LA to NYC, New Orleans to Montreal: WMNF’s Tropical Heatwave had it all

Unless you were looking for polka or death metal, you were able to find what you were looking for at the 34th Annual WMNF Tropical Heatwave in Ybor City’s Cuban Club and surrounding venues. They dubbed this one “Musical Bacchanalia,” and there is no way to dispute that with 24 bands on five stages Friday and 47 on eight stages Saturday. There was something for everybody.

I managed to see a dozen bands on Friday and another dozen Saturday, and I stuck my head into a few more rooms briefly. That is about the best you can do when there is so much crammed into two nights. That is not a complaint. There were opportunities to check out genres you might not know much about – or at all – and the same with performers. This, to me, is always the most exciting aspect of a festival: new ‘discoveries.’

Six of the bands I saw Friday and one Saturday were brand new to me and mind-blowing. THAT’S what Heatwave is all about.


I sprinted in Friday intent upon splitting my first time block between the Bath Salt Zombies and Christie Leneé. BSZ play a demented version of “circus music gone wrong,” to quote Dan. It is rock-oriented bluegrass with a wry macabre twist. Many in the Cuban Club Cantina had never experienced BSZ before and were clearly amused, especially during the theramin work-out.

This will get mentioned numerous times, but, with one exception, the sound was by far the best I have ever heard at Heatwave, and I’ve been to at least a dozen. Normally, the bass is booming so loud in the Cantina that all vocals and nuance are lost in the rumble. Every show I saw in the Cantina was pristine sound-wise. The reason became obvious when I drifted toward the back and spotted Josh, sound man extraordinaire at Skipper’s Smokehouse, manning the board. This was a win-win start to finish.

After Bath Salt Zombies played their rollicking “(Don’t Fall in Love with a) Bearded Lady,” Thor and I had the same thought: head to the New World Brewery to hear Christie Leneé. Thor is the host of In the Groove, the jamband show on WMNF. His partner in crime, Wayne, was MC for the Cantina and was doing his job proper.

Leneé’s effervescent set was well attended and appreciated in spite of the 6 PM start time. She was joined by long-time collaborator Joe Cosas on keyboards and bass, and Johnny Cantanes on drums. It was a perfect opportunity to showcase her ebullient voice and superb guitar skills (acoustic).

She covered Stevie Nicks’s “Landslide” beautifully and followed that with her own “Little Vacation.” Next, she played an instrumental that highlighted her tapping skills on “Chasing Infinity.” The set closed with a sing-along to her anthemic “We Are One.” Yes, we are, when we want to be.

Shoes firmly tied, I headed back to the Cuban Club. Downstairs, Girls, Guns and Glory were raving it up with an almost punkish take on alt-country that was a lot of fun. In the theatre above, The Real Clash was performing their “conscious hip-hop.” Just not my thing. Upstairs was a different story. 6 Volt Rodeo played Western swing, and they looked and sounded the part. Matching checked shirts and black hats provided the perfect visual. They were laying down a tender “Ain’t Misbehavin’” when I arrived. There was more swing and mariachi music with two trumpets leading the charge. This was fun!

Outside on the main stage in the courtyard, the name sounded like a prize fight: Jim White-vs-Packway Handle Band. This was well-delivered bluegrass with a distinct quirk to it. Then it was back for the first delightful surprise of the evening.

Sarah Borges was in the Cantina, kicking major ass. Enormous amounts of ass. This was splendid! Her Massachusetts buddies Girls, Guns and Glory just stayed on stage and backed her up. At one point, they began a tune but stopped almost immediately. “Just like Sonny Bono crashed, I crashed,” she quipped. With that, she and Ward Hayden (I think) did the duet thing on “Baby Don’t Go.” The whole set was mesmerizing.

Outside, Palo! began with keyboards and tenor sax, which grew as the conga and timbales players and female vocalist joined them. Her dancing accentuated her black dress as the music heated up. There was a lot of dancing going in the crowd as well.

Now things were getting really tight, time-wise. There was so much happening. I zipped back into the cantina to check out the David Mayfield Parade. Here was a set that featured an over-the-top front man, excellent music and riotous comedy. Mayfield could do stand-up – easily. Mayfield sings and plays guitar, but he is a complete showman.

I cannot remotely approximate his timing, but he noted, “After the show, I’ll be setting up a kissing booth. [LONG PAUSE] No girls allowed.” Everybody cracked up. He had so many of these, funny and novel. His band was all ladies. I was staring at the violin player. Did Dani Jaye of Come Back Alice have a doppelganger, or was this really her? It looked and sounded like her. Sure enough. She said they really only worked the setlist out shortly before the show – she was recruited earlier in the week. You would never have known that from the tight playing from Jaye, Jennifer Ann on double bass, and Angie Hayes on “stuff.” That’s how Mayfield put it: keyboards, percussion, melodica. You know, stuff.


Next, I jetted up to the ballroom to see how Blair Crimimins and the Hookers were presenting swing and hot jazz. The answer was: spicy hot! Dressed mostly in period outfits, this band was delivering the goods via banjo, guitar, double bass, drums, trumpet, trombone and multiple reeds. Their set included songs such as “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “If You Go to New Orleans.”

Downstairs in the theatre (the middle level inside the Cuban Club), HuDost was about to hit the stage. I sat down, which was a good thing, because they blew me away. Rather than stumble for words, here’s their self-description: Neo-Folk World Rock ‘Country & Eastern’ Fusion. That’s about as wide-ranging as their hometowns: Montreal and Nashville. The eclectic duo of Moshka Sommer and Jemal Wade Hines was joined by a parade of musicians, apparently including some of Rayzilla’s Dreamboats (Ray host the avant-garde Step Outside program on WMNF) and definitely including Miss Christie Leneé shredding like nobody’s business. At some point, Sommer noted: “This is the first time playing with this chunk of people!” It was great, but…

I was feeling definite pressure from a week of e-mails and texts and FB message to be sure to see MarchFourth Marching Band, whom Cheryl Mogul said “were born to play Heatwave” (Cheryl hosts the Saturday Soulful Soiree show).

No amount of e-mails, texts, FB naggings or anything else could have prepared me for the true musical bacchanalia that was MarchFourth Marching Band. Let me say this: I WILL NEVER MISS THEM AGAIN.

Riotously humorous and diverse costumes, outrageous musical talent, amazing arrangements and Cirque du Soleil-quality acrobats. And they kept moving around, changing places, just like a, a… marching band! A variety of factors made counting a challenge, but I’m going with a baker’s dozen musicians and four dancers who did so much more than dance.

My notes are useless. The drummers all had the usual marching band rigs to carry their instruments. The dude with the wrestling singlet was a hoot. But they all were. One of the women came down and blew a tremendous baritone sax solo. There were six horns, sometimes seven. The dancers were truly energetic.

Somewhere along the way, somebody said, “You look like you could use some more shenanigans.” Then Bill and Jordan did a routine that involved actual gymnastics; I just wasn’t expecting that. It was great. However, when Bill came out ON STILTS and danced around and lifted Jordan up, who was also pole-dancing on a pole she was holding, supported by Bill… and this is absurd. Trying to describe this is like… nothing I’ve ever seen before. You can take this to the bank: MUST. SEE. THEM. MUST.

As amazing as it was, I had promised myself I would get over to the New World Brewery to catch the end of Row Jomah’s set. It was the correct decision.

This was a tremendous performance, by leaps and bounds the best I’ve seen from them. Everything was working right, and the crowd was pumped, and it was splendid. These boys jam their rock and rock their jams.

I mentioned the sound earlier, and I stand by those remarks. With one exception Saturday, every venue had superior sound, much better than any Heatwave I can recall. Hire these guys back immediately! Joey Going at NWB always has the sound locked down tight, and that was certainly true both days of Heatwave.

Home to bed, get refreshed, get ready for Saturday!


Now there were three more stages in play, and seeing everything was beyond impossible. There were several bands I really wanted to see but simply could not make it work in the matrix: Trae Pierce and the T-Stone Band and the Appleseed Collective. Next time.

Sulana mentioned several times that I should check out her friend John O’Leary, a piano player performing with his group La Lucha at the Crowbar. After parking and passing through the Ritz, I headed there.

I heard two dozen bands or performers over the two nights, most of it fabulous stuff. Nothing I heard was better than what was going down at the Crowbar. This was a magnificent jazz trio fronted by sultry vocalist Jun Bustamante. I’ve seen her name for years performing around here, but for whatever reason I had never heard her before.

MISTAKE. BIG MISTAKE. She and the band were playing songs from their new album titled Standards, Not-Standards. In the standard category, we heard “Caravan” and a medley of “Lullaby of the Leaves/Lullaby of Birdland.” The deal with the non-standards was this: if you were unfamiliar with the jazz canon and not overly familiar with pop music, you might not have recognized the Cardigans’ “Lovefool” or “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears. They were tenderly crafted as jazz standards. And then a remarkable take on “Lucky” by Radiohead.

I can’t wait to see this brilliant quartet perform again. This was a 6 PM show at the Crowbar, and they had everyone’s attention, a very solid crowd indeed. Alejandro Arenas played bass, and Mark Feinman was on drums, with his mom on merch table!

By the time I was finished chatting them up, it was time for EMEFE, a funky NYC band doing Afrobeat and more. They had the Ritz crowd dancing, and it was an enjoyable show, although I was waiting for musical peaks that never quite materialized for me. I drifted into the Ritz Side Room to see One Mile Final pounding out their vision of Americana rock. Brian Spotts was an engaging frontman, and Bryan Smith was rocking the guitar. The sound, sadly, was subpar.

Several people had encouraged me to check out Zulu Wave at the New World Brewery. They call themselves noise rock. I found it to be entertaining, enthusiastic, punk-ish, and fun. Then it was back to the main Cuban Club stage outdoors for the Honey Island Swamp Band, bringing Louisiana to Heatwave. They covered a wealth of New Orleans territory.

This was my second time hearing the Betty Fox Band, and I didn’t give her and the band an adequate chance. I am reserving judgment until I hear them play a full set; it’s only fair.

I was truly pumped for Holey Miss Moley. I’ve seen these characters more than a dozen times, and they are constantly evolving. Last year, they added singer Danny Clemmons to their primarily instrumental combo. And this was the second show with the addition of Robyn Alleman on vocals as well. Drummer Tony Morales is still on the mend; he and Vernon Suber played percussion while CopE drummer Brad Eliot had a great night at the drum kit.

The only damper was the poor sound mix. Clemmons’ vocals were buried for several songs before DJ PK got them to fix the levels. Kenny “Bonesaw” Harvey has been playing exceptionally well recently, but his bass was bouncing around the room, obliterating most of the nuance. Nonetheless, Holey Miss Moley persevered and delivered a great set with some new treats, including new arrangements, a new instrumental and a (relatively) new signature song, “Getting’ Down.”

To say that I was pumped for Orgōne would be the understatement of the year/decade/century. I had written about this L.A. funk collective extensively, and I mentioned how enamored I am of vocalist Miss Adryon de León. Friends know that I usually sit on the side or in the back, but I was on the rail at the Ritz for this show.

So imagine my disappointment when I realized there was no microphone set up for Miss de León. She was sick back at the hotel after two shows the previous day – in New Orleans! Crushed like a grape! So how would Orgōne respond to this subtraction from their line-up, I wondered.

I never use this phrase, but here it somehow seems appropriate: LIKE A BOSS! Bassist Dale Jennings said, “I hope you dug our instrumental set. It reminds me of our roots. We were an instrumental band mainly over a decade ago.” In fact, the band made it through five songs before there were any real vocals, the brief words to Cameo’s “It’s Serious.” The trumpet and trombone player (Paul Chandler and Darren Cardoza) absolutely destroy this tune; it is so hot.

I have been a big fan of bassist Jennings ever since he set Bear Creek on fire. He had another spectacular night. I mentioned to a friend that his base lines are exactly what I hope to hear from deep house DJs. I realized after Bear creek in listening to the recordings that Dan Hastie, the keyboard man, was also a remarkable player. He too had a fabulous show. And band leader and guitarist Sergio Rios is so incredibly over the top that you have to watch him punctuate his playing with stomps and leaps.

After a tremendous song called “Sabu,” where everybody got to stretch out, Rios introduced the next tune. His remarks were muddled from where I was leaning on the rail, but it became crystal clear when the band nailed, absolutely nailed a cover of Booker T and the MGs’ “Melting Pot,” the title track from their great 1971 release.

Did I say “nailed?” Hastie was perfect in the Booker T role, but the main man was Sam Halterman, whose homage to drummer Al Jackson, Jr., was flawlessly spot-on.

I meandered back to the Cuban Club main stage for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. I had not seen them in a few years, and they were as wonderful as ever, loving life and bringing more Big Easy to Ybor City. There was a decided calypso tinge to the sound which was very interesting. They had everybody dancing, at least those who could stand up at the end of this marathon.

One last time, I headed to the Ritz to see Hometeam favorites Come Back Alice. CBA, Row Jomah, Bath Salt Zombies and Holey Miss Moley all play next week at the Orange Blossom Jamboree, and Come Back Alice plays this weekend at the Purple Hatter’s Ball at the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park. And CBA, HMM and Row Jomah will also be at the Great Outdoors Jam in July in Lakeland.

Come Back Alice is a monster quartet performing Southern-style gypsy rock. They deserve to be on the national stage. They are anchored by a brilliant rhythm section of Big Bad John Werner on bass and Yral ‘datdudeondrums’ Morris. Their rock-solid bottom allows the other two supremely talented members to strut their stuff.

Triple-threat Tony Tyler is an excellent guitar slinger, even better Hammond B3 player and incredible Southern soul belter, absolutely in league with the heavy hitters of the genre: Allman, Haynes, Grey and Finnigan. Dani Jaye is a great singer, dynamite guitarist, and fabulous violin player. (She performed Friday with the David Mayfield Parade.) The group amply demonstrated why they got a Heatwave-closing slot at the Ritz.

So I had described two dozen bands out of the 70+ on the Heatwave schedule. The interesting part is that you might talk to five people who saw entirely different sets of music. That is the most wonderful aspect of festivals in general and WMNF’s Tropical Heatwave in particular: there is something for everyone (well, almost, anyway!).


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