For Blues Lovers, Sunshine Music Festival Is the Suwanee of the South

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The music festival phenomenon has come a long way from Woodstock, Monterey, and those halcyon days of the late-‘60s. Once rarified occasions of historical significance, these days it's as if there’s a gathering a week, with literally hundreds of offerings across all genres and demographics.

Even so, it’s harder to find a festival that comes to its audience, rather than the other way around. In that light, 2016's Sunshine Music Festival offers reason to rejoice. A traveling roadshow of sorts, the blues and grassroots-centric musical gathering begins in St. Petersburg on January 16 and then travels down to Boca Raton’s Mizner Park the following day. Headlined by the Tedeschi Trucks Band, this year’s roster also includes Indigo Girls, Trombone Shorty, the Jerry Douglas Band, Jorma Kaukonen, Hard Working Americans, Joanne Shaw Taylor, and other Americana-inspired rock and folk groups.

This is the fourth consecutive year Sunshine Music Festival takes to the road, and while you won't find any warbling bass drops or spastic, auto-tuned hooks here, its significance as a unique Florida festival should not be understated. Tedeschi Trucks — anchored by the husband/wife team of guitarist Derek Trucks and singer/guitarist Susan Tedeschi — are based in Jacksonville, and their fiery, heartfelt blues-rock performances not only recall the efforts of another Florida favorite, the Allman Brothers (Derek’s uncle, Butch Trucks, was a founding member of that band), but they also radiate a kind of populist appeal and core camaraderie that's much welcomed in our oft-abrasive Sunshine State.

It wouldn't be a stretch to suggest that TTB provide the draw responsible for the festival’s continued growth. Still, "With the state of radio these days, it’s not an act that gets a lot of airplay," says Neil Jacobsen, president of Live Nation Florida, the company behind the festival. "We just hope people come to see them and get a sense of what they’re all about and that way we grow the festival, grow the band, and then we’ll see what happens.”

While Jacobsen hopes for the festival to eventually expanded into other markets, he blames radio for its refusal to program more adventurous bands like Tedeschi Trucks, thereby limiting the music’s exposure. The answer, he says, is to grow the festival organically, through word of mouth.

“We had done a lot of work with Derek on his solo projects and the Suwannee Festival up in North Florida,” he says. “Both Derek and Susan had a desire to do something along those lines, and to curate a festival and grow something on their own. So we decided to put together a small blues festival, because there really was a void for that kind of show."

Over the last few years, Jacobson says, Sunshine's attendance has steadily grown along with TTB's Florida fanbase. They've now reached the point where "we started expanding the line-up, with Derek and Susan’s input to go beyond the traditional blues acts. We’ve grown the bookings over the last four years, and it’s become a little more adventurous each year. We’re hoping as time goes on that it becomes bigger, but it’s still done well each year. It’s been a great partnership and a great project to do, and we’ve enjoyed it.”

Amid the barrage of spring festivals targeting a younger, more bass-addicted demographic, blues lovers should relish what's on offer in Sunshine Music Festival: a Florida haven for the blues. “We want to be here any way we can,” Jacobsen insists. “And certainly, from a live standpoint, Derek’s just fantastic and Susan’s simply an angel. I wish there were more acts like them out there."

Sunshine Music Festival 2016
With the Tedeschi Trucks Band and others. Sunday, January 17, at Mizner Park Amphitheater, 590 Plaza Real, Boca Raton. GA tickets cost $49.99, reserved seat tickets cost $99.50. Phone 1-800-745-3000 or go to livenation.com or sunshinemusicandblues.com.

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