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Side of Ranch

Lakewood Ranch lands its own blues festival

The former Bradenton Blues Festival is headed for Waterside Park in December.

Nicole Hackel (Lakewood Ranch Communities), Morgan Bettes Angell (Independent Jones), Paul Benjamin (Benjamin Productions) and Antonio Hernandez (Independent Jones) gather at Waterside Park to announce the Lakewood Ranch Blues Festival.
Nicole Hackel (Lakewood Ranch Communities), Morgan Bettes Angell (Independent Jones), Paul Benjamin (Benjamin Productions) and Antonio Hernandez (Independent Jones) gather at Waterside Park to announce the Lakewood Ranch Blues Festival.
Photo by Jay Heater
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Waterside Place is getting to be like a high school yearbook.

It will have signatures all over it.

On March 18, Paul Benjamin of Benjamin Productions announced in conjunction with Independent Jones, that the inaugural Lakewood Ranch Blues Festival will be held Dec. 7 at Waterside Park.

Benjamin has been the artistic director of the Bradenton Blues Festival, which closed its 12-year run in December. He was looking for a place that could basically inherit the blues festival, which he said still was going strong and drawing 2,500 people each year, even though its run in Bradenton ended when dropped by the nonprofit Realize Bradenton.

Independent Jones President Morgan Bettes Angell, who for years has set up entertainment for events in the Lakewood Ranch area, as well as the region, said the Lakewood Ranch Blues Festival quickly could become a signature event for Waterside.

Pass the yearbook please.

The Lakewood Ranch Farmers Market certainly signed the book first. In September, it was named the No. 1 farmers market in Florida in a competition held by The American Farmland Trust and the Farmers Market Coalition. Lakewood Ranch Communities' Nicole Hackel and Bettes Angell have both played major roles in building the market, which draws thousands of people every Sunday year round. No other event can match that impact — yet.

Waterside Park's volleyball courts might not be a singular event, but it also has played a great role in bringing people to Waterside Place. The six-court setup, designed by MVP Sports and Social's Chris McComas, is a steady feeder to the restaurant and entertainment hub. It deserves signature status.

The new Lakewood Ranch Blues Festival should offer a different kind of impact and will be a very important test run for Waterside. It might answer the question, "Is big just right, or too big?"

Benjamin expects the first Lakewood Ranch Blues Festival to draw a crowd similar to the gatherings in Bradenton, about 2,500 to 3,000 music fans. But if you look at Benjamin's credentials, the potential for something much bigger certainly is there. What if 5,000 fans show up, or 8,000? Is that a good number for Waterside Place in terms of its 808 parking spaces? Is that a good number for Waterside Park, which has yet to be tested as a concert venue? Will noise irk the local residents? Despite the unknown, it all is exciting stuff for the Ranch.

The upside is way up. Blue Oyster Cult was the last concert of note in Lakewood Ranch, and that was 2017. If the Lakewood Ranch Blues Festival is successful, could that open the way for other concert events at Waterside Park? We can only hope.

Schroeder-Manatee Ranch has to like the concept, and especially the fact that if Benjamin is successful, Lakewood Ranch could expose the community to blues fans from throughout the nation, and farther. Will the artists have that kind of pull?

The answer would appear to be "yes." Benjamin is a national figure on the blues scene as a blues promoter, festival organizer and music producer. His North Atlantic Blues Festival has run for more than 30 years in Rockland, Maine, and features some of the nation's top artists each year. Aside from his running and consulting on many blues festivals throughout the nation, he has established weekly shows such as the Monday Night Blues series at the Time Out Pub! in Rockland, Maine that have given blues artists a consistent place to launch their careers or showcase their talent.

He has the connections.

He also has served four years, beginning in 2005, as the president of the board for the Blues Foundation, which is headquartered in Memphis, Tennessee and is connected with major blues organizations throughout the world. He later was chairman of the board of the Blues Foundation from 2013-2019.

So when Benjamin says he will bring some of the top blues artists in the nation, and even the world, you have to believe him.

Among the seven artists and groups he already has scheduled for Lakewood Ranch are "Monster" Mike Welch, Dylan Triplett, Kat Riggins, and Mitch Woods and his Rocket 88s.

Triplett is a budding superstar in blues and was named the Blues Music Awards 2023 Best Emerging Artist/Singer. The others all are established stars in the industry.

While Lakewood Ranch residents who only occasionally listen to the blues might not know the strength of the lineup, Benjamin said anyone who follows genre will understand the power.

Both Benjamin and Bettes Angell said they don't expect there to be any problems with the inaugural event. Bettes Angell said shuttle busses will be set up to transport fans so the parking issue will be minimal. She noted that the blues fans in Bradenton always were "super respectful" so she doesn't anticipate any major wear and tear on the grass at Waterside Park.

Benjamin is bringing in the 32-foot-by-28-foot stage, which was used at the Bradenton Blues Festival. He said the area can easily be controlled because Waterside Park has only two entrances since it is located on a peninsula. That means less overhead for Benjamin because he doesn't have to fence the entire park. He also said the event will be wrapped up before 8 p.m. so as not to disturb any neighboring communities in the evening.

This is all exciting stuff considering Manatee County has faltered in building an amphitheater at Premier Park, which would have seemed to be the perfect spot to bring in some quality entertainment, or in building any kind of concert venue.

What makes that more frustrating for Lakewood Ranch residents is that Manatee County just announced it was starting a first season of the Manatee Music Series (which kicks off March 21) at G.T. Bray, which unlike Premier Park has an amphitheater. An interesting note to that new series is that the first featured artists are Dean Johanesen and Trevor Bystrom, who are regular performers under the pavilion at Waterside Place.

So if Lakewood Ranch residents have to go to Waterside Place, which is in Sarasota County, to enjoy music, so be it. Bettes Angell is looking forward to the inaugural event because she worked with the late Johnette Isham of Realize Bradenton during the early days of the Bradenton Blues Festival. Bettes Angell also worked with Benjamin during that time, and that connection led to Benjamin calling her for suggestions to relocate the festival.

Bettes Angell said the Lakewood Ranch Blues Festival will have food and beverage vendors and plenty of craft booths.

Tickets for the event are expected to go on sale in the coming weeks. Benjamin said pre-event tickets will be $75 while the event will cost $90 the day of. A VIP ticket will be offered as well. Go to for more information and tickets.



Jay Heater

Jay Heater is the managing editor of the East County Observer. Overall, he has been in the business more than 41 years, 26 spent at the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay area as a sportswriter covering college football and basketball, boxing and horse racing.

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