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Art Populi: Tampa Bay Music Festivals-Big Bands, Local Effort

Mar 10, 2017

The country's top three music festivals grossed about $130 million dollars last year. But several other well-known multi-day music events managed to lose money and some were outright canceled.

But the same can't be said for two relative newcomers to the festival scene, and both are in Tampa Bay.

For David Cox, executive director of the Gasparilla Music Festival, it all started with Tampa's old concert venue, Curtis Hixon Hall.

"I grew up seeing people like Stevie Ray Vaughn, The Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan there," Cox said. "Everybody played Curtis Hixon at one point."

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band from New Orleans performed at the Gasparilla Music Fest Saturday
Credit Cathy Carter

In 1993, the hall was torn down and the epicenter of live music in Tampa migrated to Ybor City. When Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park opened seven years ago, Cox and others in the community saw an opportunity.

"We got together and decided we just wanted to see something that was progressive and would attract maybe a younger crowd to Tampa," said Cox. "We saw this as a way to contribute to a strong downtown urban core." 

And so the Gasparilla Music Festival was born. The sixth edition of the outdoor music event takes place this weekend. It will feature national bands and dozens of local and regional acts including the alt-country group, Band of Sorrows.

These days, its founder JR Sprouse sings about whiskey and heartbreak. But before that, the tattooed musician had long hair, wore a lot of black clothes, and played guitar for one of the city's notorious death metal bands. On a recent afternoon he could be found at Curtis Hixon Park, talking about Tampa's music scene.

J.R Sprouse, Anson Mitchell, and Sean Pomeroy of "Band of Sorrows." The group plays the Gasparilla Music Festival Sunday at 3:15.
Credit Cathy Carter

“At one point it was big and then it just started falling off," Sprouse said. "For a while, you came to Tampa and just hated life but it’s turned around over the past probably 5 or 10 years. It's getting its culture back a little bit.”

Anson Mitchell and Sean Pomeroy, the band's mandolin player and bassist respectively, both live in Tampa's Seminole Heights neighborhood. They say the city is experiencing a renaissance of sorts.

"We don't have to go far to hear great music," said Mitchell. "It's all about local bars, local music, local restaurants. There's a big love where you live thing going on."  

Local artists playing  Gasparilla run the gamut from hip-hop to a gospel choir and national acts include musician Ryan Adams who plays Curtis Hixon Park on Sunday.

Saturday night's headliner is Cage the Elephant, recent winners of the Grammy Award for Best Rock Band

Across the bay next month, another recent Grammy winner will perform at the Safety Harbor SongFest. Contemporary blues musician Fantastic Negrito also won NPR's Tiny Desk Contest in 2015.

Fantastic Negrito's Grammy winning album is called "The Last Days of Oakland."
Credit Fantastic Negrito

But organizers for both events say that star power is just a case of good timing and isn't actually what makes their events stand out. David Cox says Gasparilla is a different model than most music festivals.

"We're completely independent," Cox said. "Almost all of our funding comes from just local businesses and local people that just want to see something cool in their community."

So the Gasparilla Music Festival isn't even a business. It's a nonprofit. About 600 community volunteers will be at Curtis Hixon Park this weekend doing everything from taking tickets to picking up trash. An army of volunteers will do the same at the Safety Harbor SongFest in April.

Both groups also support local music and arts charities. The Gasparilla Music Foundation has run numerous used instrument drives and then donates the gear to local schools. At the newly opened Safety Harbor Music and Arts Center, local artists of all kinds have a space to perform or exhibit their work.

Todd Ramquist, one of the organizers of SongFest, says the show is a chance for live music fans to catch under the radar national acts. Several musicians playing the festival will be staying with fans. "To defray costs for one but also to create community," says Kiaralinda, the festival's co-organizer.  

Kiaralinda and Todd Ramquist run the Safety Harbor SongFest with hundreds of volunteers.
Credit GinHol

Safety Harbor SongFest also has a unique method in choosing the lineup for its event. 

“Three or four of us narrow it down to about 50 possibilities out of about 600 applications this year," said Ramquist. "Then we have a big party and everybody is a voter. Out of all those votes, we compile a top 20 list.”

It seems as though community engagement over profit is the preferred currency for these Tampa Bay-centric events and one reason they continue to grow. 

In its inaugural year, just 500 presale tickets were sold for the Gasparilla Music Fest. This year that number will be much higher. Meanwhile single day tickets for the Safety Harbor SongFest are already sold out. Weekend passes are still available.

At least for now.

WUSF News invites you to contribute to our Art Populi series. Grab your phone and send us your thoughts and pictures of your favorite memories at Curtis Hixon Hall or other live music venues. Tweet us @WUSF, or find us on Facebook and   Instagram @WUSFPublicMedia. Make sure you use the hashtag -- #WUSMusic.