4th Annual Bradenton Cigar Box Fest

Feb 7, 2024 | Blues Concert, Blues Shows, Suncoast Blues Society

4th Annual Bradenton Cigar Box Fest

A spectacular weather day greeted fans for the 4th edition of Bradenton’s Cigar box Guitar Festival. The fest is becoming a “must attend” annual event. Noticeable was the large increase in attendance throughout the four venues hosting the event in Bradenton’s Village of The Arts.

Vendor booths selling Cigar box guitars and merchandise experienced a busy sales day, and many of the fans attended the fest with their newly purchased cigar box guitars.

This review will focus on acts at the largest venue of the four, Birdrock Taco Shack. In addition to David Shiplett’s “Shack,” other shows were at Cottonmouth southern Soul Kitchen, Chef Gaetono’s Ortygia, and The Dude and Mary’s.

While some of the acts were not strictly blues, all played numerous blues or blues-themed songs. This was clear from the opening act, Applebutter Express. A fan favorite, this band is known for their wonderful vocal harmonies. The large crowd in attendance for the 1 PM start time witnessed superb musicianship and a wide range of musical styles. Fronted by Kyle Biss and his non-stop Ukulele playing, Shannon Biss contributes vocals, Jason Baker also sings and plays a mean fiddle; and Zach Rodgers who normally plays upright bass but today sported a Cigarbox bass guitar.

The enthusiastic crowd thoroughly enjoyed the show which contained originals such as “Riley”,“Start a Fire”, and some originals which contain edgier and quirky but thoughtful lyrics. Their range was apparent when they played a bluegrass version of Alice Cooper’s “No More Mister Nice Guy.” Also performed was “Eleanor Rigby.” No wonder this band has played at fests like Wanee.

Next up, local musician Trevor Bystrom brought his Project to the stage. Much like Apple butter Express, Trevor has a large local fan base. “Stone Crab” Steve Arvey, being a part of the project, helped to increase the crowd size. This helped to ensure a close to capacity crowd at Birdrock. The Project {James Hershey, drums; Dominic Santini, bass) joined Trevor and his collection of cigar box guitars and one funky homemade guitar that was made from a goat skin covering and fishing line for the strings.

Trevor has a reggae vibe to his music, which when mixed with blues standards is quite unique and interesting. Trevor’s Anna Maria Island roots infuse his music  and the band delivered some deep cut blues, including from Reverend Gary Davis. Steve joined in for some standard blues issued from his 6-string cigar box guitar.

As expected, the vibe of the festival took a dramatic turn as arriving on the stage was Stumpy Joe (Joe Sweckard) and his ever-present companion, Farney. For those unfamiliar with the Cigarbox community, Farney is Stumpy’s single string bass. From the bottom up, the bass sits on a washtub, has a canoe paddle for the fretboard, and the string is industrial strength weed whacker string. If any instrument best describes what the cigar box community is about, it’s Farney. Stumpy Joe has built an entire sub-culture from his creation.

But do not kid yourself; Stumpy Joe is a fine musician, and frankly, could have a career as a stand-up comic if he chose to do so. Roadside stories appear throughout the act; many are side-splittingly funny, edgy and for adult-only consumption.

Taking the stage with Stumpy was Devin Williams on resonator guitar, with James Hershey on drums. This was my first-time seeing Devin, and  what a player he is. Devin’s finger-picking style classically fits his style of music. Steeped in the blues, Devin performed an excellent version of Keb Mo’s “Am I Wrong.”

Billed as a Pro-Jam, it was not surprising to see Steve Arvey back on stage. With Miguel on harmonica, the group cranked out a serious set of blues based Cigarbox music. Most moving was Steve’s version of “Amazing Grace,” which he dedicated to fellow Chicago blues artist and friend Kraig Kenning.

Closing the show was RB Stone and his unique trans-genre music. Joining RB, it was so good to see Pedro Arevalo (mostly) on bass, with Brent Winner on drums. The former Dickey Betts Band bassist did not disappoint as Pedro and RB played off each other during the opening part of the set, and more so when Trevor Bystrom and Stumpy Joe joined for a jam.

Creativity resulted when Stumpy told a story, that, well, in the spirit of keeping it clean, all that I can say is that I can never listen to Prince’s “Purple Rain” the same way ever again. Capitalizing on the story, RB and Stumpy created an on-the-fly song titled “The High Beams Boogie.” So ended a most memorable and enjoyable Bradenton Cigar Box Festival.

Scott Morris, former Treasurer, Suncoast Blues Society

(photos by Scott Morris)