BRADENTON -- Smoke billowed over the parking lot of McKechnie Field shortly after 6 p.m. Friday evening as multiple stands cooked ribs, pulled pork and other foods on opening night of the ninth annual Gulf Coast Rhythm & Ribs Music Fest.
Gulf Coast Rhythm & Ribs Music Fest, which runs through Sunday, is one of the biggest annual fundraisers benefiting United Community Centers Inc., a nonprofit that provides educational, social and recreational programs to more than 1,500 low income, and at-risk youth throughout Manatee County.
The free event is a blend of barbecue, ice cold beers, children's activities, fireworks, and music by the Lauren Mitchell Band and Billy Rice.
Avery Burke, a cook at J&J Bar-B-Que stand, said business was slow at the moment but coming along.
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"Come taste what smells so good" read a large banner hanging over the stand.
Dennis Clark, 69, and his friend Frank Eldridge, stood in line to order some food from the Bradenton-based business.
It was Clark's first time at the Gulf Coast Rhythm & Ribs Music Fest, but the Bradenton resident said he's been eating ribs from J&J for nearly a decade.
"We're going to get a rack of ribs and then I'm going to walk down and get some crab claws for the wife -- crab gumbo," Clarke said.
Eldridge, who lives in Northwest Bradenton, said it was still early at the festival, but looked like it was going to crowd up.
"It's going to be a great event," he said.
Over in the back of the lot, 62-year-old Mary Chapin danced with a group of friends near the stage. A cup of Bud Light beer in hand, the Sarasota resident swayed to the music. Chapin said she had been looking forward to this festival for months.
"I'm having a wonderful time," she said. "We always dance. ... Billy Rice and Lauren Mitchell; these are my two favorite bands and they're together."
According to Alexdrena Green, chief operating officer for United Community Centers, the festival was off to a good start.
"The attendance is up, the location is a little different but we're expecting a big crowd and it's looking like things are going really well so far," she said.
Green, who walked around the festival with a walkie-talkie to keep in touch with other organizers, said she estimated as many as 2,000 attendees came. Overall, Green said she expects between 15,000 and 20,000 people to attend this year.
In one corner of the lot, a line formed outside a stand by T&L's Bar-B-Q, a Bradenton eatery owned by Tiki Curry Sr. and his wife, Linda Curry. On the menu were ribs, shredded pork, chicken, wings, and sides such as baked beans and collard greens.
Tiki Curry Jr., who worked at his family's stand, said the best sellers were the rib bites of boneless diced pork.
"Tonight, it looks like it's a good crowd for the first night," the 40-year-old Palmetto resident said. "It should be a good weekend. The weather is good. We hope for a big turnout this year."
Donna Hughes, 62, sat at a bench in the center of the parking lot with her boyfriend, Dan Martin, 64. Both had already eaten ribs and were washing them down with cold Coronas.
The couple, in town visiting from Cape Cod, Mass., found out about the festival after looking up things to do in Bradenton.
"We love ribs, we love the blues -- so we had to come," Hughes said. "This a wonderful event, and the fact that it's free, wonderful!"
Martin said the festival was just what they expected.
"I'm a blues bass guitar player, so I enjoy picking up shows and festivals wherever we go," he said. "It's perfect that this lined up with us being here."
Amaris Castillo, law enforcement/island reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. Follow her on Twitter@AmarisCastillo.