Review: Sunshine Blues Festival brings baptism in big-time blues to Fort Myers

Chris Bradshaw/Special to the Daily News 
 "We are thrilled to be part of these inaugural festivals in our home state of Florida, and share the stage with some great musicians and friends," said Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks about the Sunshine State Blues Festival, which opened its three-city run in Fort Myers.

Photo by Chris Bradshaw

Chris Bradshaw/Special to the Daily News "We are thrilled to be part of these inaugural festivals in our home state of Florida, and share the stage with some great musicians and friends," said Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks about the Sunshine State Blues Festival, which opened its three-city run in Fort Myers.

Southwest Florida got the blues on Friday, and didn't seem to mind at all.

Ten bands served up the music, a daylong feast of steamin' hot licks in Fort Myers' Centennial Park, for the inaugural date of the first Sunshine Blues Festival. The festival allowed Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, leaders of headliners the Tedeschi Trucks Band, the hottest thing going in the world of blues music, to put together acts they knew, and wanted to hear and share a stage with, sort of like assembling your personal playlist on a grand scale.

Featured artists included Walter Trout, an alumnus of Canned Heat and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, along with Sonny Landreth, who toured and recorded with Jimmy Buffett and is a regular at Eric Clapton's Crossroads Festival, Grammy Award winner Joe Louis Walker, and Jaimoe's Jasssz Band, fronted by a founding member of the Allman Brothers Band.

The Tedeschi Trucks Band, or TTB, won a Grammy award for its 2010 debut album, and five 2012 Blues Music Awards, including album of the year and band of the year. This was a high-level blues summit such as Southwest Florida has never seen in one gathering.

Knowledgeable observers estimated the crowd at around 4,000, very respectable for the first edition of what is intended to be an annual tour. All ages were represented among the spectators, and like the performers, the audience made blue jeans their uniform of choice.

Both the music, and the laid-back style of the players, made the scene reminiscent of the classic music festivals of the Sixties and Seventies, apart from the absence of the characteristic aroma of marijuana smoke. There were no glitzy costumes, no dancers, no floor show. These players came to lay down the blues.

"This is a great turnout," said Rick Vaske, who hosts "Backyard Blues" Sunday nights on 96 K-Rock and whose show was repeatedly plugged between sets.

"It's really good for Fort Myers to be supporting this level of festival. If they make a hundred grand and it's successful, they'll be back next year."

Centennial Park turned out to be an ideal venue for the festival, with two stages allowing for virtually no interruptions in the 10 hours of music, and easy access to get close and see and hear the bands. The promenade along the Caloosahatchee River offered a perfect spot to chill out for a break and watch the sunset over the yacht basin.

Apart from the Wood Brothers, who played early on before much of the crowd assembled, and have a more acoustic-based sound, the blues as interpreted at the Sunshine Blues Festival was all about the electric guitar, and the guitar of choice was the Fender Stratocaster. There was no classic Delta bluesman, strumming on acoustic guitar accompanied only by harmonica and stomping feet: This blues was plugged in.

Big Sam's Funky Nation, fronted by 6 foot-4 inch trombonist "Big Sam" Williams, departed from the norm by having no guitar player on stage. Instead, they brought the funk, all the way from New Orleans, one of several festival acts with Louisiana roots. Jaimoe's Jasssz Band opened with "Leaving Trunk," a classic blues number on its "Renaissance Man" album, but mostly played a more jazz-flavored set.

Derek Trucks, ranked number 16 on the Rolling Stone all-time greatest guitarist list, had nothing to worry about from earlier acts when it came to wailing on slide guitar. He and Susan Tedeschi are married, partners in real life as well as on stage, and she is a formidable guitar player in her own right. However, Tedeschi's outstanding contribution is as the lead singer of the 11-piece TTB, her smoky contralto evoking Bonnie Raitt, and at times veering into Janis Joplin territory when she belted it out.

This was the band everyone had been waiting to hear, and the camera phones and iPads came out everywhere to record still photos and video. TTB was a master of dynamics, taking the level down to allow each player the chance to shine, and building to thundering crescendos, with the horn section blaring, with Trucks' sizzling slide guitar rising above the mix.

As the crowd packed in close in front of the stage in the darkness, the distinctive smell of illicit smoke finally began to waft through the dark.

So it was just like a classic music festival after all.

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