SARASOTA --- By its very definition, the blues is supposed to be morose, a musical dirge filled with "baby done me wrong" songs. Then why was the Sound Advice Sarasota Bluesfest on Saturday filled with people grinning from ear to ear?
"There's a myth that the blues is all about hard times," guitarist Coco Montoya said. "Any psychologist will tell you that if you hold it in, it will destroy you. This music is all about making people feel good."
Montoya, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and Solomon Burke headlined a show that showered the audience at the Sarasota Fairgrounds with hours of feel-good music. Blessed with clear skies and its most-impressive lineup in years, the festival drew one of the largest crowds in its 13-year history.
According to festival organizer and promoter Barbara Strauss, there were already about 4,500 people at the event by 3 p.m., a number normally not seen until 5 or 6 p.m.
The Conch Fritter Band from Island Middle School kicked things off at 11 a.m., followed by 13-year-old guitar whiz Eric Steckel of Lehigh Valley, Pa.
Steckel has been playing for only four years, but already shows promise in the vein of Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. He was invited to jam onstage with both Mayall and Burke, and helped the latter close out the festival with "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love."
"I've sold a lot of CDs," Steckel said excitedly after his solo set. "Festivals like this allow you to reach a wider audience."
Local artists, dubbed the "All-Stars," warmed up the crowd before the big names took the stage. Jennifer Sweat, lead vocalist of the Sarasota blues/jazz band Jennifer and the Venturas, closed the All-Stars set with songs by Big Joe Turner, Bobby "Blue" Bland and Koko Taylor.
"This is the only thing of its kind in Sarasota that's done on such a grand scale," Sweat said backstage. "We don't have to go to Orlando or Tampa to see it, so it's a wonderful thing."
Things were kicked up a notch with Delta Moon's combination of old-school Delta blues and modern electric bombast. Lead vocalist Gina Leigh, accompanied by the twin slide guitars of Mark Johnson and Tom Gray, got the crowd to its feet with songs from their self-titled debut.
But it was the one-two-three punch of Montoya, Mayall and Burke that sent things over the edge. Mayall and former protege Montoya performed back-to-back sets, providing an interesting juxtaposition of the former student and the teacher who's groomed everyone from Eric Clapton to members of the Rolling Stones, Cream, Fleetwood Mac and Wings.
Burke, known as "the king of soul," lived up to his reputation. Decked out in a sparkling suit and sitting in a gold-and-red throne, Burke performed a combination of classic hits and selections from his recent Grammy winner, "Don't Give Up On Me."
At one point, Burke played a medley of hits made famous by his '60s colleagues, including Ben E. King and the late Otis Redding, and invited audience members to come up to the stage so he could pass out roses, much to the chagrin of security.
"I hope people leave here feeling wonderful," Burke said before his show, which included a horn section, a harp and two of his 21 children on background vocals.
Just a few years ago, the Bluesfest faced extinction when Strauss was cited with violation of the city's noise ordinance. She fought the citation in court, and won on the grounds the ordinance was unconstitutional. Now she gets a variance from the city that allows the festival to run until 9 p.m.
"I feel that Sarasota has an overabundance of high-dollar events," Strauss said. There should be something for everybody, and this is a festival with a high quality of entertainment."