Gasparilla Music Fest

By Leilani Polk


I always head into music fests with the best of intentions, schedule in hand, each act I want to see methodically circled. But when I arrive, I’m swept up by the sights, smells, sounds, throngs of humanity… I’m drawn to a stage and get off track. I don’t want to abandon a band I’m enjoying for another I might not, run into people I know and get caught up in chit-chat, stop for a bite or a drink or to rest my feet.

Gasparilla Music Festival is no different, falling in Tampa Bay in early March when the humidity is light and the breezes coming in off the Bay still feel fairly cool—the air almost chilly once the sky deepens to a star-scattered navy. The fest is young, only in its second year, and still feels fresh and exciting as it showcases downtown Tampa’s most scenic riverfront landing spot and glowing cultural heart with a day of music, food, fellowship and community appreciation.

Families descend upon Kiley Gardens and Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park early to enjoy GMF’s second year of kid-friendly programming. My husband and I cruise through the gates in the early afternoon and make a beeline for the Kiley Stage to see The Wholetones, a Naples ensemble that shreds through jazz-and-metal-infused newgrass on all acoustic instruments—banjo, upright bass, acoustic guitar, drum kit, cello—and manage to sound both warm and impeccably precise.

We spin by the far Tibbetts’ Corner and find a growing crowd perusing arts and crafts sellers, waiting in line at the Dickel’s Tennessee Whiskey booth for a special “Daily Dickel.” Others mingle at the beer garden for on-tap crafts by local breweries like Cigar City and St. Somewhere, or mill around a ground-level stage set up amid all the hustle and bustle.

The crowds are thickest at the concrete bridge connecting Kiley to Curtis Hixon, the relaxed pace befitting of the day’s contented vibe, which doesn’t seem to have rubbed off on the kids chasing each other around the scattered sites of respite and relaxation.

The Main Stage at Curtis Hixon is set up on the riverfront facing the city, with the University of Tampa as its scenic backdrop and the gentle swell of grass paired with the buildings enclosing the park on three sides, creating a natural amphitheater.

We check in periodically with friends who’ve set up a way station on the park’s perimeter, in view of the stage but far enough away for some relative peace. We end up enjoying a late-day meal together; I munch on a pulled pork sandwich and crispy homemade potato chips from Holy Hog BBQ Food Truck, chat with my bestie, lounge on slightly yellowed grass, groove to music that includes local talent (blues rock trio Nervous Turkey, Afro-beat septet the Hip Abduction, ukulele funk-jammers The Applebutter Express) and buzzy national headliners—hip surf-garage rock outfit Beach Day, from LA, Philly indie rock darlings Dr. Dog, dirty New Orleans-bred funk makers The Meters with Phish’s Page McConnell filling in on keys for Aaron Neville.

I hit the Hot Donut cart at the tail end of the evening, when my cravings for crispy fried-on-the-spot donuts and a warm caffeinated beverage to wash them down with can no longer be denied. Licking crumbs off my fingers as I take in the closing melodies, I’m feeling exhausted but tremendously fulfilled by my second GMF experience, anticipating a third one as I look out over a Curtis Hixon littered with abandoned blankets and low-slung chairs. If I felt like the inaugural event was a success—making the Gasparilla name ever more synonymous with Tampa Bay’s arts, food and culture landscape and less about pirates and parade floats—the second annual GMF further drives this feeling home.

Check out all of the treasures to discover during Gasparilla Season.