I was a Tropical Heatwave virgin last year and I made some critical mistakes that I didn't plan to duplicate this year.
So, I mapped out my evening, previewed as many bands as possible, and picked a lineup at the Cuban Club and New World Brewery that I could loosely stick to. I had inside options and outside ones, a fresh shirt to change into in the car ... I was ready.
5:57 p.m., Applebutter Express, New World Brewery
I elbowed up to the bar and a very friendly bartender offered me some barbecue pork tacos. I love that about New World. I munched on a few as homegrown group Applebutter Express took the stage. What a great way to kick off Heatwave! Appropriately enough, Applebutter opened with "Start a Fire," and by the time they hit their second song, the tiny venue was packed. The quartet delivered, throwing down a 10 p.m. vibe at 6 in the evening, people in their dancing shoes and drinks already in hand. Kyle Biss just destroys it on the ukulele, literally, destroys it — there's a worn down corner where his fingers hit and took a big chunk out of the wood around the soundhole. In fact, it looks like he just might crush the tiny instrument at any moment. Overall, great energy but New World gets hot when it's so packed and I had a long night ahead of me, so I rolled out after four or five songs.
7:05 p.m., Afeefa and the Boy, Cuban Club Theatre
The Cuban Club Theatre blows the Cuban Club Ballroom out of the water. While the latter has a nice dance floor, the theater is a full package venue. On stage is Afeefa and the Boy, a group that's just coming together. The cellist was hired just days before the show and Afeefa's significant other, Eric Miller, plays guitar behind a drum kit and keeps time via high hat when necessary. If you thought tattoos and gap teeth weren't sexy, you haven't seen Afeefa, who has this bohemian magnetism about her that's hard to ignore. You can tell the group is rather green and their sound still evolving, but Afeefa's voice is haunting and memorable. I chatted with her after the show, and discovered she just picked up guitar three years ago. She said that she came from a strict Muslim family that didn't allow music to be played or listened to. The songbird is just starting to emerge in Afeefa, and though she's relative neophyte to the music world, she definitely has her thing going on and her stack of CDs evaporated within minutes.
8:35 p.m., WAHH, Cuban Club Theatre
I made quick rounds through the cantina and by the main stage but I was not going to miss WAHH World Fusion Band. Anytime I see a guy that can play sitar, I'm intrigued. When said guy can play said sitar well, I'm impressed. When said guy plays said sitar and duels with a bandmate on electric guitar, I think I am a fan. WAHH is like Phish meets the Hindu Kush. Outside of the dueling sitar and guitar, Shankh Lahiri goes to town on tabla and a set of drums not too dissimilar from bongos, one high and one low drum, and bassist Ray Villadonga lays out wild solos, not something you expect from a traditional western bassist at all. The vocals are sparse. In fact, some whole sections of vocalizations are just WAHH's version of skatt-ing. The theater was standing room only within minutes.
9:50 p.m., Cuban Club Cantina, Sol Caribe
Wild fun and the most spirited performance I saw all night. The few songs I caught were a mix of salsa and meringue, originals and covers. There was ample space to execute those hip-undulating steps and plenty of old white people were attempting it without much success.
9:58 p.m., Cuban Club Theatre, Mighty Good and Strong Band
I was juiced to see Mighty Good and Strong Band, and they met my expectations with flying colors. I walked into trumpets blaring Kool and the Gang's "Jungle Boogie." The horn section really held the crowd's attention and people started filing in. The few feet of space between the seats and the stage turned into a dance floor. The highlight of the performance came when they launched into Stevie Wonder's "Superstition." But they continued with the '70s cover fare and I decided I was ready for a fresh flavor.
10:50 p.m., Cuban Club Cantina, Rocket 88
I'm not a fan of rockabilly and the cheetah print spandex proved a turn-off. I stayed for a song, then made my way elsewhere...
11:02 p.m., New World Brewery, Dropin Pickup
Yeah, I made it over there quick and wished I would've arrived much sooner because locals Dropin Pickup — which formed last June — was already blazing into their set. It's easy to pack New World and it was crammed full, impenetrably so. The group's energy was terrific. I couldn't tell who was sweating more, the band or the fans. The drummer was quite literally soaked. From a performance standpoint, this was probably the best group I saw all night. They know how to work the crowd and they have as much fun with the music as the audience does. The audience was wrapped around behind the stage with fans peering in from the wings grinning ear-to-ear and stomping their feet. I really wanted to stay longer but I couldn't cut through the crowd to get a photo and it was hot in that tiny venue. At least I can see them again; they play FUBAR in St. Pete on May 16 in St. Pete and at Skipper's on June 27 with Come Back Alice. I'll see you at the Skipperdome show...
11:28 p.m., Roof of parking garage
At my car, I dried the sweat, took in a cool breeze and gazed at the downtown skyline while listening to Elephant Stone across the street and enjoying the sights, sounds and scents of Tropical Heatwave from the parking garage roof. Elephant Stone sounds like The Doors, and the last two songs of their set were Doors covers. The crowd begged for an encore and the band really showed off their psychedelic colors when they returned.
12:19 p.m., Cuban Club Mainstage, Katchafire
I've been interested in seeing Katchafire since I heard a track on WMNF, and checked out some of their songs on iTunes. Then I put a big circle around their time slot for Friday. I'm glad I did. The core of this eight-piece New Zealand ensemble is father Greenville Bell and his sons, Jordan and Logan. Katchafire started out as a Bob Marley tribute band but later evolved into a legit reggae group with a unique sound characteristic of the island nation it sprang forth from. The music is jumpy and sticky, like good reggae should be, but there's an unmistakable Latin and beachy-sunset vibe. Lead singer Logan Bell has a great rapport with the audience, everyone plays multiple instruments, three different guys sing, and the group's chant style and call-backs hearken back to Bob Marley's "Woi-oi, Woi-oi-oi." Logan chanted something in Maori and a bunch of white college kids in the front row yelled it back to him. It's a testament to their reach. I was so into this group, I kept forgetting to put my ear plugs back in and stole moments to dance, pretending to take pictures so I could get right up in front. Katchafire was the only group to play a second encore and they left the Cuban Club stage on Friday night with a new fan on the east coast. Probably several...