When you hear Kenny Chesney’s “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem” on Fort Lauderdale beach Saturday night, you’ll know the city that rejected spring break has come a long way.
This weekend’s inaugural Tortuga Music Festival is the most-high-profile example yet of Mayor Jack Seiler’s plan to diversify the city’s economic and tourism resources with more live music and entertainment.
“Live music enriches a community, makes it more entertaining, more lively, more interesting,” Seiler said on Thursday.
Country-music star Chesney is a headliner of the two-day Tortuga festival, which brings 22 nationally known country, reggae and roots-rock acts to the sand just north of the Sheraton Fort Lauderdale Beach Hotel. Other popular performers include Eric Church, the Avett Brothers, Grace Potter, Jake Owen, Gary Clark Jr., Ben Harper, the Wailers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Eli Young Band, and Michael Franti and Spearhead.
Organizers expect more than 20,000 people to attend each day.
Seiler said the city needs to recapture some of the energy lost when it began to discourage Fort Lauderdale as a spring break destination two decades ago. He said the subsequent marketing focus on “sedate” exclusivity didn’t feel right, either.
“My thought process was there needs to be some balance to all this,” he said. “It’s no different than the way the Museum of Art has different works of art come to it.”
But don’t look for any Ultra Music Festivals in Fort Lauderdale. Seiler, who pals around with members of Sawyer Brown when they are in town and puts Springsteen, Seger, Chesney and Creedence Clearwater Revival high on his playlist of choice, said he’s looking to attract the “mature, mellower” crowd expected at Tortuga.
Since his election in 2009, Seiler has initiated the Great American Beach Party, hosted Memorial Day Weekend by 1950s film icon Connie Francis, and Saturday Night Alive, a summer-long weekly event that brings dozens of performers to A1A. He called each a “great event that appeals to a broad audience.”
Seiler acknowledged that the first year of Tortuga has come with residents’ concerns about access to the beach, parking and traffic. He said the festival would only continue in 2014 if those issues were resolved.
There are other signs that live music is back in vogue in Fort Lauderdale.
The Riverside Hotel and Fritz & Franz Bierhaus in January hosted the inaugural Las Olas Blues Festival, bringing more than a dozen high-energy acts to the lawn next to the hotel, including Joel Da Silva and the Midnight Howl, Iko Iko, and David Shelley and Bluestone. The hotel garage offered free parking for motorcycles.
The success of the event has the hotel looking to program more music on the lawn, though specifics are still being explored, said Mary Ann Eatmon, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing.
“Outdoor festivals are always popular with the residents,” she said.
Two of the newest Las Olas Boulevard restaurants, Wild Sea and Grille 401, are planning weekly live music. They join spots nearby hosting musicians on a regular basis, including Timpano, Mangos and Cheese Culture.
The newest restaurant on Fort Lauderdale beach also plans to offer regular live music when it opens the weekend of April 26. S3 will have acoustic guitarists setting the “island” mood on the patio on the ground floor of the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Beach Hotel, owner Tim Petrillo said.
“Live music can really add dimension to a space. It’s an attraction,” he said.
Petrillo, co-owner of upscale downtown hot spots YOLO restaurant and Vibe lounge, is particularly excited about the Tortuga Music Festival, as much for what it represents as the lineup.
“As a beach-business owner, as a downtown-business owner, as a resident, I think this is great,” he said. “Especially if it changes some mindsets.”
Petrillo said that since the city ran off the spring breakers, there’s been little attempt to create a new reputation, calling Fort Lauderdale “a place where ideas go to die.” Tortuga, he said, has attracted national, even international, attention to the city as a place to hear popular music this weekend.
“When people talk about coming to South Florida, we’re not part of the conversation. It’s all Miami,” Petrillo said. “This puts us in the conversation.”