Gary Clark Jr., Gasparilla Music Festival step into the light

A sold-out Saturday and sizzling hot Sunday might’ve paved the way for a lifetime of GMF.

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click to enlarge Gary Clark Jr. @ Gasparilla Music Festival - Ysanne Taylor c/o Gasparilla Music Festival
Ysanne Taylor c/o Gasparilla Music Festival
Gary Clark Jr. @ Gasparilla Music Festival

In its eighth year, Gasparilla Music Festival (GMF) is starting to feel like a festival that can do no wrong. Its organizers were among the first to take a stake in what was a fledgling, promising and newly renovated Curtis Hixon Park — and they use the home field advantage and deep understanding of the site’s every nuance to their advantage.

Photos: Everything we saw at Gasparilla Music Festival 2019

Everything from the beer lines to artist load-in appears to happen without a hitch, and its crew of volunteers seems to be around every corner, waiting to answer questions or at least get hold of somebody who can. A less ambitious crew would be very happy with what GMF has achieved, but the group of volunteers that powers the nonprofit keeps challenging itself — and its fans — with every passing year.

In 2019, part of that challenge looked like the fest’s biggest initial headliner one-two combo to date: The Avett Brothers on Saturday night and Gary Clark Jr. on Sunday. Without a doubt, the bookings probably cost a pretty penny, but in many ways, the acts, both at high points of their careers. stood to bring two very different dynamics to their headlining sets.

click to enlarge The Avett Brothers @ Gasparilla Music Festival - Tyler Downey c/o Gasparilla Music Festival
Tyler Downey c/o Gasparilla Music Festival
The Avett Brothers @ Gasparilla Music Festival

The Avett Brothers — who played Skipper’s Smokehouse a handful of times in the early aughts before graduating to the Cuban Club and then the Sun Dome — are skilled, no doubt. Their voices and harmonies, pristine; their songs, some of the sweetest, smartest and most sentimental in Americana. But there was still something a little too safe about a performance from the North Carolina boys who made it big one fan at a time.

The Avetts were a sure thing, and booking the band led to GMF’s first sold-out Saturday since 2015; the festival would surely love to, and should strive to, repeat the feat every year. But the Avett Brothers didn’t leave you asking too many questions about yourself.

That’s what Gary Clark Jr. was for.

The bluesman is not the master songwriter that the Avetts are, but he’s always been unafraid to just let it fly. On his new album, This Land — released three months after he was announced as GMF’s Sunday headliner — Clark, 35, is fearless in saying the difficult things about being American in 2019. The title track talks about hard work, success and about how being a black man in America can still trump all of the good one makes for himself “the right way.”

“I remember when you used to tell me, 'N— run, n— run. Go back where you come from... We don’t want your kind. We think you’s a dog born,’” he says in the song before responding with this: “Fuck you, I'm America’s son. This is where I come from.”

That is, by far, the most controversial chorus to ever leave one of GMF's PA systems on a Sunday night. It’s also the bravest one to reverberate throughout the park. I have friends who I don’t talk to much anymore, some of whom I’ve loved, and I’ve heard them say “n—” in a derogatory way. I even met one of them at GMF many years ago. Sometimes I wonder why people have felt comfortable enough to say that around me. But then I wonder why I didn’t have the guts to flat-out say how inappropriate that this.

I also wondered if anyone like that was there on Sunday, and I wondered if they could hear Clark’s words on Sunday night. (“Probably” to the first question; “probably not” to the second.)

It was a music festival, and the deep groove on “This Land” was enough to pretty much mask the lyrics. From a lyrical standpoint, Lukas Nelson (who joined Clark, a fellow Texan, for a run through Lowell Fulson’s “3 O’Clock Blues”) probably hit harder with his performance of “Turn Off the News” earlier in the day.

click to enlarge Lukas Nelson @ Gasparilla Music Festival - Ryan McGibbeny c/o Gasparilla Music Festival
Ryan McGibbeny c/o Gasparilla Music Festival
Lukas Nelson @ Gasparilla Music Festival

And that’s OK. It’s how it goes at these things. Oddisee — a Sudanese, black, Muslim rapper who rocked GMF on Saturday — put the difficulty about playing powerful songs for festival crowds in perspective.

“There isn't this moment where I'm like, ‘You guys aren't getting what I'm saying,’ because when you're at the festival I just want you to have a blast,” he said in a pre-GMF interview with CL. “If you go home and listen to the music and pick up on what it is, then it's a win-win.”

That’s what GMF was in 2019: A win-win. It was another favorable result for festival organizers who’ve proven that there is a way to grow slowly, book solid acts, and be successful. And it was a victory for festivalgoers who had a blast and didn’t have to worry about a thing once they walked through the gates. You can’t change the world in a weekend, but you can give a community something to coalesce around, and in a few more years GMF could be the very thing music fans know Tampa for.

This town is still a little too small to be divided, and while one could argue that the demographic at GMF still skews slightly towards one population than others, the fest still boasts one of the most diverse audiences in the Bay area. The look, feel and messaging of the GMF lineup has always reflected that diversity, and at the end of the day, this city is still embracing it.

In its eighth year, GMF is really starting to feel like something that could stand the test of time. It seems built to last, but it’ll involve the community taking an even bigger stake in that journey. Down the road, longevity will involve a new generation taking the reins and building upon what GMF’s founders have laid down.

Perhaps that’s why Clark closed his set with a muscular cover of the Beatles’ “Come Together.” The song — on paper — bears the simple message of unison. Its arrangement, however, also borrows elements from Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me.” Berry’s publisher ended up suing the Beatles. Lennon ended up making nice, but the Beatles’ co-opting of Berry’s ideas is a reminder that no great achievement happens without someone else paving the way. There is no one, and not one organization, that can succeed on a grand scale by going it alone. Tampa Bay seems ready to help GMF do big things, and it’ll be exciting to see how that journey plays out.

Read about a few more GMF highlights below. See photos from the festival via photos.cltampa.com.

click to enlarge Florida gospel @ Gasparilla Music Festival - Ysanne Taylor c/o Gasparilla Music Festival
Ysanne Taylor c/o Gasparilla Music Festival
Florida gospel @ Gasparilla Music Festival

Jesus on the mainline

Folks who answer the morning bell are always treated to the GMF’s long-running tradition of injecting the lineup with a heavy dose of uplifting Florida gospel. That was the case again in 2019, and once again, tears pretty much rolled down our cheeks when Dr. Kevin Parrot launched his choir into gospel standards. —Ray Roa

Seeing ghosts with Uncle John’s Band

The spirit of Skipper's arrived at Kiley Garden, where Uncle John's Band recreated parts of the Grateful Dead live bootleg, Dick's Picks Vol. 1, which was originally recorded in ‘73 at the since-demolished Curtis Hixon Hall. But how would a 90-minute set at 1 p.m. go down? The crowd — some barefoot, more in tie-dyed shirts — got thicker as the performance rolled on. It seemed like a gamble to stick a monster jam into the hottest part of the weekend, but GMF’s gamble paid off as festival grounds filled up early and partygoers never went home. —RR

Rowdy Robby

Magic City Hippies frontman Robby Hunter started busking as a one-man-band until Miami police told him to find a real gig or get off the street. What came after is a sound that is so freshly and distinctly South Florida. Sultry-ass-funk mixed with a parfait of Latin music, surf-rock, reggae and pop. Magic City Hippies is Florida party music, a blend of backgrounds dipped in beachy tones and topped off with some wine. Magic City Hippie music, if you will. Hunter knows how Sunshine State audiences are and we ain’t an easier litter to wrangle. He’s a good frontman who knows how to keep local crowds moving. And the boy can sing his ass off, big arena-level notes, massive vocals that are clean and smooth. There are no lulls in the set, especially with the addition of the bass-keyboard duo dubbed the Flying Bellisario Brothers. The band is tight, funky, and can very handily get loud as hell or play low, baby-making grooves. The 1970s nostalgia of the hooks against the juicy, desperate riffs make Magic City Hippies click just right. And I could not get enough of the 1990s-esque R&B tracks against the ripping guitar and warm keys. Please sir, I want some more. —Arielle Stevenson

click to enlarge Glove. @ Gasparilla Music Festival - Marlo Miller c/o Gasparilla Music Festival
Marlo Miller c/o Gasparilla Music Festival
Glove. @ Gasparilla Music Festival


Weirdo rock hour supreme

Saturday afternoons at GMF are always a little tipsy and totally bathed in the gorgeous golden hue that unfailingly infiltrates the blues and whites of the the hour before dusk. The scene was no different in 2019, but never before have GMF-ers been able to just aimlessly wander the grounds and get pumpelled by simultaneous sets of weirdo rock and pop. Credit two local acts — Danny & Alex, Glove. — for respectively bringing yacht-rock and club-ready darkwave to the agenda and then go dig through the trash can in James Petralli’s trailer because whatever he had for breakfast turned him into a psych-rock psychopath during a White Denim set that was befuddling in its speed, precision and ferocity. —RR

About Glove. …The Tampa new wave foursome Glove. took the stage early afternoon at Tibbett’s. It’s my first time seeing the group after it spent a year playing all over the country. What results on-stage is a cool, low-fi kraut-psych fever dream. It’s a well-crafted synth-driven homage to Gary Numan, Devo, and New Order. Shoegaze — except no one is looking at their feet. Keyboardist Michelle Primiani doles out heavy pours of synth the way bartenders pour whiskey at The Hub. Glove.’s set is a truly nice departure from the grassroots soundscapes of the day. A 1980s dance party with a modern flair and approach. —AS

Fantastic voyage

Oddisee’s music says a lot of topical things, but the delivery of it on Saturday was just the right thing to make people remember that live hip-hop is an art form driven by samples triggered with precision and a band that must stay in line with its frontman even when he slows a beat down, chops up lyrics and turns “Want Something Done” into a trap banger. —RR

click to enlarge Toro Y Moi  @ Gasparilla Music Festival - Ysanne Taylor c/o Gasparilla Music Festival
Ysanne Taylor c/o Gasparilla Music Festival
Toro Y Moi @ Gasparilla Music Festival


Chaz right

Backlit and exuding an incredible amount of cool, Chaz Bundick led Toro y Moi through a Tampa debut dripping in funky, futuristic synth and songs like “Monte Carlo,” where sampled background vocals from Wet frontwoman Kelly Zutrau made the whole thing extra saucy. —RR

Maker’s with the potty-mouthed Ruen Brothers

Leave it to a pair of blokes from Scunthorpe, England (about two hours east of Liverpool) to sully up the Sunday morning air. If you had a hangover, then watching Henry and Rupert Stansall take 1 p.m. sips of Maker’s Mark was gut-turning. The boys’ throwback brand of rock and roll, however, whet the musical appetites of crusty-eyed festivalgoers, and Henry’s dirty mouth woke the ears up almost as effectively and Ruen Brothers’ rollicking odes to the glory days of JJ Cale, Chuck Berry and Elvis. —RR

click to enlarge Tribal Style @ Gasparilla Music Festival - Ysanne Taylor c/o Gasparilla Music Festival
Ysanne Taylor c/o Gasparilla Music Festival
Tribal Style @ Gasparilla Music Festival


Blake Yeager pulled double duty with Tribal Style

Long-running Bay Area roots reggae outfit Tribal Style is known for the the brothers Tenn — Mugabe, TK and Muti — who have been at the band’s core since its days in Long Beach and even Jamaica. Tampa guitarist and artist Blake Yeager has long been part of that equation, and it was a treat to watch him change hats from being a member of the GMF Photo Ops team to Tribal Style guitarist for a few minutes on Sunday. GMF has always strived to find a way to support the artists who call Tampa Bay home, and seeing Yeager do it via two mediums in one weekend was the epitome of that. —RR

Cold spaghetti, Freddy and Laurie Berkner

Full disclosure: We had no business being at Glazer Children’s Museum, but damn does that air-conditioning feel good. Kids music star Laurie Berkner played two shows on Sunday — and putting up with a room full of two-year-olds singing songs about spaghetti, Freddy and this, that or the other was a fair price to pay for a respite from the heat. —RR

click to enlarge Hannah Harber @ Gasparilla Music Festival - Thomas Lacobucci c/o Gasparilla Music Festival
Thomas Lacobucci c/o Gasparilla Music Festival
Hannah Harber @ Gasparilla Music Festival


Dear Lord, Hannah Harber is a godsend

Hannah Harber’s Thursday night, late-August Rock the Hub set on a rain-soaked weeknight was the kind of rock and roll cave-bar experience one doesn’t forget, but holy shit did it feel even better in the blazing hot sun of the Florida “spring.” Flanked by a four-piece band that included husband Thomas Wynn, Harber harnessed what felt like every ounce of the already existent country and rock inside of her and them amplified it tenfold during a set that was nearly tantamount to getting struck by lightning. I once saw Margo Price (then touring with a backing band she called the Pricetags) play GMF in this time slot, and I wouldn’t be surprised if one lucky break sent this Florida native on a similar path to success. —RR

Scott Elliott, in real life

It’d been awhile since I’d heard longtime WMNF programmer Scott Elliott on the airwaves (he’s been battling illness), and it had been even longer since I’d seen him at a show. The host of Wednesday’s It’s The Music drive-time program returned to the airwaves last week, however, and he was back in action at GMF and surrounded by all of his friends. It’s easy to lose sight of the important things right in front of you, but seeing Elliott on Sunday was a reminder to remember that it’s the behind the scenes folks who are the fabric keeping Tampa’s music-loving culture together. —RR

click to enlarge Scott Elliott (L) @ Gasparilla Music Festival - Ray Roa
Ray Roa
Scott Elliott (L) @ Gasparilla Music Festival


Stringdusting with Rosy

When Instagramming a music festival, there is always always an urge to leave one set early so you can catch the tail end or beginning of another. My dumb ass left the sounds of the Infamous Stringdusters picking in paradise and missed one of the mainstage’s earlier acts, Roosevelt Collier, join them and pretty much set his lap steel on fire. It was one of two truly off-the-cuff moments on Sunday’s big stage, and now I have to relive that magic on fucking YouTube (or on the bands’ tour together). —RR

Flipturn, Floridian flavors...

Josh Reilly has a song called “Gibsonton,” and it’s the kind of tune whose lyrics and melodies evoke romantic, vintage visions of this state we’re in. Watching the Bay area songwriter unfurl the tune with the backing of a four-piece band was a gentle, but firm reminder that there is a well of talent that calls Florida home. And speaking of that, Flipturn — fronted by fresh-faced Dillon Basse — played a set of indie-leaning pop that shimmered brighter than the Hillsborough River passing idyllically behind it. Easily my favorite set from a regional band I had yet to see live. —RR

click to enlarge The Beths @ Gasparilla Music Festival - Ryan McGibbeny c/o Gasparilla Music Festival
Ryan McGibbeny c/o Gasparilla Music Festival
The Beths @ Gasparilla Music Festival


...and the foreigners, too

The Beths found themselves a long way from home (it’s about 8,000 miles from Auckland to Tampa), but the four former jazz students settled into their extended mid-afternoon set with ease and brought a sun-kissed crowd along for the ride. Bouncy arrangements and harmonies from guitarist Jonathan Pearce, bassist Benjamin Sinclair and drummer Ivan Luketina-Johnston were sublime standing against the sweet and earnest delivery of frontwoman Elizabeth Stokes whose witty lines and even smarter melodies made for the chillest set of Sunday afternoon. —RR

A star is born

Lukas Nelson was not shy about plucking out the opening of “Shallow” from Academy Award-hoarding film A Star Is Born (he wrote the fuckin’ thing, and his band, Promise of the Real, played on it, for chrissake). One friend described the songwriter’s set as “transcendent,” and we’re not going to disagree after that timely Tom Petty cover that closed the set. What anyone camped out for Nelson missed, however, was the Gasparilla Music Festival debut for St. Petersburg trio Fever Beam. By now, Kasey Maloney, Dane Giordano and Samantha Loder are well known to local scene lifers, but anyone who took a chance on a band that’s a little bit cowpunk, but mostly rock and roll, got a glimpse at an outfit that we hope to be writing about for many years to come. —RR

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click to enlarge Fever Beam @ Gasparilla Music Festival - Marlo Miller c/o Gasparilla Music Festival
Marlo Miller c/o Gasparilla Music Festival
Fever Beam @ Gasparilla Music Festival

About The Authors

Ray Roa

Read his 2016 intro letter and disclosures from 2022 and 2021. Ray Roa started freelancing for Creative Loafing Tampa in January 2011 and was hired as music editor in August 2016. He became Editor-In-Chief in August 2019. Past work can be seen at Suburban Apologist, Tampa Bay Times, Consequence of Sound and The...
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