It's All About the Music

Old farts and young punks get together for Tropical Heatwave

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Eleven or 12 years ago, my best friend blasted a mix-tape in his Civic that included the Descendents' "Sour Grapes" and several other tunes he'd taped off one of WMNF's late-weeknight alternative shows. The station's been a preset on every car and home stereo I've owned since. For half of those intervening years, however, I listened to 88.5 only rarely. As my curiosity and taste for sounds other than those made by an overdriven electric guitar grew, I began to tune in more regularly. But up until, say, 1997 or so, I felt weirdly outsider-esque about it. I didn't consider myself a "WMNF listener" because I wasn't a boomer, an affluent ex-hippie, a sociology professor, a political activist or a voracious consumer of obscure bluegrass and reggae records.And I attended only one Tropical Heatwave, for basically the same reasons, until my band was invited to play at last year's event.

For more than two decades, Heatwave has trundled happily and successfully enough along, in the face of a belief among younger live-music fans that it's really not for them. That's not actually the case — even a cursory look at the festival's past and present lineups reveals the consistent inclusion of, if not the latest Warped Tour casualties, at least a representative smattering of comparatively trendy styles. But, for a lot of people, that's the perception. Many members of my peer group and age bracket don't consider it worthwhile, and most of the underage kids that pack State Theatre shows, skatepark gigs and mainstream radio festivals don't consider it at all.

Which isn't to say that the event doesn't draw its share of twentysomethings and 30-year-olds, and even a surprising number of all-ages pundits. It is to say, however, that Tropical Heatwave, like WMNF, suffers from certain long-standing presumptions. It's not "cool," in the edgy, latest, now sense of the word. The festival has been happening for 22 years, like clockwork, and most of whatever hip cachet it had has dissipated in its evolution from event to institution. No 22-year-old shindig can command a cutting-edge reputation. Heatwave is by no means a caricature, a Fat Elvis. In fact, it's gotten a damn sight better in recent years in terms of diversity and the number of local bands that get to participate. Any festival that includes Bay area talent as diverse as Dumbwaiters, River Cove Ramblers and Mr. Bella deserves a thumbs-up.

But it is an institution, and what does every ensuing generation need to deride, to dismiss as irrelevant, to rail against?

Exactly.

Why?

Because it doesn't cater to them. It doesn't expend all its energy wooing them. It doesn't wave a metaphorical vermilion baboon's ass in their faces, begging for their favors. It doesn't go to endless, detailed lengths to align itself with the average American 20-year-old's mindset, to assure them that it feels them, that it knows where they're coming from, that they've got so much in common. As a guy who was nine the day MTV hit cable, and who came of age on an arc roughly corresponding to that of today's youth marketing, I'm both acutely aware of generational pandering and a bit miffed when I'm not singled out for a little cleverly crafted advertising attention.

And WMNF won't do it. They take their populist tenets and alternative-programming credos very seriously. As a result, what's ideally meant to be something for everyone is snubbed by those acclimated to a bombardment of specialized affections. WMNF never went out of its way to engender a reputation as a haven for World Beat snobs, leftist demagogues and roots-rock misanthropes, but neither does it seem willing to disown its more eclectic elements in an effort to hand-job potential new listeners. Likewise, while Tropical Heatwave steadily increases the diversity and youth appeal of its lineup (this year's installment boasts both the return of the New World Brewery local stage and an underground hip-hop showcase), it isn't about to stop featuring Zydeco and Afro-Cuban bands in favor of sets from Sister Hazel and a reunited Outfield. And in a musical climate where listeners en masse seem more and more content to be told what to like, that's both an admirable methodology, and a precarious one.

So ... fuck 'em.

The masses, I mean, not WMNF and Tropical Heatwave. I'm of the opinion that the festival is something that either eventually intrigues you or doesn't. The best Heatwave stories inevitably concern somebody that got dragged there by one of his or her "weird" friends, and ended up having the time of their lives. Ten years ago, I didn't go to Heatwave because I'd heard of maybe three of the bands. Not coincidentally, 10 years ago I was playing (not to mention listening to) music I wouldn't be interested in today if Rachel Weisz came around with a recording contract stenciled on her pelvis and I could sign with my tongue. I can still do without a lot of jazz or newgrass, whatever the hell that is, but words like "funk" and "pedal steel-driven gospel" now inspire an undeniable curiosity.

About The Authors

Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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