By Helen Anne Travis
If cities were songs, Tampa would be a melody of castanets and conga drums, heavy metal guitars and call-and-response choruses sung by a gospel choir. Lyrics would be poppy and sunny (this is Florida after all), and the ballad would include at least one drop that brings everyone to the dance floor.
A rich cultural background -- including stints as the cigar capital of the world, an outpost of the Cuban revolution, and a hangout for Babe Ruth and Teddy Roosevelt -- makes Tampa one of the more diverse cities in central Florida.
It’s a diversity you can hear.
The Twist was invented here, and Ray Charles recorded his first songs near downtown. Some say Tampa was the birthplace of death metal music (you’re welcome), and you can still catch live flamenco shows at the Columbia, the oldest restaurant in the state.
Today, nearly 500 years after Spanish explorers first came here looking for gold, Tampa’s song is still evolving.
At the Gasparilla Music Festival, held each year on stages spread between the Hillsborough River and downtown’s skyscrapers, recent headliners have included indie band Modest Mouse, neo soul singer Erykah Badu, and reggae son Stephen “Ragga” Marley.
Rapper Talib Kweli made an appearance, as did pop rockers JR JR (back when they were called Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.). In 2014 there was a mass singalong when alt country singer/songwriter Jason Isbell played Traveling Alone, a song that name-drops Tampa’s Ybor City.
Local journalist Ray Roa has been covering Tampa’s music scene since 2010 and is part of the team behind the Gasparilla Music Festival. He said Gasparilla's diverse acts reflect the kinds of music you can hear throughout the year on Tampa’s stages.
“Musically, you can make Tampa whatever you want it to be,” he said. “You just have to look for it.”
Take Crowbar, a 300-person venue on the corner of a brick street in Tampa’s Ybor City. The venue has hosted everyone from violinist and composer Kishi Bashi to a surprise show by Grammy-nominated post-hardcore band Underoath. Every Sunday brings a hip-hop and soul dance fest, and upcoming shows feature cello-backed indie pop and a chillwave solo act from the UK.
Musicians jam out under walls papered in concert posters on a stage barely two feet off the floor. Concertgoers bob and sway mere inches from their favorite lead singers before getting some fresh air in Crowbar’s beer garden.
“My main goal was to open a place where we could host all sorts of bands and not be beholden to one type of music,” said co-owner Tom DeGeorge. “I didn’t want to get pigeonholed.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by venue owners throughout the city.
When Steve Bird opened New World Brewery down the street in 1995, live music was not part of the picture. He was terrified no one would show up when local singer/songwriter and friend of the bar Will Quinlan offered to play a show for a $3 cover.
But they did show up. And for years New World was one of a handful of venues putting on live shows in the urban core.
While Bird is partial to the alt country and bluegrass acts, he said, “there’s a lot out there”.
“We’re pretty accepting of just about anybody,” he said. “I’ve been amazed at the talent that comes in here dragging who knows how many thousands of dollars worth of equipment. It’s definitely a labor of love.”
On any given day you might stumble upon a trio of accordionists, a ska band, or an acoustic act playing on New World’s stage. A few faded rugs separate the band’s space from the audience’s, creating an intimacy and immediacy in which concertgoers and performers are literally on the same level.
Bird says promoters, managers and venues all work together to keep Tampa’s music scene humming.
“It’s a super diverse scene,” he said. “People are in it for the right things.”
To prove just how well everyone works together, Bird is the first to admit he modeled his bar at least loosely after Skipper’s Smokehouse, a venue about 10 miles up the interstate near the University of South Florida.
“That’s very flattering,” said Skipper’s owner Tom White. “We know there’s a lot of competition. There’s live music on every corner now.”
White bought Skipper’s Smokehouse in 1980, transitioning it from a mom and pop seafood shop with “a few acoustic hippies playing out back” to a restaurant-slash-performance-venue that’s been featured on the Travel Channel.
Expanding Skipper’s musical offerings was always part of the plan. It started with a chalkboard where people could sign up to play for free Budweiser on Sundays. Then bigger local names started showing up. Then national touring acts.
Now the “Skipperdome,” as locals call it, has evolved into a 700-person semi-covered concert hall complete with a sandy picnic area, tiki deck, and dozens of Christmas lights. Bands play on a raised stage set among the sprawling century-old live oaks, and unlike many other venues, there are plenty of places to sit and watch the show.
On a recent night, Tampa band Impulse played for a crowd of swaying dancers and head-bobbing couples. Described as a blend of zouk, calypso, reggae, soca and merengue, it’s bands like this that embody Tampa’s unique medley of cultures, said White.
“I don’t think there are a lot of places that are quite as diverse as we are,” he said. “People come to Tampa and they know they're going to get something unique and something fresh.”
1812 N 17th Street
New World Brewery
1313 E 8th Ave
910 Skipper Road
Other Tampa spots:
1915 East 7th Avenue
An Ybor City venue hosting indie, metal, punk and rap acts, and everything in between. Watch out for stage divers.
1450 Skipper Rd
Green Day and No Doubt played at Tampa’s metal and punk headquarters before they got huge.
3109 N Ola Avenue
A music-themed hostel hidden just north of downtown where you can catch local and regional acts most weekends.
The Ritz Ybor
1503 E 7th Avenue
A 1917 theater-turned-concert-hall that’s hosted everyone from Carly Rae Jepsen (call her, maybe) to Lady Gaga.
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