Best Of 2023

This fall, Cafe Hey celebrates 16 years in downtown Tampa, and while the spot on the corner of Franklin and E Kay Streets has changed in subtle ways over the years, the neighborhood just south of it is nearly unrecognizable. What’s remained, however, is Cafe Hey’s commitment to being an unshakable sentinel for underground culture in Tampa. Without fanfare, and on any given night, the space with mutual aid flyers in the windows stows away the chairs and tables and transforms itself into a home for open mics, comedy and concerts by bands and artists just getting off the ground or experimenting with new sounds.
There are less than a handful of tracks that clock in near three-minutes long, and some of the thoughts are as short as 49-seconds, but it’s hard not to keep coming back to the beat tape and experiment Johnny Champagne released in July. There’s a steamy, almost humid quality to Tha Cigar Box‘s production featuring samples sourced from across the African Diaspora (including one Tagalog-language intro on the super-funky, all-too-short “Whut's Hattnin Waltz”). Champagne, who teaches at St. Pete’s Arts Conservatory for Teens, regularly collaborates with up-and-comers in the local scene (and is credited on tracks with Tampa-rapper-gone-gobal Doechii) and is part of the new generation of Bay area creatives that hopefully takes the reins.
If you were one of the 20,000 or so fans at The Cure’s Tampa concert in June, chances are you probably couldn't hear a word of Robert Smith’s echoing, British mumbles. After playing a 2 ½ hour, powerhouse set full of hit singles like “Friday I’m In Love” and “Just Like Heaven” alongside tear-jerking bangers like “Pictures of You” and “Lullaby,” Smith gave the massive Tampa crowd a heartfelt, drawn-out goodbye. Thanking the crowd and accepting roses from the intensely-clapping concertgoers, Smith walked over to the microphone and uttered “I’ll probably never see you again…thank you” to all of us. (I had to re-watch a video of that moment from someone in the first few rows to make sure I had heard him correctly, for the first time all night). He gazed out at the thousands of hooting fans with a pensive look on his face and a hand over his heart before scurrying off the Amalie Arena stage.
According to some friends in the know, there’s something special about a man in a kilt. While I can’t personally vouch for that, I do know exciting music when I hear it. And, after going down the whisk(e)y rabbit hole not long ago, I also know that taking time to taste wee drams from across Scotland introduced by members of this great band makes for a memorable, sense-heightening evening.
There’s nothing subtle about Pusha Preme. The Tampa rapper wears a mask to perform, but is always in your face whenever he’s onstage. He toned it down and stripped his set back a bit over the summer for an installment of Sean O’Brien’s “Music School” series where local artists explain their art and then stage an intimate performance. For his go, Preme turned the room into a therapy session, complete with a couch and therapist who asked him uncomfortable questions which he answered in earnest before performing cuts from his new album, Heroes Eventually Die. It was a nice twist on the live set from an artist who plays a lot of gigs in and around the city.
If you paid attention to the short-lived Blue Note Bar on the outskirts of Ybor City, then you might’ve seen a young Anthony Alidissi cutting his teeth in the live music scene. The saxophonist and pianist—who discovered jazz in freshman year at the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School—is now at Temple University where his ensemble with bassist Dan McCain drummer Maria Marmarou won the Outstanding Rhythm Section award at the 2023 Jack Rudin Championship at Jazz at Lincoln Center. And when he’s home, the 21-year-old Dunedin native gets it in with Ethos of Alidissi, an ensemble that recently brought to life songs its principal wrote around figures in Greek mythology. Last July at Seminole Heights’ Far Forest—flanked by drummer Roger Lanfranchi, saxophonist Nick Bredal (aka ChootyB), bassist Seth Lynn and Temple colleague guitarist Walter Krissel—Alidissi played Moog and Rhodes like a man possessed on songs that stand up with the very best jazz fusion of modern times (there was a Domi and JD Beck cover) and exude the same kind of joy legends like Chick Corea used to bring to the stage.
@anthonyaldissi on Instagram
Out in the world, the summer of 2010 had some low points. Hundreds died during ethnic riots in Kyrgyzstan. A military crackdown on political protests in Thailand killed almost 100 people, and floods in Pakistan left more than 1,600 dead. Pop charts juxtaposed the turmoil (Katy Perry’s “California Gurls,” “Your Love Is My Drug” by Ke$ha and Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister” were all near the top of the Billboard Hot 100), and locally, The Grecian Urns made escapist Floridacore folk-pop magic on the band’s debut LP, Lovedream. The 45-minute offering wore Spanish moss, piped in warm brass and even invited listeners to paddle through the cool waters of the Loxahatchee River. The LP was a jewel, and two years later, another band, Alexander & the Grapes followed in the indie-rock masterpiece footsteps with its own debut, Hemispheres, an album wise beyond the young band’s years where, as Creative Loafing Tampa Bay noted, frontman Alexander Charos sings “about falling short and other hallmarks of the human condition with the honesty and economy of Gram Parsons and Kris Kristofferson.” With two days left in 2022, the Urns and Grapes came together at St. Pete’s Floridian Social to reignite that lightning in the bottle for a show where their now-grown fans from a decade ago mixed in with grungy St. Petians (a nice ode to the old State Theatre), youth group survivors and people in tuxedos to celebrate two of the greatest indie records the Bay area has ever produced. Life is fast, and death is faster, as Charos notes on Hemispheres standout “Conversation,” but I’ll be damned if this show didn’t make me want to live forever.
Bob Seymour, a godfather of Tampa’s jazz scene, retired from his post as jazz music director at WUSF 89.7-FM in 2016, and it took some bullshit to get him back on the airwaves. Late last year, after WUSF canceled its beloved “All Night Jazz” programming after 56 years, Seymour was named as the host of a new jazz program that does what WUSF refused to: lift up a local scene that’s rife with talent, but not always the beneficiary of widespread support. Welcome back, Bob.
The four-story library has a new neighbor right across the way. Coachman Park’s long-awaited concert venue The Sound finally opened on June 28, and the bandshell faces directly towards Clearwater Main’s west-facing windowed area. The third floor—which includes a massively-windowed workspace—is of a perfect height to catch a glimpse of both the waterfront and the stage, so if soundcheck is happening while the library is open (closing time is 5 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and it’s closed entirely on Sunday), you’ll basically have access to a part of live music that can’t really be seen for larger gigs in Tampa Bay (other than Florida Strawberry Festival). All this isn’t to say that what you hear will be crystal clear, but it’s cooler to actually see what’s going on, as opposed to just trying to listen into the muffled sound system while moseying around the new Coachman Park.
NPR’s Tiny Desk is a now-revered, carefully-curated and produced effort that makes the live music experience even more magical. But unless you’ve got a plug, you can’t just show up in Washington D.C. and attend. Far Forest has a solution. The Seminole Heights vintage shop recently launched a “Forest Sounds” series and has the booking (songwriters and jazz ensembles of the highest caliber so far) and aesthetic nailed down. Retro couches and chairs are rearranged to create a living room atmosphere, and the musicians play on the floor, close enough to hear them breathe. Online videographer Devyn Castro-Almeyda and audio engineer Carlos Reyes make Forest Sounds look and sound as good as it does in real life. Far Forest might be Tampa’s best new small venue, and we hope we can still get in once word totally gets out. @forestsounds.ff on Instagram