BRADENTON -- "I feel sorry for anyone who isn't here right now."
Samantha Fish, the fiery young guitarist who's been causing a sensation in the blues world, was just at the start of a great set Saturday afternoon when she said that to the crowd at the third annual Bradenton Blues Festival.
It's quite possibly a prepared line that she uses at a lot of her shows. But everybody in the capacity crowd at the Bradenton Riverwalk seemed to feel the same way. So did the dozens of world-class blues musicians who milled around backstage, staying hours after their own sets to listen to other musicians.
No official numbers were available Saturday evening, but most educated guesses held that this year's fest drew the biggest crowd ever.
"We changed the map a little this year to make more room," said Paul Benjamin, who books all the talent for the Bradenton Blues Festival, and for other major festivals around the country.
There was more seating on the north end of the festival grounds toward the river, and the secondary stage and some of the merchandise tents around the main stage had been moved around for to make room for more people. All the extra room was full.
Blues fans came from all over the country to be here for the festival.
"They sure got a lot of good blues music here," said Beauford Goodrum, who came from Atlanta for the festival.
He and friend Randi Gainer were both impressed with the festival -- and with Bradenton.
"I was born here," Goodrum said. "I left when I was 6. I'm gonna move back."
"I'm not from here but I want to live here," Gainer said.
They both said their favorite act of the day was EG Kight, who hails from Dublin, Ga. When someone asked who else they liked, they looked at the program and named several: They liked Billy Branch & the Sons of Blues. They liked Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials. And Jimmy Thackery and the Drivers. And Doug Deming & the Jewel Tones with Dennis Gruenling. Eventually, they said they liked every act of the day.
"The whole group is great," Goodrum said.
Benjamin selected acts so that just about anyone could find their favorite kind of blues on the program.
"We had Georgia blues, we had Kansas City Blues, we have Chicago blues, we're going to have Texas blues later," he said halfway though the day. "You have to have something for everybody. And that way, maybe some people will be exposed to something new. You may like guitar blues, but you'll come here and discover you like the female singers."
Almost all the acts came from somewhere north of here, and some of them from very far north. So they all appreciated the temperatures in the high 70s on a December afternoon, though some of the more high-energy artists were feeling a little uncomfortable by the end of their sets.
"I gotta get to the hotel and change out of these pants," said veteran Chicago bluesman Billy Branch.
Branch ended up being the most talked-about artist of the day, but not because of his music.
The crowd loved his high-energy set of traditional Chicago blues and his blues harp playing. But what got the crowd talking was something he said between songs.
"It's so great to be here in Sarasota," he said.
The crowd groaned, and a lot of people pointed to signs that said "Bradenton Blues Festival." Branch didn't pick up on the hints, and made the same mistake a couple of more times.
"Well, that's where I landed," Branch said when he finally got it. "I'm sorry. Damn."
Branch was visibly embarrassed and the crowd seemed to accept his apology.
"It's a very receptive crowd," he said after his set. "And I appreciate their not throwing eggs at me when I kept calling Bradenton by the wrong name."
Branch's bassist, Marvin Little, was impressed with the festival and the Bradenton crowd.
The band had just played another festival that's much larger, older and much more widely known. Little didn't want to name that festival, but he said the energy of the Bradenton audience was a lot better.
The sun went down and the stage lights came on during guitar wizard Jimmy Thackery's set, and the hot afternoon gave way to a cool evening.
It was perfect timing. Headliner Marcia Ball took the stage, and her roadhouse Gulf Coast blues was perfect for dancing in the Bradenton evening air.
Patty Virgilio, a Bradenton resident and a longtime friend of Ball, introduced her.
"If you're sitting down, you won't be for long," she said.
By the time Ball was into her second number, a lot of people in the crowd, many of whom had endured seven hours of heat, were up and moving.
The fest ended only after Ball returned to the stage for a solo encore, soon to be joined by the rest of her band. And the crowd rocked.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.