BRADENTON -- For the fourth straight year, the first Saturday in December brought a capacity crowd estimated at 3,000 and eight hours of amazing live music at the Bradenton Blues Festival.
For fans and musicians, the biggest live music event in Bradenton was as big a hit this year as it has been each year since it began in 2012.
Some 3,000 who came from all over the United States and at least five foreign countries (Sweden, Hungary, Germany, Canada and Italy) were in Bradenton for this year's festival, which featured virtually nonstop music from 11 a.m. until well after dark.
"It's a great festival," said Sadie Johnson, who was at the Bradenton festival for the first time.
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But she knows her blues festival. The 19-year-old is one of three members of Girls With Guitars, the first act on this year's lineup.
"It was phenomenal," she said of her band's experience. "We had a packed house, or a packed outdoor venue."
Band mate Eliana Cargnelutti agreed. "Unfortunately, this was our last gig," she said "But it was my favorite. Great crowd, great sound, great people." Girls With Guitars will keep going with different members. The group features three different young female blues guitarists every year. Cargnelutti will return to Italy, and tour Europe with the Eliana Cargnelutti Band. Johnson will return to her music studies at Marietta College in Ohio.
Veterans of the festival agreed with their positive assessment.
"This festival is great," said Scot Sutherland, the bassist for Mike Zito and the Wheel. "I played here last year with Samantha Fish."
One reason he loves the Bradenton event, Sutherland said, is Paul Benjamin, a fixture in the national blues scene. Benjamin has produced every Bradenton Blues festival.
"Paul always runs a great festival," he said.
South Carolinian Jimi Patricola, who runs the blues website Blues 411, goes to festivals all over the country and in Europe. He said the Bradenton Blues Festival is his favorite.
"I really look forward to coming down to Bradenton," he said. "For the festival and for events on both ends of the festival. There's such a great amount of music here. I wish we could come down more often." All acts on this year's festival lineup played blues -- just about every kind of blues there is -- from Larry Garner's funk-tinged blues to the Chicago blues of Rick Estrin and the Nightcats, the soulful blues-rock of headliner Janiva Magness and the fiery electric guitar blues of Joanna Connor, whose guitar playing drew favorable comparisons to such legends as Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
The crowd loved the music, and the musicians loved the crowd.
"This location is magnificent," Connor said after her set. "The people are wonderful, warm and welcoming, and they love the music." She wasn't the only visitor from the Great Lakes states to make it to this festival this year.
Lisa Gregor, 56, made her annual trip all the way from Detroit to attend the Bradenton Blues Festival.
"I missed the first one," she said. "But I've come to every one since."
Her love of the blues has taken her across the country before, she said. She loves the weather in Bradenton this time of year.
"It's nice to get away this time of year," Gregor said. "It was 47 degrees in Michigan today, not that bad."
Locals are used to beautiful winter weather, but they loved the festival as much as the out-of-towners.
Jim Amerson, 66, was enjoying the view of the stage from the VIP section as he sipped on a cold beer.
"The last band was killer," Amerson said, referring to Larry Garner. "I enjoyed them a lot."
This wasn't his first Bradenton Blues Festival. He had come once before. The Palmetto resident said he winters in Key West and isn't usually in the Bradenton area this time of year.
"I came all the way across the river to have some fun," he said. "What an event."
Bradenton's Susan Brown watched Mike Zito and The Wheel's performance from her chair on the lawn.
"It's wonderful, as it's always been," Brown said of the festival. "It's great music, great people and great location. This is wonderful for Bradenton."
The weather was perfect all day long, warm and sunny with a slight breeze. The sun went down just as before headliner Magness and her band took the stage at 6:20 p.m.
At least two visitors to the Bradenton Blues Festival said they will remember it as long as they live.
Pam Gay and Dale Miller, from a small town called Fort St. John in northwest Canada, were married on stage at the festival. A couple for 18 years, they both love the blues. They entered a contest run by Realize Bradenton and their prize package included a wedding officiated by circuit court Judge Ed Nicholas.
"May you never have the blues," Nicholas said to the couple at the end of the five-minute ceremony. "Or better yet, may you always have the blues."
It was a memorable wedding for Nicholas too.
"I've done a lot of weddings," he said, "but never in front of 3,000 people. Let's just say we're not lacking for witnesses at this wedding."
The bride, whose name is now Pam Miller, said she visits the Bradenton area often, and learned about the wedding contest from bradenton.com, the Bradenton Herald's website.
"I read the Herald every day," she said. "When I'm sitting in the snow I read it and pretend I live here."
Marty Clear, features writer columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.
Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter@JDeLeon1012.