Bradenton Blues Festival thrills crowd for second straight year

Stunning musicians helped 3,500 blues lovers forget the heat

Herald StaffDecember 8, 2013 

BRADENTON -- The sun was hot. The music was smokin'.

The second annual Bradenton Blues Festival started in near-record temperatures Saturday afternoon, and shade was hard to come by.

"We got here early, before the music started, just so we could pick a spot in the shade," said Bob Weintraub of Bradenton, who was at the festival with his sons Mark and Larry, and their wives Sara and Renee.

The pockets of shade were mostly around the periphery of the festival area, at the main Pavilion on the Bradenton Riverwalk. But no one was complaining. Six hours of phenomenal blues music made up for any discomfort.

Doug Jordan made the trip all the way from Viera, near Melbourne, to come to the blues fest.

"I have a friend that lives here, and he knows how I feel about the blues," Jordan said. "So he told me I had to get over here."

Jordan was not at all disappointed, and said he loved the performances.

"Some of them make me want to move, some of them make me want dance and some of them are just nice to listen to," Jordan said.

Jordan, however, was not among the crowd sitting in front of the stage.

"My friend is sitting out there, but when you have had one bout with skin cancer you tend to stay cautious," Jordan said.

Hans Fehr, of Bradenton, braved the heat to be close to the music.

"Can you bring a couple clouds?" Fehr said.

With temperatures that climbed into the low 80's and not a cloud in the sky, the unseasonably warm temperature was the only complaint.

Dave Gustafson, director of the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority, was lending a helpful hand pouring beer at the beverage tent.

"This is Bradenton, you do what it takes," Gustafson said.

The Bradenton DDA was a hosting sponsor of the event, which Gustafson said he thought was twice as big as last year. The event took months of planning and seemed to run without a hiccup.

Paul Benjamin, who booked all the acts for the festival this year and last, denied that the crowd was twice as big this year, and practically scoffed at Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston's estimate that it was three times bigger.

"We wouldn't have room to put three times as many people," he said. "We had 3,200 last year, and this year we're looking at 3,500. It's 300 more people, not three times as many people."

The numbers didn't include the people who opted to stay outside the festival area, listening to the music but not seeing the musicians.

Some sat all day on the grass just outside the fences, where shade was more abundant, and listened. Howard Pruitt of Palmetto did that because he wanted to spend the day with his dog Damien.

Brenda and Bill Dunlap, seasonal Bradenton residents and devoted blues fans, bought tickets last year but this time opted to listen from afar.

"We're in the shade, we're reading, we brought a picnic lunch," Brenda said. "To tell you the truth I'm glad we didn't buy tickets."

But it was the music, not ticket sales or the weather, that really mattered to the crowd. And the music was phenomenal, whether it was in the mid-day heat or in the evening coolness that settled in as the last two acts, Eddie Shaw & the Wolfpack and Shemekia Copeland, took the stage.

Shaw and his band, who used to play with Howlin' Wolf, shook the crowd with a straight shot of Chicago Blues, including Howlin' Wolf's classic "Little Red Rooster" and Robert Johnson's "Sweet Home Chicago."

Ellenton native Jesse Yawn, who moved back to the area a few years ago after a career of playing the blues in the Baltimore area, sang with Shaw on "Everyday I Have the Blues."

Chicago singer Copeland started her set with a powerful version of her own song "Dirty Water" and kept the intensity high through her whole set.

Among the other crowd favorites was Trampled Underfoot, a Kansas trio made up of three siblings. But guitarist Nik Schebelen had to skip the festival because his wife was having a baby. Danielle and Kris Schnebelen enlisted guitarist Albert Castiglia, who had opened the festival, to play guitar. A highlight of their set was a rousing version of Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll."

Several of the musicians said that soon after last year's festival, the word spread around the blues community about how well-run the festival was, and how great the weather was in Bradenton in early December. Benjamin, who books acts for blues festivals all over the country, said the nation's best blues artists are eager to play the Bradenton Blues Festival.

"I could book next year's festival tomorrow," he said.

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