By KATHERINE LAVACCA
The wailing of a guitar amplified by the cramped space hits full force as the drums are mashed and ‘Tall Juan’ calls out tempo. Music erupts from the niche in The Bends reserved for tiny bands with maximum volume. Each song more punchy than the last, Juan bounces about the floor, not even a foot from the crowd which ebbs and flows along with his hyper performance.
“How do you like the show so far?” Riley asks in his retro Chinese silk shirt.
“WHAT?” I yell back not hearing myself, but feeling my voice scratch against my vocal cords.
“Are you having a good time?”
“Oh yea! I’ve never been here before. I need to check out more of St. Pete.”
St. Petersburg is a short thirty-minute drive across Tampa Bay and has plenty to offer the wandering visitor. Established in 1875 by John Williams of Detroit, his visions of a city with “graceful parks and broad streets” can still be seen today. Quaint shops and eateries line Central Ave. and surrounding streets. Unlike in Tampa, many are in walking distance of each other. Any way you turn you’re facing some creatively inspiring piece, whether it’s a carefully crafted latte, a guitar rift drifting from an open door, or the countless street murals that thread through the city. A mecca for budding and established artists, the visual and sonic arts wrap around the city in a neat little bow presenting itself as the best place to find something new.
Since returning from the ever-bustling throngs of New York I feel as if I’ve exhausted many options here in Tampa. I know the best places to get ice cream, where to go for my alternative shows, and when prime flea market season is. Yearning for something fresh, I browsed Facebook for any happenin’ events in the surrounding area—the inaugural SHINE Mural Festival in downtown St. Pete caught my eye and I was soon across the bay. The festival aims to celebrate the vibrant street murals throughout the city and brought national artists to add their own art to the landscape.
Praising the city officials for the 2 HOUR PARKING MON-THRS 8AM-11PM I hopped out of the car wide eyed without a clue as to where to start. No elderly woman at an information booth greeted me when I approached the ‘SHINE’ wall mural. I assumed I could find a map at this mural of the art in progress. No maps, but there was a funky painted Mexican restaurant across the street that featured a wolf holding a burrito in each hand. Taking this as some sort of sign, I ventured in that direction and was amazed to see all the restaurants, bars and shops opened. Unfortunately, many small businesses in Tampa had to throw in the towel after the recession and haven’t opened their doors since. But Central Ave. didn’t have a single vacancy or ‘studio for rent’ sign. I found this to be true with the cross streets as well.
People were walking dogs and skateboarding without receiving a pointed stare from the women sipping wine in the outside seating. It seemed all forms of life melded together to appreciate the artistic surrounding. And there wasn’t a single person who didn’t give me that look when I passed: The you seem new and don’t know where you’re going stare, which is most likely made up in one’s head. As a woman my age passed looking very put together in her mini dress and Dr. Martens, I realized I didn’t know anyone, and I had not a clue about where I was going. Turning around mid-street may draw looks, so I continued down the avenue until I stumbled upon a mural in progress on the side of a FedEx building. The artist was controlling a cherry picker attempting to mark outlines for the enormous woman—she’d span the length of the building when complete—as some onlookers stood in the dusty parking lot. After standing a sociable distance away, I worked up the courage to ask where other murals were being worked on.
Back down the street. Past the crowd of judgey eyes. Thank you.
Walking as quickly as I could without seeming lost, my phone rings, Oh good I’ll be able to look busy when I pass.
“Hey are you in St. Pete?”
“Are you wearing a blue shirt?” I look down to confirm.
“Yes… Danielle are you—”
Danielle Natale, a friend from high school, emerges from the unfamiliar crowd and navigates me back to Mike Farrell’s car, where they waited for food from Bodega. They were also here to see the murals, and would I like to try the vegetarian Cuban they just ordered? We were soon zipping around corners and navigating the one-way streets (once the wrong way) in our quest for art. We admired many murals from the car, stopping to take pictures here and there. As the sun set, they left me off at The Bends where I had planned to meet Justine Parks, a friend, and Riley Morgan, a kid I met once at a show over the summer. Riley had invited me to check out a few bands playing that night; I invited Justine for moral support. A quick flight at a local brewery (and a glass of wine, and cider) and I was ready to arrive.
Justine, Nina (her friend), and I wandered into The Bends, a bar on 1st Ave. near downtown St. Pete. It featured a decent-sized bar spanning the majority of the front room and didn’t charge a cover for the show. After walking past the local art displayed on the wall, we were dumped into an equally cramped backroom where tables had been pushed aside to make room for the standing crowd. An old golfing arcade game served as the table for the soundboard and a disco ball reflected red and purple flecks of light around the room. Luxury Mane started their set and Riley had checked in to chitchat, Justine would be leaving in thirty-minutes for Ybor City and I was starting to feel that stare again. A combination of alcohol and sheer social panic prompted me to bop up to the front where Riley and some freshly-dressed girls were nodding to the beat. After Luxury Mane wrapped up their set, Riley set off to the bar leaving me with two unknown persons. Thankfully we all began talking at once and eventually worked in introductions. Bailey is Riley’s sister and Keeli is a friend from Eckerd College. The night flowed and we bonded over $3 drafts and the irony of Tall Juan’s name. The last band took the stage and I found myself in awe at the events of the day.
Since stepping foot in St. Pete, I was tossed from one odd event to another, seeing Danielle, admiring the progress of street murals, having more than one beer out, and now totally immersed in 90’s inspired alt-rock. Not only did I get the experience I had hoped for, but I made some new friends along the way.
A guitar screeched and a cymbal shuttered.
“I think we got one more check and then we’re ready to rock with you guys tonight,” Ben Katzman of DeGreaser breathed into the mic. Shades on, high tops laced up.
And rock we did.
Katherine Lavacca can be reached at email@example.com