It should be noted, dear reader, that Gator Growl is not a concert. It is an event. An event, mind you, that caters to a variety of audiences. It caters to adults, children, students, locals, vacationers, cool kids, the totally lame, and everyone in-between. While there are musical acts that perform, there are also skits that attempt to infuse school spirit, games for all to enjoy, and more food trucks than you even know what to do with.
When you walk onto Flavet Field before the musical acts play, you’re overwhelmed with what to do. There’s food trucks surrounding you, which hail from all around Gainesville. Food options were perfectly diverse, ranging from pretentiously perfect pizza to artisanal Chinese food. If you went hungry at Growl, that’s your own problem.
There were a handful of carnival games, with prizes provided from corporate sponsors. You could throw rings on bottles, or knock down some dummies with a baseball. There was even a rock-climbing wall for those who find satisfaction in climbing for the sake of climbing.
Before any artists took the stage, or any guest speakers were given the opportunity to talk, Growl wanted you to engage in those activities. They played typically tacky pop music to keep spirits high. One of those songs though, was Passion Pit’s “Take A Walk,” which was odd. Passion Pit was headlining the concert, and playing one of their songs six hours before they’re supposed to take the stage seems like a bold move.
Growl this year had two stages. The smaller stage was called the Blue Stage and the larger one was, you guessed it, the Orange Stage. While a cool way to incorporate a variety of skits and performances in-between musical acts, there was a large fenced gap between the audience pits of the stages. Meaning if you picked the Blue stage at the beginning of the night, and didn’t move as the festival got more and more busy, you were stuck watching the headliners at a small, albeit noticeable, distance.
Country musicians Maddie & Tae started the festival off. They had a humble crowd, but they did seem very into their set. There were quite a few people singing along to their songs. It was simple, it was enjoyable, and didn’t really require too much commitment. I couldn’t help but notice that when they took the stage for their set, the majority of people at Growl stayed by the food trucks and beer garden.
Between musical sets there were skits, performances from different campus clubs and organizations, and a “hype squad” that tried to keep energy up. It would be unfair to count this as a negative, because it is, after all, a Homecoming event, not a concert. During these skits, eloquently displayed on a large screen in the middle of the stages, people would sit on their phones, talk amongst themselves, groan audibly, things of this nature. Is this necessarily problematic? Not really. But they were moments where everybody on the field and in the crowd weren’t really together. I’m sure some people enjoyed these, but the overall consensus was obvious: cut this crap out, we want Waka, we want Passion Pit.
When Timeflies took the stage, there was marginal excitement. They’re a pop-electronic-rap duo, and they took the stage confidently. They both wore backwards snapback hats, if that helps you understand what type of music they play.
It should be noted, dear reader, that this Growl was supposed to be different than years before. While previous Growl line-ups have been generally regarded as “safe,” this year was supposed to be anything but. Timeflies was supposed to be this musically controversial band that blended electronic, rap, and hip-hop musical elements in ways unheard of. But after listening to their first few songs, I couldn’t help but think to myself that they weren’t nearly as controversial as expected. As I thought that, they broke into a series of covers, including the theme song from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”, Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance With Me”, and Justin Bieber’s “Sorry”. Not nearly as controversial as expected.
There was one redeeming quality to Timeflies though. For roughly three minutes, the lead singer busted out into a freestyle rap covering a variety of topical events going on around campus. While he read the freestyle off of a piece of paper (he claimed he just had “written down some notes about UF and Gainesville”), it was nevertheless a very impressive, funny, and locally confined rap. I chuckled a handful of times, and there were plenty of FSU/Mizzou disses that warranted a dropped microphone.
Naturally, after Timeflies’ set, there were more skits and performances. At this point, people were visibly yawning and rolling their eyes at the sight of them. About halfway into one skit, a good portion of the crowd was chanting “Waka,” obviously in anticipation of the rapper.
Thankfully when Waka Flocka Flame did eventually come out, there was a massive change in atmosphere. The crowd was reenergized and ready to rage. Which, of course, Waka was more than comfortable with. I’m not sure if Waka was told not to curse or mention the overt names of drugs in his set, but the songs he sampled were noticeably edited, and he would pull the microphone away from his face when lyrics would be profane. The few times he did curse, he winced and cringed at himself. It was obvious he was asked to censor himself on stage. This was a school function, but at the same time, if you didn’t want this, you shouldn’t have invited Waka to perform. To me, this is the same as ordering a salad and asking them to hold the lettuce.
After Waka was done, much of the crowd left, leaving Passion Pit with a smaller audience. But of course, Passion Pit didn’t come out after Waka. There were more speeches to endure. Perhaps the most cringeworthy was when a young man started the “It’s Great” chant, which was not only met with little to no enthusiasm, but also didn’t even sustain itself for more than two rounds. Quite simply, the novelty of these acts was dwindling down from the start, but by now it was completely gone. The best demonstration of this was the last time the “Hype Squad” came up on the stage. When introduced, the crowd audibly groaned and boo’d. But at long last, they introduced Passion Pit and left the stage for, thankfully, the last time.
I am underwhelmed by Angelakos’ voice in person. He’s notorious for his impressive falsetto on tracks, but it’s clear he struggled to maintain that same impressiveness live. The band more than made up for it though, with quirky improvisations that made these songs feel fresh and upbeat. Moreover, Angelakos had showmanship on par with Waka, which was impressive. He worked the crowd and kept everyone happy on their feet. This was even more impressive given there was a massive gap between the stages. Overall, Passion Pit and Waka were very satisfying acts to watch.
It’s not fair to hold Gator Growl in the same esteem as a concert, which the audience clearly did. At its core, Gator Growl is a Homecoming Rally, so it really is necessary to have those acts and performances. They were great if you were an alumni visiting or a child, but the average student met these with either indifference or active disapproval. If you were to separate the music from those, it was an enjoyable experience. However, with big gaps between artists, it was hard to maintain momentum. Moreover, whereas this year Growl was supposed to be less “safe,” I was not impressed with the risks they took. Maddie & Tae produce no strong emotional response, and Timeflies was catchy and upbeat, but certainly not bold. Waka’s performance, which was supposed to be the most controversial, was evidently censored. Passion Pit however, despite Angelakos’ notorious falsetto disappearing, was electric in terms of atmosphere.
I am still not sure what to think about Growl. It was a very pleasant experience and overall, I had a lot of fun. It’s difficult, however, to pinpoint why exactly that was the case. There were many dull moments between musical acts, and the acts themselves were good, not great. Perhaps it’s the atmosphere of eager students that makes the tone of this event so bright.
All photographs were taken by Swamp Record’s photographer, Emefa Amoah. You can follow her on Instagram here.