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‘Kellypalooza’ music festival bringing Cuban rock to Ohatchee

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Sweet Lizzy Project, shown in this publicity pose, will perform Saturday at an all-day music and camping festival at an Ohatchee farm.

It took about four years for the band Sweet Lizzy Project to record “Technicolor,” only for the album to be released less than a month before the global COVID-19 pandemic became a problem in America. 

But the members of the Cuban rock band, who transplanted to America a little over two years ago, have managed to find a little slice of internet to promote their first studio-produced album, through a long-running series of live-streamed shows on YouTube.

It’s not quite the tour across the nation they had expected to continue — last year they opened for Heart and Joan Jett and played across nearly 20 states — but the band seems undeterred by the tragic timing.

Sweet Lizzy Project will perform Saturday at Kellypalooza, a day-long music and camping festival at an Ohatchee farm, and that’s enough to make singer Lisset Diaz smile. 

“We’re very grateful for this show, having a chance to go out and play live in a safe environment like this,” Diaz said in a phone call Wednesday. “It really is a privilege.” 

Last week the band released “Sticky Situations,” a song recorded in the Nashville house where the band streams its “Sweet Quarantine Sessions,” in which band members chat with fans.

The song is about the disconnect between an imagined, “perfect” life and the sour grapes that are sometimes served instead. The tune is bombastic and colorful, just like the band’s giant banners hanging in the recording space, but Sweet Lizzy doesn’t play the rhythmic rumbas one might predict of a Cuban band. 

Diaz calls singers like Hayley Williams of Paramore to mind when she performs, projecting youthful confidence that’s easy to believe in.

Guitarist Miguel Comas is driven to flights of prog-rock fancy, taking the title track of “Technicolor” into Pink Floyd’s lunar lander for its last two, soaring minutes across a trippy cosmos.

Keyboardist Wilfredo Gatell, drummer Angel Luis Millet and bassist Alejandro Gonzalez craft a tight foundation for songs and listeners to bounce along with, making “Sticky Situations” feel like an ’80s bopper by way of 2020 — or maybe 2019, the last decent year on record. 

Diaz sings in English on most of the band’s songs, which were written with influence from the English-speaking bands she and Comas listened to growing up in Cuba, from the Beatles to Alanis Morissette and the Counting Crows. 

“We’re a band from Cuba, and coming from Cuba a lot of people expect us to play salsa or rumba or whatever, traditional Cuban music,” Diaz explained. “Sometimes when we go to a new town, people don’t know what to expect — ‘Let’s get our fancy dresses and go dance?’ We’re not that kind of band.” 

Sneaking U.S. music into Cuba

Diaz had finished a biochemistry degree at the University of Havana when she spontaneously started to write songs and met guitarist Comas. He thought her songs were cool, good enough for a record, and she thought it’d make for a fun story to tell her grandkids one day, about their “cool grandma.” 

Not that starting a band is so simple in Cuba. Break a guitar string or a drumstick? There’s no Guitar Center to pop by on the way home from work. Even keeping up with music from outside the country is a job; messengers sneak USB drives loaded with American media into the island nation, which has an ongoing history of artistic censorship and locks down internet use to a select few.

Falling in love with rock music is simple, but maintaining that relationship is complicated. Diaz reckoned that’s how the band came together. 

“We all share the same passion for this kind of music, from different perspectives,” she said. “Each musician shares whatever his musical experience is, and that’s how we have the sound we have.” 

The band has lived in the same house over the last two years, which has become a blessing during the pandemic. Over the phone, Diaz mocked a yell for a drummer to report to the studio like she was calling a kid to dinner. 

“During the pandemic there are a lot of bands that can’t play right now, but we’re able to keep playing music together and keep jamming every night,” Diaz said. 

Safety at Kellypalooza

At Kellypalooza, the COVID safety restrictions that keep bands from performing at other stages have been accounted for, said Coke Williams, who founded the music festival a few years ago as a birthday party (and wedding) with his then-girlfriend, Kelly, out on his family’s farmland. 

“She does not like the name,” Williams said, chuckling, noting that a family member crafted the moniker. 

There will be handwashing stations around the farm, with places to park cars or campers and pitch tents. The music can be heard throughout the property, Williams said, so visitors can stand at the stage or wander off into the rustic scenery for a socially distanced listening experience. Masks are required while waiting in line at food trucks or merchandise tables (Kellypalooza merch is a thing) and encouraged elsewhere. 

“It’s a really family-friendly event,” Williams said. “We welcome well-behaved children and well-behaved adults, is kind of one of our taglines.” 

The event started a few years ago as a private party with music, food and friends, gradually growing into a public event. Once the festival went public, it began to sponsor local charities. This year the festival will benefit Coosa Riverkeeper, an organization that monitors the Coosa River for contaminants. The charity will receive 100 percent of the profits from the day-long event, Williams said. 

Other bands at the show include Travers Brothership, Southern Avenue, the Lamont Landers band and the Talismen, representing a strong lineup of funk, rock and blues. 

“Our hope this year was that people would be excited to get into the open air and enjoy some live music,” Williams said. “It’s a weird year, as you know.” 

The weirdness hasn’t been lost on Diaz, who repeatedly expressed her excitement to play in the open air for an audience again after a slow year, and hopefully get back on the road — pandemic permitting, of course. 

“I don’t want to make anyone feel like I don’t care about the pandemic, but I think we can make it work,” Diaz said. “It’s good for artists and venues and good for people, to have art in general and whatever makes them feel alive.”