BRADENTON -- It was a day before the second annual Bradenton Blues Festival, but already the streets of downtown Bradenton were echoing with blues.
Along Old Main Street, small jazz combos were filling the air with old-timey blues and some bluesy rock tunes, entertaining the usual Friday night crowd of diners and drinkers, along with a handful who had come just to hear the music.
Behind O'brick's, about 350 people who paid $125 apiece were listening to Johnny Rawls, who's slated to be one of the headliners for today's festival, play all night long.
The big event of the night was at the Pavilion on the Riverwalk, where all the Saturday action is going to take place. Friday night, a couple of phenomenal blues bands with national reputations enthralled hundreds of music fans in a free concert called the Blues Appetizer.
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Selwyn Birchwood, a lanky young blues guitarist from Tampa, was again the star of the Blues Appetizer.
"I did it last year so when they asked me to do it again I was happy to do it," Birchwood said.
Birchwood was already gaining fame in national blues circles when he played the Blues Appetizer last year. But earlier this year, he won the International Blues Challenge. That put him on the radar for everyone who pays any attention to blues music.
"It's a competition in Memphis," Birchwood said. "Usually there's about 250 bands. But you have to win your local completion to get there. I won in Tampa so I got to go to Memphis."
Counting all the acts in all the local competitions all over the world, Birchwood beat out 2,000 to 3,000 competitors.
"I saw this guy last year and he's great," said Jason Johnson, relaxing in the crowd with his dog Rosie as Birchwood took the stage.
Johnson hasn't decided whether he's going to attend the actual festival. He lives so close he can hear it from his apartment.
"It's $30, or I can just sit on my patio and listen," he said.
Birchwood said he definitely wanted to come back for the actual festival, and he knew who he wanted to see.
"Eddie Shaw, man," he said with a huge smile. "I think I've seen all the others but I've never seen Eddie."
Eddie Shaw & the Wolf Gang, who evolved out of Howlin' Wolf's backup band, are slated to play at 4:55 p.m. at today's festival, just ahead of headliner Shemekia Copeland, who'll play at 6:20 p.m.
Back behind O'brick's, Women's Resource Center director Ashley Brown said the concert with Rawls, who sings soulful Southern blues and wields a powerful Telecaster, would raise about $50,000 for the center, which provides counseling and a range of other services for women's in transition.
"It's our major fundraiser of the year," Brown said. "We see this as part of the blues festival. We did it last year with Biscuit Miller and we'll keep doing it as long as the blues festival keeps going."
For information about today's second annual Bradenton Blues Festival, go to www.bradentonbluesfestival.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.