City is gearing up to play. They were determined to make this festival after COVID-19 snubbed them the first time around in 2020. I’ll admit I don’t know their songs as well as I should, but I know damn good New Orleans jazz when I hear it. Trombonist Ronell Johnson and pianist Kyle Roussel don’t waste any time showing off their skills before giving way to drummer Walter Harris with a beautiful big band sound.
Later on they breakdown and spotlight double bassist Ben Jaffe who is also their Tuba player. His groovin’ solo supported by Harris warrants a mighty applause from sweaty music fans all around me. I can’t help but dance to this piping hot music. It’s a steamy 91 degrees outside, but I don’t care. PHJB then features their saxophone player, Charlie Gabriel, in a slow tune that has me feeling light and airy as I sway in the breeze. Moments later, they progress to their finale, “Keep Your Head Up.” Originally on the album, A Tuba to Cuba, PHJB has made it their anthem for these trying pandemic times. I exit the set with my head held high, and a big smile on my face.
From here I scoot over to the smaller Replay Guitar Exchange Stage (the third stage) for indie rock duo Oxford Noland. Childhood friends Shua Harrell and Aaron ‘Bucky’ Buckingham are an entire band all by themselves. Bucky plays drums, bass, keys and sings while Shua sings and plays guitar. A sound somewhere between Radiohead and Fleetfoxes, these two impress the hell out of me, if only for a half an hour. Shua’s dreamy guitar tones pair nicely with Bucky’s punchy bass and drums. Plant City should be proud of this dynamic duo. Cycling back to the side stage, I broaden my horizons with Glove. This Tampa based rock band has that punk, proto-rock sound that was so popular in the 80’s. Taking inspiration from titans of 1st wave music, The Talking Heads, Devo, and B-52’s, their sound can be like a Sour Patch Kid. Seemingly too strong and tart to handle at first, but by the end of each of their songs I find myself salivating for the next one. Synth, relentless beats and strange haircuts round out this weird but fun set.
I pass through the forest of clean Porta-potties and wash my hands in the more than abundant sanitation stations located just off to the side of the main stage. I also indulge in another beer at the often missed third bar located almost on the water to the left of the JW Marriott Stage. There is never a line, so it is worth the walk. Parquet Courts breaks me from my self-care moment and I’m back in the pit for another band. Instantly I’m inundated with heavy drums and noisy punk vibes from this Brooklyn based indie/punk band. Their music grabs me and shakes me “Wide Awake” with the funky beat of their drums, played by Max Savage. They show off their tight textured sound as they play “Freebird II,” to the delight of the crowd. Next they launch into their biggest song from ‘18’s Wide Awake album, “Tenderness.” This song has a great melody from Austin Brown on keys and a great message to listen to your friends and share a little tenderness. The sun works it’s way beyond the horizon and it still feels surreal to be with my friends at such a big show. The cutest mosh pit I’ve ever seen opens up in front of me and the two girls to my right share an air-guitar moment as if they are Bill & Ted! I can’t help but smile and laugh. It’s been so long since I’ve had this feeling and I don’t want it to go away.
I shift to the side stage with the masses for a rockin reggae performance from The Hip Abduction. Their lead guitarist removes any doubt of rust as he shreds through “Come Alive.” Their upbeat reggae music has me feeling like I’m floating in the warm waters of the Gulf and the crowd is bobbin up and down with me. THA jams with each other while I jive with my pals in the faded remains of this hot fall day. Each musician takes their turn adding to the mix when they transition to the classic Doors song, “Riders on the Storm.” Returning for one more dance number, these guys wear me out and I have to seek shelter and a seat under the canopy. THA finishes with “All I Need” from their ‘16 album, Gold Under The Glow.
Ok, I’ve stopped sweating. Before I know it, It’s time for Sylvan Esso on the main stage. Durham, North Carolina’s premier power couple is a force to reckon with. Nick Sanborn blasts the bass-heavy beats from his table in the middle of the stage. Amelia Meath emerges in an all black vinyl bodysuit. She glides across the stage and hypnotically sings to his creative thumping. They’re mesmerizing and take complete control over the crowd. This is incredible electronic indie pop is taking the country by storm and they are thiccc. Meath has incredible vocal control as she sings with varying inflection, tone, volume all while her choreography is in perfect sync with her husband’s soundscape.
“Die Young” has such deep beautiful bass. It sounds like the apartment next door is having the party-of-the-year and it’s soaking through the walls. This experience can’t be contained and it spills out and down the hallway in a waterfall of sound. Drenched in their music, I can feel them in my head, shoulders, knees, and toes while they play “HSKT.” I am completely under their spell. I can’t think of anyone owning the GMF stage like she is right now! So much confidence! The main stage is now the Sylvan Esso Stage. She owns it now. It’s hers..
Finishing up with Sylvan Esso, I grab some water before checking out Matt & Kim. A loud, punk duo who banter as much as they play. Despite their humorous language, numerous blow up dolls they are launching into the crowd, and the many blown-kisses from Kim behind the drum set, I didn’t spend much time here. I instead enjoy some of the great vendor food GMF has to offer (more on food Sunday).
Just then I get a text from my buddy who wants me to come up to the rail with him for rap legend, Nas. By the time I get over there, Nas has taken the stage and the pit is packed with eager hip hop fans! “Street Dreams” is the first track to hit my ears on this hot Florida night. Nas is flanked only by a DJ and a drummer who doubles as his backup vocals. He has hits dating back to the early ‘90s! And he’s not afraid to use them! ‘91’s “Nas Is Like” throws us way wayyyy back to the beginning of his illustrious career. Next up is “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” which samples Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.” “This is what it’s all about: beautiful nights in Florida!” Nas exclaims, obviously enjoying himself as much as I am! The breeze cools me off as they launch into “Store Run” off his new album, King’s Disease II.
His slow, purposeful flow
floats on the surface of those uplifting tones
Listening and learning
he already knows.
I found the above in my phone’s notes the next day. Jazz and hip hop collide in “The World Is Yours.” Lazy tri-tones give me that fuzzy feeling while Nas inspires me to take what’s mine. They have to play “You Can Hate Me Now,” and its upbeat familiarity is enough to get even the Facebook scrollers seated around me to pause and stand up! Again talking about global domination, Nas delivers “If I Ruled the World.” The show ends and fans around me get loud in appreciation of his awesome set. I have been so critical of hip hop acts in the past but I have to give Nas and company lots of respect. He has a live drummer, never asked me to put my hands up or scream, and doesn’t have a hype man following him around the stage! His badass set ends with his heartfelt song, “One Mic.” It has already been a long day. And because I paid for a swanky hotel in Tampa already, I decline the after parties and head straight to take a nice lonnnng shower, and sleep in my comfortable bed.
Sunday morning comes and I enjoy a hot breakfast with fluffiest fake eggs and the finest sausage and potatoes a guy could ask for. Embellishing? Yes, but sleep > hot & ready breakfast > sleep is fantastic on a Sunday morning. Later in the morning, rising to my feet; light me up that doobie as I strap shoes on my feet. I meet my buddy at a brewery and we swap stories over a couple of tall boys. But, mainly we talk about how day two of Gasparilla Music Festival is here! So we head out to the festival.
I arrive at the Riverwalk and cruise through the gate. It’s still early, but the music is already great! First up is Leon Majcen in the Ferman Amphitheater Stage. It is a small concrete amp located close to the water perfect for some of the up-and-comers. Leon’s song “Love and Misery” in April of ‘16 made its way onto satellite radio and got the attention of folk lovers around the country. He and his band draw inspiration from big name acts like John Prine and Bob Dylan who they cover with “All Along The Watchtower.” The fiddle player and Majcen (guitar) have a solo battle at the peak of the song. The fiddle player even knocks off the one time American Idol contestants sunglasses in the heat of the action! Whew what a start!
Next I travel at the speed of light to the main stage for Denver’s funkiest band, The Motet! It’s an awesome time to see them because they are evolving as a group. Recently separated from their lead singer Lyle Divinsky, The Motet is trying out new frontmen. Today we have Collin Miller of Collin Miller and the Brother Nature from Cleveland, Ohio. They open with “Moving at the Speed of Light” and get the crowd movin’. Bassist Garret Sayers lets loose a beastly bass solo making me glad I’m alive! Then, they feature percussionist Jason Hahn with support from drummer and band leader, Dave Watts. Guitarist Ryan Jahlbert also has his time to shine in a lengthy version of “Rynodub,” which sounds like the underworld in Super Mario Brothers! Miller nails the vocals in the next song, “Get It Right.” He sings and plays guitar, but I am missing Lyle’s dance moves right now. This bright and funky sounds is exactly what the people want as they dance and shout with delight.
The set ends way too quickly as I hardly have a chance to compose myself before being swept away to the side stage for The Bright Light Social Hour. I pass by a stilt-walker along the way—man, this festival thinks of everything! They waste no time getting into great music with “Bare Hands Bare Feet.” “Let’s build a city!!” These guys are all about having fun. This Indie rock from Austin, Texas shouldn’t be overlooked! In between songs, they tell the crowd that Tampa is the first city to embrace them after their hometown!
Slowing it down, they allow guitarist Curtis Roush to showcase his skills. The song builds momentum and drummer Zac Catanzaro helps bring it to a head while fans cheer and shout. They transition into a bluesy number called “Detroit,” where the band expresses their need for your love.
It’s been a great set but I have to boogie back to the main stage for Keller’s Grateful Gospel. Keller Williams is from Fredericksburg, VA and plays one heck of a mean guitar. He’s a one man band—a looper—who has his hand in every honeypot. Owner of twenty-seven one word albums dating back to ‘94, you name it: this man can play it! He typically occupies the progressive bluegrass spot, but in this outfit he leads a gospel band of fantastic musicians through classic Grateful Dead songs. However, they open with “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles.
These guys are here to jam! The organ keeps forcing me higher and higher while the bass keeps me pinned to the ground. Later the song stretches out and Keller drifts over to the backup singers. He gets in step with them and the whole squad finds rhythm and moves together for a time. Next they cover “Midnight Moonlight” by Old & In the Way, Jerry Garcia’s bluegrass band with Peter Rowan. “Eyes of the World” is next and the guitarist (not Keller) takes a turn at a muted solo in the freestyle portion of the song. “St. Stephen” and then “Feels Like a Stranger” with funky keys as the setting sun approaches. Today’s weather has been so much cooler! That’s good for me, and good for Keller too, who is in a full black suit and jacket, with a purple skinny tie.
I stop for a bite to eat in between Keller’s Grateful Gospel and tonight’s headliner, Gov’t Mule. I try Asian noodles topped with a fried egg, a fancy hotdog, and more. With such short wait times and quick lines, trying a bunch of fantastic foods is really easy! Now with a full belly I fill up my water can and head for the stage. Warren Haynes is the reason for the excitement. The former guitarist for Allman Brothers Band 2.0 is a beast with an axe.
Haynes starts off with his song, “Travelin’ Tune,” a somber solo electric guitar song about being on the road. Next, he and the band pick up the pace with “Thorazine Shuffle.” Haynes is wearing his customary black shirt and jeans while shredding with his guitar. The sun begins to set behind the band as they play their banger blues number, “Banks of the Deep End.” “Kind of Bird” has a huge jam portion and by now it’s time for the lights to do their thing! Uncle Warren solos constantly during this musical adventure.
A fast paced “Mule” is the highlight of the show with multiple sections for Haynes to dominate with his playing. They tease “Shakedown Street,” and the band turns a corner. Like the first drop of a roller coaster, strobes lights and shrieks from his guitar help to blow my hair back! This is f*cking great! Unrelenting Gov’t Mule turns the screws on the jam and reminds everyone here why they are a top tier jam band! Now they’re teasing “Jungle Boogie” as the song comes to a close. Whew! This is the kind of live music I’ve been missing!
Mule finishes the night out with a rendition of “Soulshine” and my feet aren’t even touching the ground anymore as my spirit raises up to capture the vibes here. This is exactly what my soul craves after being without live music for so long. It’s not just for your ears, it’s for your heart, too! The guys come back out for one more and cover Tom Waits’ “Going Out West!” People hoot and holler all around me and with a classical piano outro the band gives Haynes the chance to wave at his avid fans and take in all of the applause.
What a weekend! I say goodbye to my people and make a break for it. It’s 8:45 on a Sunday night and the music has ended early enough for someone like me to get back to Orlando at a decent time. More points for this amazing festival! Every year they offer such an amazing spread of food and music choices. This has been a fantastic start to the Florida Fall festival season, and we only have to wait until the spring for the next GMF!
Gasparilla Music Festival 2021 Review by Spencer Storch.
Gasparilla Music Festival 2021 Photos by Daniel Garcia and Mitch Foster.
GASPARILLA MUSIC FEST 2021 PHOTO GALLERY
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