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Monday, Dec 11, 2017
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Review: Et Cultura festival brings exceptional music, leaves room for growth in St. Petersburg

It's a big idea, St. Petersburg's Et Cultura festival. You can't take it all in at once. You probably wouldn't want to.

Yet in just two years Et Cultura has positioned itself as a cultural movement to be reckoned with in a city that loves and embraces such things. Organized by a coalition of young creatives, it aspires to be the Sunshine City's answer to South By Southwest, sprinkling music, films, art, technology and futurist and community-centric panels across several pristine, historic and bustling venues. If a thing like this was ever going to happen in Tampa Bay, St. Petersburg, 2017, felt like the right place and time.

But reviewing a festival that aspires to be so many things to so many types of attendees isn't easy. It's not just that you can't attend every event — that's par for the course at every festival, big and small — it's that you probably don't want to. You could attend just for the speakers, or just for the films, or just for the music — and in each case, there would be other festivalgoers whose paths you'd never cross. It's really more like three separate festivals in one.

For five days, I focused mostly on Et Cultura's music, but hit at least a little bit of everything — art, films, speakers, technology and more. Almost all of the music was exceptional, including rare and vibrant Florida sets by Slowdive, Son Volt and Waxahatchee. I was moved by short films and intrigued by speakers; I shopped at a pop-up market and drank a Green Bench Et Cultura Mexican lager; I watched a vacant building flutter to colorful life through the art of projection mapping. I watched stunt bikers soar into the air, and left impressed by how many public officials bought in and dropped by. On an event-by-event level, Et Cultura brought a lot to admire, even if, by anyone's count, the whole thing was wildly under-attended.

But in the wide view, the festival's vision and ambition exceeded what it could actually deliver. Despite its swift growth, Et Cultura was never going to become South By Southwest by Year 2. Going into Year 3, it faces real questions about the evolution it must take from here.

For starters, raise your hand if you could actually articulate what Et Cultura was — or even how to pronounce it. (For the record: Et cul-TOOR-ah.) More importantly, raise your hand if you knew off the top of your head what it wasn't. See, downtown was awash all weekend in major events that had nothing to do with Et Cultura — the CraftArt Festival, Shopapalooza, a half-marathon and 5K, a cheese and beer festival, the list goes on. On Saturday, especially, it did feel like the entire 'Burg was one big festival, even if that festival wasn't actually Et Cultura. Maybe this was canny planning ("Thousands of people will be downtown; let's build a festival around them"), or perhaps it was part of some greater point about the unity of the city's creative class ("See how much stuff St. Pete has, and how well we all work together?"). But given the light turnout at the concerts, it may also have just been a mistake.

Even if you studied the entire schedule daily and carefully — as I did — finding your way could be tricky. Up until the festival, Et Cultura's various event pages were confusing to navigate; there was no one-stop detailed list of every event in one place. On the ground, none of the card-stock panel flyers listed the speakers at each session; instead there was a list of all (some? most? it wasn't specified) of the topic's weekly speakers at the bottom. (This info was available online, if you knew where to look, but volunteers working the front table at home base the Station House didn't have it at the ready.) In at least one case, the panelists on stage didn't match the ones listed.

Same with the music. Basic rule: Every multi-stage festival should publish the set times of each performer so you can stagger your schedule as needed. Et Cultura's listed the door time, and that was pretty much it. I managed to track down a more detailed schedule for a couple of stages, and even then, I occasionally missed or caught only a snippet of a particular set because the schedule had gotten a little off. On Saturday, I left Slowdive at Jannus Live early in hopes of catching Talib Kweli at the State Theatre. Kweli went on 45 minutes late, which meant I missed the last half of Slowdive for nothing.

Then there's this: If you didn't want to spring for the $75 festival pass, you could buy a rush ticket to Jannus or the State just before the show. That ticket on Saturday, for Slowdive or Kweli, was $45. That princely price tag also was not telegraphed in advance, which is unfortunate — it might have spurred more people to splurge on the $75 pass.

And the truth is, if you really cared, if you really bought in, $75 was a more than decent price for all the music you got. Some fans paid that much just to see Slowdive, a cult British shoegaze act playing their first and only Florida date. The band's dreamy synthesizers, kaleidoscopic swirls of light and waves of guitars enthralled a throng of diehards who bought festival passes for no other reason. ("I've waited 24 years to see you!" one fan shouted.) Other fans came from miles away just to see Son Volt, the alt-country outfit led by influential singer-songwriter Jay Farrar; and the fuzzy, acclaimed indie rock group Waxahatchee. Both delivered gorgeous and at times magical sets, their guitars swelling to fill the too-empty State Theatre.

One of the festival's biggest successes was an impeccably and creatively curated local lineup. Every stage was chockablock with top Tampa Bay talent. At Jannus Live, global fusionists the Hip Abduction — who headlined Et Cultura last year, effectively making them the festival's house band — brought out a drumline from Lakewood High School. The 15-member Florida Bjorkestra filled the Jannus stage all by themselves, delivering bold, brazen covers of Bjork, Peter Gabriel, David Bowie and Kate Bush. The homey SubCentral lounge at the Iberian Rooster brought a stacked late-night lineup of hip-hop, electro-ambient, singer-songwriter music and more. And the Ringside Cafe and Ceviche hosted one of the weekend's surprise standouts: Cortadito, a Miami Cuban folk, jazz and bolero fusion group who brought their own delightful flamenco dancers.

All that said, it was depressing to see so few fans show up to some of these shows. Electric Atlanta punk trio the Coathangers played to a few dozen folks at Jannus Live; Friday headliners the Cloud Nothings not much more than that. A fest-closing showcase on Sunday night by Tampa's New Granada Records brought more great music from Pohgoh and Fistful to a stage near Green Bench Brewing, but with a chill in the air and most tents coming down, there were too few on hand to see it.

In retrospect, Et Cultura could have downsized its music slate by nixing either Jannus Live or the State Theatre as a venue. Combining, say, Cloud Nothings, Waxahatchee, the Coathangers and DieAlps! at one venue on Friday, instead of two, would've been a slam-dunk lineup. Instead, both crowds felt a little flimsy.

Then again, in the words of one of Et Cultura's keynote speakers, the Stanford Creative Ignition Lab's Michael Sturtz: "To be creative, sometimes you have to take risks." In the end, Et Cultura 2017 probably overshot its target — it was a little all over the place, as a lot of festivals are, and too much about it was not clearly communicated.

But the blueprint is there for it to become something greater. If and when it continues, it won't be South By Southwest; it'll be its own thing. It already feels like nothing yet attempted in Tampa Bay, which in itself is saying something. That's the thing about big ideas — in the beginning, they're still just ideas. With a little more care, there's room for them to get even bigger.

— Jay Cridlin

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