BRADENTON -- Music played, drinks flowed, hands clapped and hips swayed at the Riverwalk on Saturday, where the inaugural Bradenton Blues Festival exceeded expectations.
Just a few sets in and there was hardly a blade of grass not already coveted by a blanket or chair in the event zone at the newly opened Riverwalk, with VIP guests gathered on the pavilion.
"Realize Bradenton builds community and economic development," said Johnette Isham, executive director of Realize Bradenton, which hosted the event. "This first ever Bradenton Blues Festival is a home run because it has done both."
Realize Bradenton budgeted the concert with the expectation of selling 800 tickets. Approximately 1,200 were pre-ordered online. At day's end, organizers reported total sales of 3,126.
"I've been doing festivals for 25 years," said Paul Benjamin, festival consultant from Maine. "Any first-year event with a crowd of 800 to 1,200 is successful. They've doubled that. For a first-year festival, this is incredible. This is a perfect example that when everybody works together as a team, it works."
More than 52 organizations sponsored the event, which included a free concert Friday night and educational program for about 300 music students at Manatee High School. Proceeds from selling tickets, T-shirts and limited edition posters designed by Harry Potter illustrator, Mary GrandPré, will benefit arts and music programs at local schools.
"When you put together a free concert, youth education and fabulous music, this is what Realize Bradenton does," Isham said. "We are grateful for the support we've received from our sponsors, the city of Bradenton and the Downtown Development Authority."
Isham worked with Jack Sullivan of Blues Revue magazine, which recently moved its offices from California to Village of the Arts, to plan the event. Sullivan knew Benjamin -- who puts together the annual North Atlantic Blues Festival in Maine -- would be the perfect consultant. Isham joked that she and Benjamin have spoken on the phone for the past 365 days.
"We have relationships with all of these artists," Sullivan said of Benjamin and himself. "We wanted to showcase local artists, and we also wanted to bring in national headliners to expose the community to contemporary blues. Music and culture brings people together."
Eight acts played Saturday, with Grammy-nominated artist Ruthie Foster closing the show.
Roxanne and Darcy Fulton, who recently drove down from Alberta, Canada, for the winter, sat in their lawn chairs while wearing large-brimmed hats, awaiting a performance by Johnny Sansone, New Orleans-based harmonica player.
When asked if he was enjoying himself, Darcy Fulton replied with a smile, "Oh, yeah. They're playing the blues."
The couple are avid blues music fans, attending shows whenever they can.
"Our license plate says 'blues,'" Darcy Fulton added.
"We've never been down on the river, and it's beautiful," Roxanne Fulton said. "This is fantastic. It's a great set up and great weather."
New to Florida, Ashley Reynolds and David Saczaw drove from North Port to attend the concert with Reynolds' aunt, uncle and mother.
"It's very good. I hope this continues every year," Saczaw said. "I like that they have a lot of young and new talent. They may need a bigger area next year."
"Everyone is having a good time," Reynolds added.
Tom Deegan and Charlotte Silkey flew down from Connecticut, to attend the concert. They are planning a first-ever blues festival for Sept. 14 in their city of East Hartland with Benjamin's assistance.
"This has helped convince us a lot more," Deegan said. "It's a big success. I think they've got a great venue and love the setup here. I wish we had this in Connecticut."
Isham echoed that sentiment, expressing gratitude for having a place like the Riverwalk to host such an event. Realize Bradenton, charged with organizing the grand opening for the park that opened in October, has held 35 events since the ribbon cutting of the $6.2 million project.
"This is a beautiful, new public space for visitors and residents," Isham said. "People from all over the country are coming to Bradenton, sleeping in our hotels and spending money on Old Main Street. It's all about promoting Bradenton as the best riverfront community in the United States."
Elizabeth Johnson, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041. Follow her on Twitter@EJohnsonBHcrime.