Throughout the 1900s, while the people of this nation were racially segregated, African-American musicians came to a small city on the Manatee River to play the Blues. The venue was a juke joint dubbed the Palms, part of the “Chitlin’ Circuit”, a stretch of performance venues across the United States safe for African-Americans during the era of Jim Crow. 

A century or so later, Blues musicians of all ethnicities are still flocking to Bradenton, Florida, every December for the annual Bradenton Blues Festival. “We’re booked for 150 shows a year,” says award-winning festival headliner Ana Popovic, a Serbian-born Blues singer and guitarist of her touring band. “We have to determine if a venue is something interesting to do. We say a lot of nos and this was definitely not a no. We’re excited to come  play and bring our cool, groovy sound to an awesome audience.” 

The festival, which has been produced by the local nonprofit organization Realize Bradenton since its inception in 2012, has become a calling card for the little city that could. “The history of Blues music in Bradenton is a really important piece in time. We wanted the festival to be able to celebrate a part of our past that is relatively unknown,” says Andrea Knies, Director of Communications and Community Engagement at Realize Bradenton. “To be able to celebrate them with the Blues musicians we have now is pretty neat.”

Photography by Wyatt Kostygan

Thus came the inspiration for the annual Bradenton Blues Festival. “The Blues Festival came out of this idea of trying to find a unique way to not only bring together the local community but also to bring people from outside the area to discover Bradenton,” says Knies. “We wanted a distinct attraction that could generate outside attention to provide an economic stimulant as well.” Over the years, the Festival has become a nexus point for Bradenton to come together. It’s not just an annual event, but something that those who are a part of it need. 

In 2020-21, when the Festival wasn’t able to be held at its usual location due to the pandemic, the Bradenton Riverwalk, Realize Bradenton worked with LECOM Park, the spring training home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, to erect a stage inside the ballpark and hold the event. “It was not an easy task, but so many people needed it–those moments of being together that the blues fest provides to the community,” says Knies. “Over the years, it has grown to be such a beloved event, a huge part of community building for us is the support that we receive from our volunteers. We have volunteers who have been a part of it since the inaugural festival. The people of Bradenton are very proud of their town and want to show off how great it is when people come to visit.”

This year, the Blues Festival is back at the Bradenton Riverwalk, and features a diverse lineup of some of the top blues musicians from across the country playing over the first weekend in December. In addition to Popovic, the festival will include the modern roots music of the Australian-born Harper and Midwest Kind, a familial tradition of  Zydeco music with Dikki Du & the Zydeco Krewe, the traditional blues of Nora Jean Wallace, and a contemporary take on the genre with Lady A. Individual performances from famed Blues Musicians Albert Castiglia and Mike Zito will culminate in the joining of their two bands to perform as “Blood Brothers.” The three-piece Blues and Southern Rock group, The Gabe Tillman Band, will kick off the Festival on Friday night and the genre-bending, harmonica-infused Americana from Dustin Arbuckle and the Damnations will bookend the event on Sunday morning. 

Photography by Wyatt Kostygan

Organizing the Festival, which attracts around 3,000 audience members, some hailing from as many as 30 different states, is quite the undertaking. “A lot of work goes into it. It’s a paid event and we use an open public space, so in addition to all of the things that go along with a normal festival like ticket sales and promotional materials, we also have to set up gates, fencing, and security,” says Knies. “We need to carve out space for the local food trucks and crafts people as well. Ensuring that the timing of everything is perfect is perhaps the biggest challenge of all.”

All of it, however, wouldn’t be possible without the 140-odd dedicated volunteers who put the Festival into motion. After all, Realize Bradenton is not some massive nonprofit organization but rather a five-woman team. “They’re working in all facets of the festival from ticket scanning, to selling merchandise and bartending,” says Knies. “If anyone ever saw our run sheets throughout those two days they’d be shocked, because it’s just this huge excel spreadsheet on our phones that we have to work through. It takes a village.” The best part? All of the proceeds go back to that village at the end of the Festival. They help fund various arts and music programs for Bradenton’s youth, such as Blues in the Schools. 

“Usually one of the bands or musicians that’s performing at the Festival will visit Manatee High School. They’ll do jam seshes with the students and talk about their career as a musician – last year they did a history of the blues and why it’s important. Sometimes, certain students will even be brought on stage to play with them during the festival,” says Knies. The program provides a rare opportunity for students in the music program, a chance to interact with a professional musician, such as Ana Popovic, and learn about the realities of their profession, an interaction they typically wouldn’t have.

Photography by Wyatt Kostygan

“I’ve been touring for 20 years and still love it. We love the fact that we’re in a different city every morning–it’s just exciting, you get to visit places you’ve never been before, you find a cool coffee place, you find a cool wine bar, and you get to see how people live in different places,” says Popovic, an award-winning blues guitarist, singer, songwriter and headliner of the Bradenton Blues Festival. “And when I’m home, I’m a soccer mom, I’m a water polo mom, I’m a tennis mom and we’re sewing, we’re doing makeup, we’re getting ready for some school performances. So I just love that. I love the switch. You’ll never find me in a bar in the evening here, because it’s just family time all the way.”

It’s an experience that has proven vital to the education of Bradenton’s youth. “What we’ve found after doing this for 11 years is that a lot of those students that have that experience aren’t necessarily going on to become professional musicians, but do find inspiration in hearing these stories of pursuing one’s passion. It becomes so much bigger than just the focus on a single profession.”   The Bradenton Blues Festival takes place at the Bradenton Riverwalk Pavillion at Rossi Park from Friday, December 2 to Saturday, December 3, 2022.