Rock the Ocean's Tortuga Music Festival returned triumphantly for a third year this past Saturday and Sunday.
The country music fest hosted on the shores of Fort Lauderdale Beach held opportunities to let loose in the Florida sunshine with headliners Kenny Chesney, Zac Brown Band, the Doobie Brothers, Jake Owen, and the Band Perry. However, veterans of the event may have noticed quite a few changes from years one and two.
The most obvious evolution is the sheer size of Tortuga. In 2013, Tortuga saw around 25,000 festivalgoers. That number swelled to 44,000 in 2014. Attendance figures for 2015 were not available, but the festival devoured a quarter more real estate, extending farther north along Seabreeze Boulevard.
While this meant that the two main stages, Tortuga and Sunrise, were situated farther apart, festival organizers optimized all the space in between. In addition to the video boards already mounted on the edges of the aforementioned main stages, four more huge screens transmitted live feeds throughout the weekend. Double the number of beer, booze, and water stands dotted the landscape, allowing no one to go thirsty. Vendors, medical tents, a pirate ship with a DJ, and endless recycling bins offered more services along the trek to and fro.
As far as musical highlights go, Saturday got to it from the outset. Old Dominion, a collection of seasoned Nashville singer/songwriters, kicked off Tortuga in rousing fashion. The five members were a joy to watch perform, as they seemed to be as in love with their songs as the fans were; that was punctuated by the blokes from Australia standing up-front who went nuts at the sound of every opening note.
The momentum surged with another Nashville group, Judah & the Lion. The trio infused the crowd with a spirited, youthful exuberance that screamed fun. They blended Mumford and Sons folk rock with a touch of country and lighthearted energy that, at one point, propelled the members to bust out in a series of goofy yet well choreographed boy-band dance moves. Snippets of various pop music colored their set: Starship's “We Built This City," Wild Cherry's “Play That Funky Music” (bluegrass style), and of all things, Eminem's “Lose Yourself.” Long story short, Judah & the Lion are a blast live.
Trace Adkins strutted around confidently like a stallion surveying all that was his. Chase Bryant, the self-described “guy who looks like Jimmy Newtron,” had a happy-go-lucky style, a properly great intermingling of country western and rock 'n' roll. Saturday was a 12-hour period building toward something huge. The Doobie Brothers reminded everyone who these young bucks had to thank and in turn showed they still had the brass to crush it. Florida native Jake Owen played up the “Beachin'” culture, barefoot and flanked by palm trees on either side of the Sunrise Stage. Despite the breezy, laid-back nature of Owen's music, it was one of the rowdier shows, fueled by his soaring performance and that All-American-boy smile.
Sunday's highlights came in the form of some fresh faces and one easy-living perpetual favorite. Dylan Scott, a hunky neophyte to the world of “bro-country,” not only performed his hit single "Makin' This Boy Go Crazy" but also drove the ladies a little wild himself. He really sent female fans into a frenzy with a pseudo-strip tease dance while singing an American Idol-esque version of Marvin Gaye's soulful, baby-making classic “Let's Get It On.” Aside from the over-the-top cheese, what stood out was his rather strong vocals. And that wasn't even his best cover. The never-not-fun “I Like It, I Love It,” originally by Tim McGraw, shook the sand and cranked the party dial to 11 as Scott nailed it, doing the song justice.
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Frankie Ballard brought his slicked-back Johnny Cash-meets-Keith Urban groove (best epitomized by “Sunshine & Whiskey”) to the main stage, while on the opposite end, Colt Ford set off a country-rap-fueled “redneck rager,” shotgun and American flag mic stand in tow. The two couldn't have been more different but thrilled the corralled masses all the same. Meanwhile, as Sublime With Rome gave the tokers and the jokers something to celebrate, another shooting star made a bit of a commotion on the smaller Sunset Stage. Sam Hunt, a former football player, illustrated why trading in violence for R&B-tinged country was a smart move. Tortuga organizers underestimated his appeal as his crowd was by far the largest for a nonheadliner, creating a traffic jam that spread out toward the food stands.
While the big names brought in the sales, specifically Kenny Chesney, the Band Perry, and Zac Brown Band — who, granted, all did their part as headliners by playing all of their expected hit songs and dazzling the crowd with professional-grade light shows — they weren't what truly made Tortuga Music Festival 2015 a hit. It was the robust and mighty undercard of supporting acts that buoyed the beacon of hope lighting the way for both the welfare of Florida's sea life and the future of music festivals in the Sunshine State. Props to organizers Rock the Ocean and HUKA Entertainment.