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Blues by the Bay: 28th Tampa Bay Blues Festival Recap

Founded and promoted by Charles “Chuck” Ross in 1995 the Tampa Bay Blues Festival has grown to become the largest blues festival in the bay area and a stop for many of the premier touring artists of the day. This year’s edition would hold true to form with Grace Potter, Larkin Poe, Samantha Fish, Tab Benoit, Blood Brothers (Mike Zito & Albert Castiglia), Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials, Altered Five Blues Band, Robert Jon & The Wreck, Coco Montoya, Bernard Allison, Ally Venable, Cash Box Kings, Anson Funderburgh & The Rockets, Southern Avenue, King Solomon Hicks and Bywater Call on the bill. The festival took place in beautiful Vinoy Park just minutes from downtown St Petersburg on the shores of Tampa Bay over the course of three days beginning April 12. Proceeds for the festival support Parc Center for Disabilities as well as all tips at the beverage stations.

Mother Nature must be a blues rock fan as she delivered three chamber of commerce days with temperatures in the low to mid 80s, predominately cloudless skies and cool evenings that were welcomed by the sunbaked crowds as the shows kicked off between 11 am and noon each day with the final performer wrapping things up around 10 pm. One feature I enjoy about this festival is the 90-minute set times allocated to each artist. This allows for a fuller set and provides an experience more in line with their touring sets. There was a plethora of vendors offering a wide array of food choices as well as various crafts for purchase. Beverage stations were well positioned throughout the grounds and there was little waiting for service.

The festivities kicked off the night before with a separately ticketed “pre-party” featuring the Blood Brothers at the venerable Palladium theater just blocks away from the park. Mike Zito and Albert Castiglia played a two-hour set featuring songs from their highly acclaimed Blood Brothers collaboration album as well as songs from Zito’s and Castiglia’s individual libraries before closing things out with a scorching cover of “Rockin in the Free World.”  This was truly a memorable performance at a historic venue with nearly perfect acoustics.

The following day formerly kicked things off with the always dapper King Solomon Hicks and his equally buttoned up blues guitar and smooth vocals. Altered Five Blues Band followed. Though they may hail from Milwaukee, there is a heavy Chicago influence in their blues sound and it’s exceptionally good. Bywater Call stood out for me this day. Megan Parnell’s outstanding vocals and the great synergy of this seven-piece Canadian band was an eye opening first exposure experience. I will eagerly make it a point to see them again. One downside to the incredible Blood Brothers performance the previous evening was their set list was practically a carbon copy this day only with shorter playing time. The upside was the performance was also equally on par and it may have been the best show of the day. Grace Potter would close things out on this Friday night with her eclectic mix of rock, americana, and blues. In a smoldering performance, Potter’s undeniable stage presence commanded the evening as she led the audience through a set featuring her new release Mother Road with some old favorites like “Mary” and “Medicine” deftly weaved in. A solid closing to an impressive opening night.

Most, if not all, festivals offer a VIP experience with premium seating and some food and beverage inclusions. This festival is no different with VIP seating encompassing the front of the entire stage running roughly 12 rows deep. Seats are provided whereas general admission folks need to bring in their own chairs, blankets, umbrellas etc. There’s a festival within a festival feel as VIPs also have their own food and beverage area with large tents offering shaded areas to sit and eat, drink, or just escape the sun between sets. With the park sitting on the shores of Tampa Bay, there were also several boats hanging out for the sounds of the festival though there were no clear lines of sight into the stage. Boat faring humans weren’t the only festival crashers as a number of dolphins were also spotted hanging out by the shoreline walls.

Cash Box Kings kicked off Saturday with their old school Chicago blues. Frontman Oscar Wilson has it in his blood being born on Chicago’s 43rd Street known in blues circles as ‘Muddy Waters Drive’. His classic blues vocals pair nicely with fellow frontman Joe Nosek’s howling harmonica. From old school to a couple of the most promising up and coming artists whose styles couldn’t be more different. Grammy nominated Southern Avenue brings a high energy performance with their own flavor of Memphis Motown funky blues. Robert Jon and the Wreck followed with their California Americana / Country seasoned blues rock offering. Both delivered outstanding performances and were very well received by this crowd of blues rock enthusiasts. Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials would bring things full circle with a return to the Chicago blues sound. A Chicago native, Lil’ Ed Williams and his band have been bringing Chicago blues to audiences worldwide for almost 30 years.

Saturday’s closing performer was originally slated to be Beth Hart. Festival shirts sold on site still had her listed with the lineup. Unfortunately, Beth encountered health issues that caused her to cancel several tour dates including the Tampa Bay Blues Festival. Best wishes go out to Beth for a speedy recovery and a triumphant return. Also, kudos to Chuck Ross and his team for finding not one, but two of today’s most exciting artists on the rise to fill the void. Samantha Fish and Larkin Poe. Both were Grammy nominated for Best Contemporary Blues Album this past year with Larkin Poe bringing home the hardware. To have them playing back-to-back sets was certainly a treat. Samantha ushered in the sunset opening with “Bulletproof” on her fan favorite cigar box guitar. Fish sampled songs across her album library with a complimentary “I Put A Spell on You” cover all highlighting her blazing guitar and signature vocals.

Samantha Fish performs at the Tampa Bay Blues Festival

In contrast, Larkin Poe, fronted by the dynamic duo Megan and Rebecca Lovell, would close out the evening with a set featuring their Grammy winning album Blood Harmony. Megan’s virtuoso lap steel slide work and Rebecca’s vocals and lead guitar showed that they were more than deserving of such recognition. The sisters added a nice touch with a nod to blues legend Son House with a cover of “Come On in My Kitchen.” Cash Box Kings would play an after-hours show at a venue in downtown St. Petersburg. After two days in the sun with a third a little more than 12 hours away a decision to pass on late night festivities would be a wise one. Besides there was plenty to savor from this tremendous day of music.

Larkin Poe performs at the Tampa Bay Blues Festival

Sunday’s opener would continue to showcase emerging artists with Ally Venable. Venable, who turned 25 a few days before the festival began, already has a library of five albums to play from. Ally’s guitar work oozed her native Texas blues throughout the set and her vocals are an emerging part of her stage arsenal. However, it was her “Tribute to S.R.V.” instrumental that really touched the audience with its lead from Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Lenny.” From emerging artists back to Chicago blues, Chicago’s Benard Allison followed with a mix of originals, covers, and songs from his father Luther’s work. Bernard did his father proud with an outstanding set of electric blues guitar. Another Chicagoan, Anson Funderburgh along with his band, The Rockets would follow with a unique blend of Chicago blues with a dash of New Orleans jazz-blues. Despite having to borrow Coco Montoya’s drummer due to a last-minute family crisis, the band delivered a fun diverse set that would feature guitar, organ, harmonica, and even a piano accordion. The final sunset of the festival would be ushered in by the venerable Coco Montoya. Montoya has had a historic career starting with drumming for Albert Collins in the early 70s to playing guitar alongside Walter Trout in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers in the 80s. Coco reminded everyone he is still at the top of his game with an impressive set featuring his latest release Coming In Hot. In line with the underlying Chicago theme, Windy City legend Wayne Baker Brooks (Ronnie’s brother) would join Coco on stage for an extended cameo. A treat one had to be there to fully enjoy. Tab Benoit, the King of delta swamp blues would close out the final day of the festival with a signature set of impeccable guitar jams and some Benoit favorites like “We Make A Good Gumbo”, “Why Are People Like That?”, “I Got Loaded” and “Muddy Bottom Blues”. It’s no wonder he has been a festival favorite over the years.

The bar is set high for 2025. This edition of the Tampa Bay Blues Festival offered a splendid mix of old and new. The opportunity to be entertained by decades long established artists alongside some of new guard establishing themselves as the bright future of the genre are memories to be cherished for a lifetime. Chuck and team are already off to an impressive start announcing Tab Benoit will be returning along with North Mississippi Allstars, Joanne Shaw Taylor, Curtus Salgado, Ruthie Foster, DK Harrell, Ana Popovic, Tad Robinson, and Sierra Green and The Giants already set for next April with more to be announced. If mother nature smiles on this event the way she did over the last three days, it’ll be an experience not to be missed!

6 thoughts on “Blues by the Bay: 28th Tampa Bay Blues Festival Recap

  • I had been going to the Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival for many years, until they closed the curtaind for good in 2022.

    Now that I have relocated to Clearwater, FL, I look forward to attending this premiere venue of the Blues scene.

    Thanks for the recap in this article – sounds like it was a treat for the ears, and the soul. ????

    Reply
  • To BRR Editors,
    Please correct my typos of:

    From: curtaind
    To: curtains

    and please delete the ????? (typo thumbs).

    Thank you,

    Baybluesman

    Reply
  • I d like to know exactly what are the VIP areas ,does one buy a ticket VIP or is it with a VIP Card purchased from a band exp. Muddy Waters VIP card purchased for exclusivity at their concerts etc. Could you please explain.
    Thank you
    Cathe

    Reply
    • It was founded in 1995 by Charles “Chuck” Ross.

      Reply

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