I can’t think of a better way to spend the last few days of winter than by kicking off the sunny, sandy festival season. Reggae Rise Up in St. Petersburg, Florida has been quietly rising in profile over the past few years, to emerge as one of the best tickets on the calendar. This year’s event, held in Vinoy Park from March 16 through March 19, made me a believer.
Reggae Rise Up originated as a one-day event in 2015, and was originally staged in Tampa, before moving across to bay to downtown St. Petersburg in 2016. No disrespect to Tampa, but it’s hard to imagine this event happening anywhere else, once you’ve experienced a weekend of reggae on the St. Pete’s waterfront. It’s a near perfect marriage of music and atmosphere.
And to be clear, the lineup isn’t just traditional reggae, but a broader, crowd-pleasing assembly of reggae-adjacent rock and hip hop. This year’s headliners included 311, Rebelution, Damian Marley, Dirty Heads, Wiz Khalifa and Sublime with Rome. For those of us who like our steel drums with a little side of electric guitar, this show absolutely delivers.
You might have noticed that a lot of larger fests- like Hangout, Firefly, and as of this year, Reggae Rise Up- have experimented with the Thursday night kickoff as a way to broaden the schedule and upcharge the early birds. Sometimes, that extra night amounts to a skippable soft opening- but rest assured, this particular Thursday night was anything but soft. 311 opened the show with Beautiful Disaster, closed their set with Down, and along the way, set a sky-high bar for the entire weekend.
“The testament to any good band has always been the live show,” said 311 vocalist SA Martinez. “And for us, we have to change our sets, we have to keep it fresh, so even the diehard fans get a different show every time.” True to his word, even after three decades in the game, 311 never play the same show twice, and their 90-minute set was the perfect commencement for a weekend that felt inspired and unpredictable.
Of course, the most unpredictable factor for an outdoor festival is always the weather. Reggae Rise Up had arrived with some calls for clouds and rain popping up in the forecast. But March in St. Pete’s- at least, in my experience- is about as agreeable as any climate could be. Sunshine prevailed for most of the weekend, the weather remained perfectly suited for flip-flops, and by the time Rebelution hit the stage on Friday evening, the biggest clouds in the sky were the ones conjured up by the crowd.
Saturday featured standout sets by The Movement, Arise Roots, and Koffee. And when Damian Marley covered a few of his late father’s classics, the response from the fans was enough to wake the dead. For those of us who were born a little too late, that’s about as close as we’ll ever get to seeing Bob Marley himself, stirring it up live on stage.
Sunday came a little too fast. Full disclosure, I was not sold on Dirty Heads until I caught their live act about a year ago, but they’re now one of those bands that I’ll schedule my day around. Their Sunday night set was one of the biggest draws of the fest, which is saying a lot, on a bill filled with crowd-pleasers. By the time Wiz Khalifa took the stage to wrap up the weekend, I overheard a few ladies in the crowd making travel plans for Reggae Rise Up ’24.
Daily attendance for this year’s event was estimated around 15,000. This is exactly the population sweet spot that makes a festival stand out: A great big party that’s had a few years to find its footing, but which hasn’t yet ballooned into an overrated traffic jam. The festival entry is smooth, the grounds are easy to navigate, the stage is never too far from sight, and yet there’s enough size and energy to get lost in the crowd, in the best possible way.
For years, I’ve been trumpeting the charms of comparably-sized, oceanfront festivals like Hangout and SeaHearNow. SeaHearNow’s lineup has gotten more substantial every year- and naturally, so have their ticket prices, with two-day wristbands now starting at $230. Hangout’s best years are apparently behind them, with three-day wristbands now starting at $319, and a lineup that gets poppier, and weaker, every year.
That brings me back to Reggae Rise Up- and will bring me back, schedule permitting, in 2024. Next year’s wristbands are already on sale, starting at $185. You’re not likely to find a better show for a ticket price under $200. And if you’re still on the fence, consider this one last endorsement: Get up, stand up, grab your buds and catch a ride to St. Pete’s.