Blues-rock guitar hero Kenny Wayne Shepherd, who played the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall during his wunderkind days in 1999, is the announced headliner for the first Florida Blue Blues and Music Festival, Oct. 26 at the Sarasota Fairgrounds.
If not as famous or universally respected as past Sarasota Blues Festival headliners such as Buddy Guy, Gregg Allman and Solomon Burke, Shepherd has substantial star power. His latest album, “How I Go,” reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Blues Album chart and just missed the Top 10 on the rock survey.
Rick Estrin & The Nightcats with special guest Little Charlie, Popa Chubby and Samantha Fish round out the roster for the event.
Ed Morrell, of Turnstile, LLC, the St. Petersburg-based company producing the new festival, said he chose acts that would represent a wide range of blues styles.
“It was about creating a total package with all the artists," Morrell said by phone Monday. “Samantha gives us a younger female making her debut and Popa Chubby provides more rocking blues. Rick Estrin & The Nightcats, especially with Little Charlie, are more traditional blues.”
Morrell added, “Kenny is the finishing touch with his guitar expertise.”
In May, the ExtremeTix organizers behind the Sarasota Blues Fest, a popular annual attraction for more than two decades, announced they had “decided to take the year off.”
The same day, Morrell, a former employee for ExtremeTix, said his Turnstile Entertainment’s Florida Blue Blues and Music Festival would fill the void and stage the festival Oct. 26 at the Sarasota Fairgrounds.
Florida Blue, the state’s Blue Cross and Blue Shield health industry company, secured naming rights for the festival.
Traditionally, the Sarasota Blues Fest had spotlighted local artists with an all-star jam and last year’s lineup included Tampa-based artist Selwyn Birchwood. So far, though, it’s all national acts at Florida Blue Blues and Music Festival.
“We still have a spot or two we haven’t filled and haven’t eliminated that possibility,” Morrell said of booking a local act. “It’s difficult to pick just one without offending others but it hasn’t been eliminated yet. We are also discussing to actually expand to two stages next year to bring more talent.”
In addition to Florida Blue, Morrell said Gold Coast Eagle Distributing Gold Coast Eagle is the other major sponsor and that the main vendors will be Florida barbecue mavens.
Morrell has promised to continue The Sarasota Blues Fest tradition of giving back, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting All Faith’s Food Bank in Sarasota.
“The blues festival gave us thousands of dollars each year and last year we were able to provide more than 64,000 meals to hungry residents in Sarasota because of that festival specifically,” said Laura Coyle, director of marketing at All Faith’s Food Bank in Sarasota. “We’ve been working closely with the Florida Blue Blues and Music Festival and this year we expect the same generosity.”
Last year, just fewer than 3,000 people attended the Sarasota Blues Fest, Morrell said, with 3,000-4,000 expected this year at his blues festival.
In May, Morrell’s Turnstile Entertainment produced the first ever Latin American Celebration in St. Petersburg’s Vinoy Park on Cinco de Mayo. While more than 3,000 attendees were expected, according to published reports, only about 1,000 tickets were sold.
“Yes it did, sure,” Morrell said when asked if attendance fell short of expectations. He attributed the failure to “marketplace competition,” citing the numerous Cinco de Mayo activities taking place at the time across Tampa Bay.
“This is a completely different event,” Morrell said of the blues festival.
Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County, described the annual Sarasota blues festival as “one of our largest cultural events” and said “we are really pleased it was not cancelled.”
"It’s very important," Haley continued. “We have people calling us six months in advance. It has drawn people here for a long time.”
She added, “It’s a terrific lineup this year. I already have my ticket.”
On Dec. 7, the second annual Bradenton Blues Festival returns to Riverwalk with another eight acts from across the country, including headliner Shemekia Copeland. Realize Bradenton announced the lineup in March and executive director Johnette Isham said she aimed to sell all the approximately 3,300 tickets available in advance.
She and the rest of the festival organizers were hoping for 800-1,200 people last year when about triple that number came pouring through the gate. Isham also attended the Sarasota Blues Fest last year.
“For this region to have more quality live music and festivals we all benefit,” Isham said of the Florida Blue Blues and Music Festival.
Florida Blue Blues and Music Festival Oct. 26; Sarasota Fairgrounds, 3000 Ringling Blvd., Sarasota; floridabluesandmusicfest.com