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Something so hot can be so cool

For lovers of music outside the mainstream, Tropical Heatwave is a fresh breeze blowing across six Ybor City stages.

By GINA VIVINETTO

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 17, 2001


Each spring for 20 years, Tropical Heatwave, organized by community radio station WMNF-88.5, has been bringing Tampa Bay area music lovers eclectic acts, artists who play cajun, blues, alternative rock, punk, jazz, zydeco, folk, reggae, roots rock, you name it.

But Heatwave has never been about educating music lovers. Rather, it's a big, rambunctious party, celebrating the freaky music commercial radio doesn't even know exists. Heatwave is an event not for the cool kids at school, but for the interesting kids, er, grownups. Heatwave is for folks who hear the mainstream of pop, shrug, and demand something more interesting.

It's also an event that frees listeners to boogie without feeling self-conscious, no matter how uncoordinated their "happy feet" are.

The best part of Heatwave? By design, it allows folks to do what they want. It's spread out over six stages in Ybor City. Can't commit to a whole set by one act? Fine, shuffle over to another venue.

The all-ages event has seen more and more teens attending in the past several years. Indeed, many young folks arrive with their parents, only to wander around on their own or with friends. Most of these kids are too young to remember the days before Ybor City had nightlife, when Tropical Heatwave was the highlight of the year.

Heatwave has brought in big names -- roots rock sensation Alejandro Escovado, surf rock legend Dick Dale, cowpunks Waco Brothers, pop's Better Than Ezra, women's music darling Laura Love.

This year we get legendary jazz saxophonist Sam Rivers, 70, who will blast away in improvisation. The North Mississipi Allstars, one of the most exciting blues rock acts around, will tear things up. (The trio also performs Friday night at Bourbon Street in New Port Richey.) Former Blaster Dave Alvin and the Guilty Men, a past Heatwave favorite, also returns.

One of the festival's specialties is bringing in lesser-known acts. Heatwave has an ear to the future. Example: in 1992, singer-pianist Marcia Ball, now a household name to blues lovers, dazzled the crowd.

Tampa Bay area talent, too, has always had a chance to shine at Heatwave. This year we get showcases by up-and-coming funky roots act Blue Plate Special, jam band the Gita, rockers Unrequited Loves and Dumbwaiters, and others. Heatwave even offers several cutting edge DJs who have made names for themselves in the area's hottest dance clubs.

Sure, it would take an ambitious ear to appreciate all of Heatwave's eclectic fare. The rest are free to wander, soaking up what they like.

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