Brody Buster said he was “running on fumes.”
Friday night he played at a blues club in Dothan, Alabama. He finished at midnight, which is 1 a.m. Eastern time, and drove all night to perform at the Bradenton Blues Festival. He got into town only about an hour before the festival started.
“I’ve been up all night,” Buster said. “I pulled over and slept in a rest stop halfway between Dothan and here. I was going to crash the car so I pulled off and slept.”
No one in the crowd would have guessed. Buster was the “Tweener” act, performing mini-sets to fill the gaps while other acts were setting up. He played guitar, drums and harmonica, all at once, and he sang too. All the way through the festival, Buster kept the Bradenton Riverwalk rockin’.
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“I’m gonna find my hotel and get some sleep and then go to Ace’s tonight,” Buster said.
The 2017 Bradenton Blues Festival was the first in the six-year history of the event to sell out in advance. All the others had sold out, but not until the day of the event.
As always, the lineup offered a variety of blues styles, from the rock-flavored blues of Sugar Blue, the harp virtuoso who’s best known outside of blues circles for his work on the Rolling Stones’ hit “Miss You,” to the R&B of Curtis Salgado, the Chicago blues of the Nick Moss Band and the West Coast blues of headliner Joe Louis Walker.
“It’s good, it’s fantastic,” Sugar Blue said of the Bradenton festival.
For the first time, this year’s festival featured a zydeco band. Chubby Carrier and the Delta Swamp Band, who won the Grammy Award for Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album for 2010’s “Zydeco Junkie,” performed original songs, a couple of Fats Domino numbers and a zydeco version of the theme song from “The Jeffersons.”
“We’ve always considered zydeco a stepchild of the blues,” said Paul Benjamin, who has picked the talent for all six Bradenton Blues Festivals. “It’s American music, just like the blues is. I’ve had zydeco bands at other festivals I do, and the crowds always love it.”
Chicago guitarist Nick Moss was performing at his first Bradenton Blues Festival, but he knows the area well. He has played at Ace’s before, and his friend Doug Deming (a nationally known blues musician who played at Friday’s Blues Appetizer concert) lives here.
“Doug’s one of my favorite buddies,” he said. “I’m gonna hang out this week and go fishing with Doug as much as I can.”
Musicians came from all over the country to play at this year’s festival. Buster is from Kansas City, Sugar Blue and Nick Moss from Chicago (although Sugar Blue is getting ready to move to China), and Carrier hails from New Orleans.
The festival drew plenty of audience members to Bradenton from other parts of the country too, from as far away as Switzerland and Germany. Realize Bradenton, which organizes the festival, announced that this year’s festival drew fans from five countries, several Canadian provinces and states across the U.S. A few people ventured from Alaska to join the crowd.
Whether they were up dancing or sitting and tapping their toes, the crowd was out early.
By 11:30 a.m., most of the coveted shady spots were filling up, and the first act had just started on stage. Most of the crowd was still seated, though there were several standing along the pathways and walking to and from the food and drink vendors with items in hand.
Theresa Calluori, 61, came from Miami to see her fourth Bradenton Blues Fest. She found her perfect spot, perched in the playground equipment near the splash pad along the Bradenton Riverwalk.
“It’s in the shade and I’m short so I can see (the stage),” Calluori said, smiling.
In her lap was a drawing notebook and a marker. She looked up from her notebook occasionally to make sure her friend, whom she was sketching, was still asleep in his chair.
The notebook is full of hand-drawn memories of her travels, including images she created of Bradenton Blues Festivals going back to 2014. One was of the same friend, sleeping in his chair even back then.
“Usually I don’t sit, I usually dance like a maniac,” Calluori said. “My favorite part is dancing like a maniac. I dance ’til I drop.”
A few hours later, she was on her feet, dancing with a friend on the jungle gym.
William Green, who said he has friends and family in the area, came to his second Bradenton Blues Festival festival from his home in Washington state. He came back this year for the music.
“I’m glad I got tickets,” Green said of the sold-out event.
Though tickets were sold out, Annamarie and Gary Defourny found their own way to get a good seat to the music: on the water.
“We’ve seen people walking by and everyone is saying we have the best seat in the house,” Annamarie said, standing on a seat of the boat, pointing toward the stage.
She said they thought about bringing the motorcycle up from their home in Sarasota, but when they learned the event was sold out, they got the boat as a plan B.
They were on one of about a half-dozen boats floating on the Manatee River taking in the tunes and soaking up the sunshine.
Watching from the back of the venue, behind the sea of lawn chairs, James Robinson and Ethan Bennett, both of Sarasota, were two of the younger people in the crowd as it continued to grow Saturday afternoon.
Robinson, 30, said they are music enthusiasts who knew someone with extra tickets. While they enjoyed the music, what captivated their attention was people watching as the crowds danced along to the music.
“Everybody’s having a good time, super laid back,” Robinson said.
Though they were just stopping in to see a few acts, Bennett, 24, and Robinson agreed their favorite so far was the Nick Moss Band.
With several bands yet to perform, they said they were already sold on coming back for next year’s event.
There were a few tweaks to this year’s festival, including some added restrooms for people who use wheelchairs. For the first time, the “tweener” act was on the main stage, instead of a separate, smaller stage. The stage was moved about 10 feet to the south to help improve sound quality.
Every year, Realize Bradenton pools audience members, vendors and musicians and asks what they like about the festival and what they think could be better. Johnette Isham, the executive director of Realize Bradenton, said her organization tries to make as many changes as it can.
Except for one.
“Every year, we get people saying, ‘When are you going to move to a bigger venue?,’ ” she said. “You know when? Never. Realize Bradenton promotes downtown Bradenton, and this is the ideal location.”