Concert review: A look back at the 34th annual Tropical Heatwave

A look back at the fest that took over Ybor City on Friday and Saturday, May 1-2.

For the first year ever, I took to the streets of Ybor City to cover Tropical Heatwave solo, with no real game plan in mind, only a few acts earmarked as must-sees, and accompanied by a different girlfriend each night. Neither had ever experienced WMNF’s annual musical bacchanalia, and both left exhausted but pleased, since they did more than a little dancing (and a whole lot of walking) to get that way.

Even though I took it easy this Heatwave, I still managed to catch a good amount of music, and since the weather was pristine on both Friday and Saturday – cool, breezy, free of humidity – hopping between stages proved rather enjoyable.

Friday evening we arrived just in time to catch the tail end of the set by Funny Bunny, a current favorite that kicked-off my Heatwave just right. I’ve described the local trio as Blondie with bite, their tight, fast-kicking tempos and slower hip-shaking grooviness dosed in ‘70s No Wave and trippy disco rock influences as powered by alluringly dynamic frontwoman Kim Stein-Lepley, who has hints of sneer in her sultry cooing vocals and impeccable (enviable) fashion sense; on this night, she sported a bright orange, wide-legged retro-chic jumpsuit and her hair tossed and flipped in perfectly feathered waves.

The rest of Friday was for grazing, as neither of us felt compelled to see anything other than Gabriel Garzon-Montano (because, dang that dude can sang) and MarchFourth Marching Band (apparently an act made for the Heatwave stage). So we wandered around the Cuban Club, enjoying the fresh night air on the balcony while Trinity 7 kept the low-lit ballroom swaying to tasty mellow roots-reggae jams. Downstairs, Garzon-Montano (who caught a buzz after Drake sampled one of his tracks in his last mixtape) serenaded the seated clusters that had gathered in the theater, the formal environment  conducive to hushed conversation. The music was a sexy soulful sneak attack of PBR&B, Garzon-Montano’s velvety croon laid over minimal keyboard arrangements that he played to hip-hop bumpin’ beats delivered by his sole back-up, a drummer. Outside on the main stage, Palo! laid down Afro-Cuban funk and salsa music that got a few of us shimmying along, if only while on our way back to the ballroom, where we were pleasantly surprised by Atlanta’s Blair Crimmins, who led his band of Hookers – which included a three-piece horn section – through fast-paced ditties direct from the 1920s, his hair-flopping vigor matching the set of hot swinging jazz and ragtime that included a fiery-fast romp of “Sweet Georgia Brown.”

MarchFourth was our final stop before calling Friday a night, and they proved an outlandish feast for the eyes and ears. The ensemble is composed of 20 or so musicians and dancers who take marching band music to a whole new level of  bombast with Vaudeville-style dancing, hooping, acrobatics and stilt-walking, eye-popping costumes – burlesque frippery, parts of embellished marching band uniforms, feathered head pieces and glittering hats – and a great big sound rocketing from jazz into sinister rock, Afro-beat exotic and brass-blasted funk territories. All told, MarchFourth proved worthy closers of Heatwave’s first day, ending the festivities with a vivacious bang.

Saturday proved a night of settling down to enjoy the bands that grabbed me most, a good tactic to compensate for feeling more worn that expected on my second round of Heatwave. Luckily, we started at The Ritz with EMEFE, which jump-started my dragging ass, and got me and my girlfriend (who’d seen EMEFE with me at New World last year) to dancing straight away. Miles Arntzen (also the drummer of Antibalas) sported a thin and wicked molestache along with a shit-eating grin as he led his youthfully exuberant bandmates (two horn players, two guitarists, a keys player, a bassist with an extreme Dean Ween oh-face, and a percussionist with some cha-cha flair) from his post standing front and center behind a stripped-down drum kit.

The NYC ensemble laid down some hard Afro funky grooves, changing tempos and sometimes segueing into a more genre-hazy crazy amalgam touching on smooth and fluid R&B melodies, weirdo Talking Heads jangle with added instrumental lushness, and even experimental rockishness that built to a collision of screaming brass, crashing percussion and wailing keys and guitars that damn near fell apart, only to pick itself up again and return to a deep shuffling groove. Amid new cuts off a forthcoming eponymous LP (which actually came out today), they dropped in a rather intriguing cover of Arcade Fire’s “Ready to Start,” prompted a full-audience clap along, and got us all to scream at them as loud as we could at the end, a clever way to ensure boisterous feedback.

The adrenaline fueled me to Crowbar to take in a few minutes of The Mix Tapes’ kitchen sink retro rock, which touched on sounds from the ‘60s through ‘90s. The unexpected melodies, chord progressions and vocal harmonies were particularly charming in “Cocoanut,” but at that point I realized I hadn’t had a proper meal all day, so I dragged my girlfriend back to the Cuban Club to grub it up. A plate of food and two shots of espresso later, we sprawled on the sidewalk and head-bobbed to the rambling bayou roots rock of Honey Island Swamp Band, their sound evoking the Allmans but more heavily soaked in New Orleans hues. We buzzed by the crowded New World to peep a few minutes of Luxury Mane, zipped up to Crowbar for a few minutes of the Brothers Landreth, their soulful roots rock marked by lovely slide guitar and husky vocals, then made our way back to The Ritz, where I danced my face off for the second time that night.

You can always count on the crowds getting down at ‘MNF shows and Heatwave is definitely no exception, especially as Orgone pounded, grooved, and slew with greasy Afro funk that eased into pulsing disco and congas-fueled Latin-soaked soul. At some point, the guitarist and ostensible band leader apologized for the absence of their lead singer, who was too sick to perform that night, and I wondered how they could possibly sound better than they did right at this moment, with the entire room bouncing happily and a good majority of us (myself included) grinning from ear to ear.

I didn’t stick around for Dirty Dozen Brass Band. I’ve seen them a few times and knew they delivered the goods, but I decided I’d had the best time I was going to that night, and didn’t want to spoil my cheek-hurting buzz. So, we called it, and dragged ourselves home.


Check out more photos from the event on CL's Instagram page.


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