Bradenton Blues Festival draws top acts, record crowd

Sugar Ray and the Bluestones get crowd jamming at Bradenton Blues Fest

Sugar Ray and the Bluestones had the crowd jamming at the fifth annual Bradenton Blues Festival on Saturday on the Bradenton Riverwalk.
Up Next
Sugar Ray and the Bluestones had the crowd jamming at the fifth annual Bradenton Blues Festival on Saturday on the Bradenton Riverwalk.

Steve Luiken came all the way from Pittsburgh for Saturday’s Bradenton Blues Festival. He was expecting a great time, but he left with a lot more than that.

“This is amazing,” said Luiken, who was at the Bradenton festival for the second year in a row. “I go to like 60 blues festivals a year, and I love this festival. It’s a smaller festival, and I just like the atmosphere.”

He’ll no doubt remember this year’s festival for a long time. Luiken won a raffle for a guitar that was autographed by this year’s Bradenton Blues Festival musicians. Raffle tickets were $5 apiece or $20 for five.

“I bought five and my friend bought five and gave them to me,” Luiken said. He wasn’t sure whether it was his own ticket or one that his friend bought that won him the guitar.

It was the fifth annual edition of the festival, and the most popular yet, with a capacity crowd of 3,000 at Bradenton’s Riverwalk for a full day of blues played by some of the best in the business.

In previous years, tickets didn’t sell out until well into the afternoon. This year’s festival sold out shortly after the gates opened at 11 a.m.

This is amazing. I go to like 60 blues festivals a year and I love this festival. It’s a smaller festival and I just like the atmosphere.

Steve Luiken

“There were some unhappy people,” said Johnette Isham, the executive director of Realize Bradenton, the organization behind the festival. “But we kept pushing through social media ‘40 tickets left,’ ‘10 tickets left.’ People are just going to have to get their tickets early.”

Inside the festival, there was no evidence of unhappy people.

Gorgeous weather for the fourth straight year was the perfect complement for music by the likes of Jason Ricci, who won the prestigious Blues Music Award for Best Harmonica Player in 2010; Victor Wainwright, who has twice been named the Pinetop Perkins Piano Player of the Year at the Blues Music Awards; and the Golden State/Lone Star Revue, which includes blues greats Little Charlie Baty and Anson Funderburgh on guitar and Mark Hummel on vocals and harmonica.

“Every festival’s unique,” Wainwright said after his set. “But I’ll tell you what I like about this one, is there are a lot of families. That opens up new generations to this music.”

Wainwright was playing the Brandenton Blues Festival for the second time. His band Southern Hospitality performed at the inaugural festival in 2012.

Out in the crowd, Barbara Hovey, 59, was jumping and jiving all afternoon.

“I’m part of the Mississippi Blues Society, and I flew all the here just for this,” Hovey said as swayed her hips to Sugar Ray and the Bluestones. “Oh Lord have mercy.”

She was familiar with the band, she said, and couldn’t contain herself during the performance, remaining on her feet smiling and dancing.

“I follow the blues everywhere,” she said. “I love it.”

Hovey said it was a simple Google search that helped her find out about the Bradenton Blues Festival, and as soon as she discovered the event, she decided instantly that she wanted to go.

“I don’t even like the modern stuff, but this is cool,” she added.

Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston was among the many who attend the Bradenton Blues Festival yearly.

“You got to have the blues in Bradenton,” Poston said.

Organizers at Realize Bradenton were pleased that the event had sold out. But that didn’t stop others from enjoying the live music from the sidewalk along the Bradenton Riverwalk, their boats on the Manatee River, and some people used social media posts to announce how they were enjoying the music from their nearby condos.

Feedback was positive all day, Isham said.

You know that theory that the blues is the devil’s music? Look at this weather we’ve had for five years. It’s obviously God’s music.

Paul Benjamin

“They are here because they love Bradenton. They are here because they support live music,” Isham said as she looked at the crowd. “But most of all, the sponsors and attendees are here because they know Realize Bradenton is dedicated to improving quality of life and raising money to bring blues to the schools.”

Among the musical highlights of the festival were the fiery set by Wainwright, the performance by the Lone Star/Golden State Revue that included guest appearances from Wainwright and Ricci, and a rocking evening set by Chicago blues great Ronnie Baker Brooks that closed the festival.

On a side stage, blues violinist Ilanna Katz Katz — wearing a T-shirt that said “meow” — entertained between main stage sets. It was her first time in Bradenton, and she was loving it.

“Awesome, really amazing,” she said. “It’s such an honor that people enjoy what I do.”

Paul Benjamin, who has secured the talent for the Bradenton Blues Festival since the beginning, said he was having a great time himself. Benjamin lives in Maine and produces blues festivals all over the country. He continues to be impressed with the idyllic weather at the Bradenton Blues Festival every year.

“You know that theory that the blues is the devil’s music?” he said. “Look at this weather we’ve had for five years. It’s obviously God’s music.”

Jessica De Leon: 941-745-7049, @JDeLeon1012; Marty Clear: 941-708-7919, @martinclear

Related stories from Bradenton Herald