WMNF returns to Ybor City with its 35th annual edition of Tropical Heatwave this Saturday

The 2016 music fest features venue changes and a dependably varied lineup.

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click to enlarge Nikki Hill is one of the highlights at this year's Tropical Heatwave. - Photo by Aubrey Edwards
Photo by Aubrey Edwards
Nikki Hill is one of the highlights at this year's Tropical Heatwave.

35th Annual Tropical Heatwave
Featuring Ra Ra Riot, Dash Rip Rock, Chuck Prophet & Mission Express, The Bright Light Social Hour, Nikki Hill, Mingo Fishtrap, Wreckless Eric, King of Denmark, Pleasures, CelloJoe & moreSat., April 30, at multiple venues throughout Ybor City. Doors 4:30 p.m. (Tropical Breeze Stage)Tickets $35 advance/$40 at the door ($12 kids/12-20, kids under 12 free).  

Festivals have to evolve to survive. It’s a fact of the contemporary live-music scene.

Whether it’s adding comedy performances, making timing or scheduling shifts, “introducing a new layer of location-based interactive social engagement” (ugh), incorporating craft beer or whatever, the large-scale concert experiences we often think of as more-or-less the same every year are in fact always changing. Sometimes the changes are subtle refinements; sometimes they’re much larger.

Just a couple of years after revisiting the two-day format it had occasionally experimented with previously, Bay area community radio station WMNF 88.5 FM’s annual celebration/fundraiser/helluva party Tropical Heatwave is undergoing another major transformation, in terms of logistics if not character. This time, the fest will go down without any sets being played, inside or out, at Ybor City’s Cuban Club — long Heatwave’s Place To Meet and spiritual HQ.

The general scuttlebutt among those who care seems to be that the Cuban Club’s omission from the venue lineup has to do with procedural or contractual or even personal issues (or, hell, some combination of the three) stemming from the sold-out Alabama Shakes show scheduled in the parking lot less than 24 hours before Heatwave begins.

But maybe that doesn’t matter.

Maybe it’s just time for an evolution.

The 10 venues hosting bands this Saturday are a mix of veteran and new Heatwave rooms — with an outdoor stage at 7th Avenue and 14th Street, the Tropical Breeze Stage, and places like Cigar City Cider & Mead among the virgins — more closely associated with Ybor’s eminently strollable 7th Avenue corridor, with the furthest clubs just a block off the strip. Will this development, which arguably shifts its dynamic from satellite shows orbiting a main focal point to more of a district-wide, on-the-fly sort of mini-South by Southwest (without the marketing tsunami and impossible-to-get-into bullshit), affect the way fans enjoy Heatwave? As they say, you’ll have to go to know.

One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is the diversity and quality of the acts. Heatwave has always been able to call itself “all about the music” without it sounding like a PR firm was trying to trademark the phrase, and that tenet remains firmly in place for 2016.

Here’s some stuff you shouldn’t miss.

RA RA RIOT Speaking of evolving, this ever-experimenting Syracuse electrics-and-instruments indie-rock act is an interesting Heatwave get, though past-years adds of groups like Black Taxi and Bright Light Social Hour (returning this year) definitely paved the way. February’s Need Your Light tempers the group’s more baroque and chiptune-y tendencies with catchy synths, and should provide for a seriously enjoyable live set. (11:45 p.m., Tropical Breeze Stage)

DASH RIP ROCK Formerly stopping in the Bay area every, oh, two hours or so, it seems like it’s been forever since the New Orleans purveyors of the classic “Smoke Some Pot” came to town to please its disparate, longtime-loyal crowd. The group’s smart, deceptively chaotic Cajun cowpunk has made converts of country listeners, old-school punks, blues fans and more, and while the word is overused, “legendary” is an apt descriptor for the trio’s sets. (12:20 a.m., Crowbar)

NIKKI HILL If you’ve listened to 'MNF for more than a couple of hours during drive time over the last year, then you’ve heard Nikki Hill’s blistering blend of boogie, blues, rockabilly and garage stomp; the North Carolina singer has become one of the station’s favorites, and with good reason. She seamlessly blends raw, organic styles into a catchy and compelling whole. She’d be equally at home at a gospel rave-up or sharing the stage with the Supersuckers. (11:30 p.m., The Ritz Ybor)

CHUCK PROPHET AND MISSION EXPRESS Soulful groove-rocker Prophet has probably played more Heatwaves than most diehard 'MNF supporters have lied about attending. OK, well, six to be honest, but he’s always a crowd favorite. His unique take on Americana has more blues (and more blue-eyed soul) than just about anybody, and his clever turns of phrase and just-ragged-enough baritone elevate songs that are already pretty damn good before he starts singing. (10:10 p.m., Tropical Breeze Stage)

MAX NORTON AND HIS ALL STAR FRIENDS When drummer-turned-songwriter Norton returned to his old stomping grounds from Nashville (and touring with Benjamin Booker), he invited some local pals to join him for a show at Tampa’s Independent Bar, teasing some tunes from his forthcoming solo record. It was such a hoot and a hit that WMNF asked him to reprise the energy — and invite Will Quinlan, Rebekah Pulley and Ronny Elliott along. (6 p.m., Crowbar)

BARELY PINK Yeah, we know — they play every WMNF show, right? But when you pair flawless instrumental prowess, classic showmanship and pure love for rock ‘n’ roll with a David Bowie tribute set, you pretty much end up with something special, and worth seeing. (8:20 p.m., Crowbar)

FOUR STAR RIOT The hardest working band in Tampa Bay? There are a lot of artists around here that could be considered for the title, but eclectic, long-running power-pop act Four Star Riot is definitely up there. At Heatwave, the group will deliver a tribute to the icon music fans lost most recently: Prince. Tall order, that. Extra points for chutzpah. (5:20 p.m., New World Brewery)

Check out the full Tropical Heatwave lineup and schedule here.

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