Usually the 10 year old receives the presents at a birthday party, but during the Bonita Blues Festival’s 10th birthday next weekend, the community will receive the gifts.
The all-volunteer Bonita Blues Charitable Foundation has planned its biggest, boldest festival yet, featuring blues acts from around the country, and it all benefits local charities.
Not only is the organization bringing a record 22 acts in for the weekend, with a slant toward energetic electric rock-blues, but this year also marks the first time ever that a big national artist will headline the festival.
Grammy-nominated electric slide guitarist Sonny Landreth, who has appeared with Eric Clapton, Jimmy Buffett, John Hiatt and Mark Knopfler will bring his Zydeco-flavored blues to Bonita’s Riverside Park on Saturday evening to crown a festival that will feature local and award-winning regional headline acts from the opening beat.
“No gig too big — no gig too small,” Landreth said during a telephone interview about performing at the Bonita festival that typically draws 3,000 when he has played before audiences of 30,000 in large cities. “We play all kinds of different venues, and I love playing outdoor festivals.
“There’s a vibe about them,” he said, “because you can crank it up and it’s by the seat of your pants but you’re more in the moment. The smaller venues are great because it’s much more of an intimate vibe that people appreciate, and you pick up on that energy there.”
Even if you don’t recognize his name immediately, you will recognize Landreth’s haunting, lyrical, blistering guitar licks. He wrote and recorded “Congo Square,” and when Jimmy Buffett covered Landreth’s song “U.S.S. Zydecoldsmobile,” Buffett had Landreth record the slide guitar solos as a featured guest artist.
“Regarded as arguably the best slide-guitar player in the world, his musical ability is as tremendous as his writing,” said Kevin Barry, festival co-founder and president of the Bonita Blues Charitable Foundation. “I’ve been a fan of his for years, so he’s been a goal as someone we wanted to have at our festival.
“That’s why we have him this year, because being our 10th anniversary, we wanted to bring a special act,” Barry said. “What we’re doing this year is trying to incorporate acts that have played for us in the past, so since Sonny has never played for us before we’re bringing back Mel Melton, who has played for us, to sit in with him for some songs to tie it into this year’s theme.”
“My old friend Mel is going to sit in with us,” Landreth said. “We go way back — we’ve had bands in years past — so it’s going to be a lot of fun and cool for Mel to sit in.”
Barry said the charitable foundation is attempting to top its previous festivals by arranging a number of these artist combinations. Between the main festival and the after parties there are only 14 slots for the 22 artists, so several spots will feature doubled or tripled combinations of artists to spark an after-party jam session atmosphere.
“Obviously we had no idea that this festival would grow into what it is today, so we wanted to celebrate all of the people who helped us get to our 10th year by bringing all of these artists back,” Barry said. “It will be more expensive for us (to produce), but with it being the 10th anniversary, we might as well make it a fantastic one and feel it should be this tremendous blowout of fun.”
Helping fund the production are about 35 sponsors. Barry said there are four major sponsors this year, with two of them being local small businesses.
“That’s how it is here,” he said. “When we started this festival, we were getting $500 or $1,000 donations from small, local businesses, and without them, this would not have grown to what it is today.”
Deb & the Dynamics
Opening the festival this year will be the closing headliner act from the first Bonita Blues Festival 10 years ago. Local favorite R&B dance band Deb & the Dynamics will be returning to their blues roots with a set featuring some classic blues as well as bandleader Deb Biela’s original country blues compositions. Beyond being the first headliner, Biela said she witnessed the Bonita Blues’ inception.
“I know Kevin Barry,” she said. “We were playing the Pine Island Blues Festival, and he said, ‘I want to do this in Bonita!’”
While most nonprofits start on a wing and a prayer, the Bonita Blues Charitable Foundation began on a threat and a dare. That November day on Pine Island had turned blustery, but Barry and his companions braved the weather to stay to see blues guitarist Hamilton Loomis.
Barry danced in an attempt to stay warm and teased his friend Mike Pfeffer, who had wrapped up in packing blankets from his vehicle, that they should start a blues festival in Bonita
Barry said Pfeffer waved a single finger from inside his packing-blanket cocoon and replied, “Don’t threaten me, or we will do it.”
Ever jovial, Barry couldn’t resist and made the threat, so the Bonita Blues Festival was born.
“He put it together in like 60 days or something — it’s crazy how he did it,” Biela said. “Of course he probably didn’t make any money on it, but now it’s so big it’s awesome.”
Bonita Blues now indeed makes money — for charity — to the tune of $128,000 awarded in the last nine years. No one on the organizing committee draws a salary despite the festival being a year-round second job for some, and many people helping onsite for the weekend have arranged vacations to come from other states just to volunteer.
The festival proceeds support the Bonita Springs Assistance Office, the Golisano Children’s Hospital Music Therapy Program and the Bonita-based Music for Minors Foundation.
Music for Minors, which provides schoolchildren the opportunity to earn ownership of the musical instruments they need for their musical education, participates in the festival by providing an ensemble that plays during a band break and by providing a bake sale table.
While officers of all of the charities have expressed gratitude for the support Bonita Blues has given them, for the smallest of the charities the support was a lifesaver. Music for Minors founder Dorothy Friedenreich was almost to the point of shutting the charity down during the recession.
“She was literally one step away from closing it down,” said Don Rhynard, current president of Music for Minors. “That day or the next day, she ran into Mike Pfeffer, and he was like, ‘We’re doing this blues fest, and maybe we could sponsor you.’”
Landreth said another part of why he enjoys performing at music festivals is that often they are community-driven events. He said he feels such festivals are a more personal, broader experience and more fun for everyone since there is a lot of heart to them.
“These kinds of programs are what it’s all about,” Landreth said. “You never know who will come out of that — what kid has a special gift and the next thing you know you’re reading about them in the paper 20 years from now — so to spark someone’s dream and give them the opportunity is really a wonderful thing, and I’m glad to be part of it.”
Connect with this writer: @LauraTichySmith (Twitter)
10th annual Bonita Blues Festival
When: 1-9 p.m. Friday, March 11, and 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday, March 12
Where: Riverside Park, 27300 Old 41 Road, Bonita Springs
Cost: Prepurchased weekend pass $50, Weekend pass at gate $60 (prepurchase price extended to members of any blues society worldwide upon showing valid membership card), Friday-only ticket $30, Saturday-only ticket $35
Tickets online: bonitablues.com
Tickets in-person: Buffalo Chips Restaurant, 26620 Old 41 Road, Bonita Springs or Mama Gustos Pizzeria, 18011 S. Tamiami Trail, Fort Myers
Weather: Festival runs rain or shine.
Road construction: Downtown street construction is running smoothly and will not interfere with festival.
Parking: All usual downtown parking areas and vacant lots are open.
Food: Festival organizers have engaged a variety of independent food vendors.
Beverages: In addition to the usual beer and wine, Bonita’s Momentum Brewhouse will offer craft beers and another booth will offer a limited selection of cocktails premade from sponsor Tito's Handmade Vodka.
Recommended: Beach chair or blanket, sunscreen, sun hat, insect repellant, light jacket, camera, cash in small denominations to purchase food, CDs, souvenirs and raffle tickets (ATM available onsite).
Not allowed: No pets or picnic coolers.
Friday, March 11
1:30 -2:30 p.m.: Deb & the Dynamics
3 -4 p.m.: Josh Garrett and Damon Fowler
4:30 -5:30 p.m.: Danielle Nicole Band
6 -7:15 p.m.: Albert Castiglia Band with Sean Chambers
7:45 -9 p.m.: Moss Family Reunion with Nick, Joe and Kate Moss
9:30 p.m.: Official after party: The Nick Schnebelen Band, Maria’s Mexican Restaurant, 27080 Old 41 Road, Bonita Springs.
Saturday, March 12
11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.: Lauren Mitchell Band
1-2 p.m.: Tommy Lee Cook
2:30-3:45 p.m.: Karen Lovely and Ben Rice
4:15-5:30 p.m.: Brandon Santini with Victor Wainwright and Gracie Curran
6-7:15 p.m.: Shawn Holt and the Teardrops
7:45-9 p.m.: Sonny Landreth with Mel Melton
9:30 p.m.: Official after party: Victor Wainwright and the Wildroots, Maria’s Mexican Restaurant, 27080 Old 41 Road, Bonita Springs.
Sunday, March 13
12 p.m.: Sunday Blues and Bloodys party with J.P. Soars & the Redhots; Lansdowne Street Pub, 24851 South Tamiami Trail, No. 7, Bonita Springs