Best of the Fest

A holiday auction winner cashes in with a review of the 30th annual Tropical Heatwave (video!).

click to enlarge Best of the Fest - Tracy May
Tracy May
Best of the Fest

This past Saturday, Tropical Heatwave celebrated its 30th year and I've been to at least 20 of them. Does that qualify me to be a tenured music critic? Hell, no. But I got the chance to play one for the evening by way of the CL Holiday Auction. [Photo by Tracy May; video by Philip Bardi.]

There's no way to see 60 bands, so I narrowed it down to my top three. Kudos to WMNF for a really great lineup. Best in years.

Number one spot has to go to Bright Light Social Hour. These guys aren't waiting for you; they're going to run you over. They throw themselves on their instruments, holding nothing back, jumping around like they're up to their asses in alligators. It's blues-soaked power space jam rock with tight three-way lead vocals and harmonies, strong songwriting, a murderous rhythm section, and lead guitar solos that are melodic, tube-bending, facepeeling, don't-tase-me-bro exceptional. David Gilmour would get his money's worth and Dave Matthews would have his late-in-life epiphany. Deep Purple meets The Jam.

Second, the hot jazz-infused roaring 1920s tenor swing guitar and stand-up acoustic bass of the Two Man Gentlemen Band, who'd taken over the Cuban Club Cantina and had the place sweating like a prostitute in church. Great songs ranged in subject matter from odd presidential trivia to corn liquor, from mini-vans to unrequited love. Very clever, and totally engaged the audience. The most fun I've seen on that stage since Maggi Pierce and E. J., and the best swing guitar I've heard since Brian Setzer was with the Stray Cats.

I wish I could say Cracker made my top three, but they phoned it in. I felt like I was watching a couple who are only staying together for the kids, going through the motions. So, my top three was rounded out by Carolina Chocolate Drops.

The foursome can make you tap your foot and scratch your head at the same time. I wasn't sure what to think when they opened up, almost panel style, and not in a hurry to impress. But then female vocalist Rhiannon Giddens rose and started scatting over one of her bandmate's very impressive beat-boxed rhythms. The song that followed featured Hungarian gypsy hand-sticks and fiddle and jug and banjo, and hey, who are these guys, again? It's unusual to see this depth of folk tradition outside of the folk circuit, but these guys have found a way out of it, and they have something to say.

A CL Editor's Note on Tropical Heatwave with more photos will be posted later. Stay tuned. In the meantime, check out some video of Bright Light Social Hour from their Heatwave performance below.

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