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Tuesday, Sep 25, 2018
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Gasparilla Music Festival returns with Roots, Spoon and more

Festival fatigue. It’s a real thing.

How many major, corporate-owned music festivals this year do you see sharing the same top headliners? Eminem, the Killers, Jack White, Queens of the Stone Age, the Weeknd, Arcade Fire — all great acts, but at this point, who can tell Coachalla from Bonnaroo from Firefly from Governor’s Ball?

On blogs and music sites, at least, curmudgeonly consensus seems to be growing that the big guys seem to be running thin on ideas.

From Medium: Are music festival lineups really all the same?

From Pitchfork: Are music festival lineups getting worse?

From Uproxx: Music festival lineups are hitting a new low in 2018

It’s all just another reason Tampa should be thankful for the Gasparilla Music Festival.

The fest returns Saturday and Sunday with one of its best lineups, especially at the top of the poster: Tonight Show house band the Roots, provocative singer-songwriter Father John Misty, electric dance-rockers Spoon and moody indie-pop band Warpaint. At no other festival in 2018 will you find even three of those acts, much less all four.

"There’s been a number of larger events that have popped up nationally, and a lot of those seem to generally have pretty similar headliners across the board," said GMF programming director Phil Benito. "We have our own things in mind. We’re not necessarily looking for what the agents are trying to sell us as much as what we feel like is going to be the biggest fit for us."

In a way, GMF was ahead of its time when it debuted in 2012, with its bold orange branding and embrace of what makes Tampa unique – the food, the downtown setting, the local businesses. Since then, eclectic festivals like III Points in Miami or Day For Night in Houston, have grown in much the same way: By thinking smaller, embracing unique identities rather than trying to be like the big guys.

"In some ways, that’s always been our perspective on the programming, just because we know we don’t have the budget of the big festivals," said executive director David Cox. "We’ve always tried to program in a way that we thought would be different."

It started with the setting. GMF was the first fest to figure out how to use Tampa’s then-new Curtis Hixon Park, with its main-stage backdrop of the Hillsborough River and University of Tampa’s minarets. Even though it didn’t have the infrastructure or deep pockets of Tampa’s Live Nation-owned Big Guava Music Festival, which ran from 2013 to 2015, its intimate stages and blanket-friendly greens were far more friendly to fans — and bands — than the concrete tarmacs of the Florida State Fairgrounds.

"The environment makes a really big difference," said Theresa Wayman, the guitarist for Warpaint, which has played festivals all over the world — including one that "was out in a shipping yard, so it was real concrete. People there were so excited, because it’s their local festival, but it’s nothing compared to, say, going to something in England with rolling, grassy hills. It makes it feel a lot more comfortable."

As Benito pointed out, the park’s multiple tiers allows it to feature several stages on a much smaller footprint with little to no sound bleed.

"Being able to get to Kiley Garden to Curtis Hixon in five minutes at the most — you just don’t have that kind of accessibility at a lot of festivals," he said. "A lot of the bigger ones, you’re walking a half mile to a mile from one stage to the other."

The unique setting informs GMF’s unique lineups. The fest has never been dominated one genre — headliners have included alt-rock bands, R&B singers, DJs, reggae artists and singer-songwriters, and the lineup usually features funk, hip-hop, kids’ music and New Orleans brass.

Organizers often book artists who aren’t playing many festivals — or who haven’t played Tampa in years, if ever. This year that includes Father John Misty and Warpaint, both making their Tampa Bay debuts; and the Roots, who haven’t been here in a decade. Performers sometimes feed off that pent-up fan energy.

"It definitely makes a difference," Wayman said. "It doesn’t matter if it’s not our biggest market. It just feels good to connect."

That sense of connection may be GMF’s greatest asset. The nonprofit fest is not only self-sustaining, but growing, which is something not every bigger festival can say.

"The premise, or part of it, was building this community event that’s music-focused with an eclectic lineup, but trying to have something for everyone," Benito said. "I think we’ve really just dialed things in."

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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