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Florida Strawberry Festival
Plant City Observer Friday, Feb. 24, 2017 1 year ago

Column: 'We're Playing Your Song!' — and so are they

Times columnist Ernest Hooper encourages Florida Strawberry Festival guests to seek out artists beyond the Wish Farms Soundstage.

By Ernest Hooper | Tampa Bay Times

Florida Strawberry Festival General Manager Paul Davis had long held Patti LaBelle on his wish list of headline entertainment.

And just to make sure the soulful LaBelle still had the chops to deliver, he attended one of her recent shows and
marveled over the diva’s performance that belied her 72 years.

The festival’s brand rests on appearances by big stars like LaBelle, Rascal Flatts, Little Big Town and Jennifer Nettles. Even so, Davis and his staff invest as much time in choosing the acts beyond the Wish Farms

“Our newest on-grounds entertainer this year was actually booked two years ago, if that tells you the time that goes into it,” Lauren McNair, the festival’s media representative, said. “We want people to be entertained all day with their $10 admission, so we try to pack in as much as we possibly can. This year we have our traditional country music, bluegrass, ‘DoWhopHipHop,’ Spanish acts, gospel, a circus act (and) a magic show for

 The Publix Showcase Tent has acts that perform daily — with the exception of March 5 — including the Redhead Express and Dennis Lee.

A sister act, Redhead Express consists of redheads LaRae, Alisa, Kendra and Meghan Walker and a show branded as bluegrass. The girls, however, also shift into country covers and the occasional pop anthem, always putting their own spin on the music.

Lee, long a popular performer on the fair circuit, blends live music, big vocals and a trademark homespun humor best served with some corn on the cob. 

But Lee endears himself to audiences with genuine enthusiasm — he’s not afraid to sit on an adoring fan’s lap — and an unyielding desire to win over fans. Plus, he’s just a nice guy. Trust me.

The Publix tent also features a number of groups making evening appearances, including Will Erickson and the Wreckage, 33 Years and the Soul Circus Cowboys.

The Cowboys may be the Tampa Bay area’s most popular jam band. It roots its performance in country but when you sit in on one of the shows, abandon the labels. First of all, you won’t be sitting for long. Second, led by Brandon native Billy McKnight, the high-energy effort will cover a range of genres while leaving you more revved up than a strawberry shortcake drowning in whip cream.

With 33 Years, you get Paula and Kevin Tolly and the promise of an  indie-rock influenced show with “tight, swirling harmonies, folkpunk-like musical backing, ragged Neil Young influences and tenor vocals.” I’m not sure exactly what that means, but I’m intrigued.

Erickson also brings a number of influences to his music. Perhaps the Wreckage name is derived from the collision between the acts his parents introduced to him (The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles) with the groups of his teen-angst years (Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots and Alice in Chains). I don’t think you can go wrong mashing up those musical titans.

But if such descriptions don’t entice you, just consider the craft. A certain admiration should rise in our hearts when we watch such groups because  it’s love of music — not love of money — driving them to step out on the stage at festivals and bars and clubs. 

The Florida Strawberry Festival gives us a chance to salute their passion and appreciate their artistry.

“I have so much respect for these guys out there putting it on the line every night for peanuts,” Erickson wrote on his website. “I don’t think there is a value you can put on someone’s soul expressed through music.”


So whether it’s strawberry concoctions, Midway joys or big-name entertainment that gets you in the gate at the Florida Strawberry Festival, take a few minutes to check out the musical acts beyond the big stage. Good music deserves a good audience.

That’s all I’m saying.

Ernest Hooper is a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times and serves as its East Hillsborough Bureau Chief.  


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