Headliner Kenny Chesney got the biggest crowd and the lustiest applause on opening day of the inaugural Tortuga Music Festival on Fort Lauderdale beach on Saturday, but he wasn’t the only star that people were talking about.
A day that began in gloom and rain, which challenged festivalgoers intermittently throughout the afternoon, culminated in an evening pulled straight from a tourism bureaucrat’s best-case file: Country superstar Chesney striding into bright sunlight to the sound of “Feel Like a Rock Star” as a crowd (surely in excess of the 20,000 prediction) went wild. More than 90 steamy minutes later, as the “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” encore prompted the barefoot-and-bikini-ed masses to shake what their mothers’ gave them, a light, cool breeze blew up to usher the crowd home.
“Awesome,” said Melissa Reiger, of Davie, as she unlashed her bicycle from a tree at D.C. Alexander Park after the show (on her way to a friends’ house on Las Olas Isles). “In and out. And Chesney was Chesney.”
And that was the consensus: The charismatic Chesney and the other opening-day acts delivered as expected, but the festival and, to some extent, the city also delivered.
“I was really impressed by how organized it was,” said Lori Mazur, of Macomb, Mich., as she and two friends descended the Las Olas bridge over the Intracoastal after the show. Mazur, Kathryn Masson and Cathy Jenkins, all in their early 50s from Michigan, made the trip to Fort Lauderdale, staying at the Riverside Hotel, after hearing about Tortuga on a Sirius satellite country station. Jenkins and Masson are big fans of Chesney and Sunday headliner Eric Church.
“It’s a beautiful location, a great mix of people. They definitely have to do this again next year,” said Mazur, who had a pass with her friends for a second day of Tortuga.
The two-day passes went for around $150, with $99 for a one-day pass. An informal poll of those inside the festival found no problem paying that amount. Cost was even less of a problem for several dozen people waiting for Chesney in ankle-deep water about 20 feet outside the fence. They'd be listening for free.
"Best deal going," yelled a twenty-something Amy ("no last names").
Inside, Sarah Sheetz and her mom, Diane, were about 20 yards from the stage. They had turned the two-day concert into a four-day girls’ weekend, coming down from Greensboro, N.C., to stay at the Sheraton Fort Lauderdale Beach Hotel as part of a Tortuga-affiliated package. The deal included VIP tickets, which run $800 a pop.
“We like Kenny. He needs me to be here,” Sarah Sheetz said with a smile, before the show.
The two also had praise for the festival experience, the location and the people, and endorsed the idea of Tortuga 2014. “We've had a great time. Everyone has been very considerate,” Diane Sheetz said. “This is wonderful.”
Moments later Chesney hit the stage in his trademark uniform –– jeans, cutoff T-shirt and beaten-up straw cowboy hat –– and proceeded to rip through hits old and new with an energy that shamed the sun into hiding. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting locale for songs such as “Beer in Mexico,” “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problems,” “You & Tequila” and “Pirate Flag.”
Working a stage that jutted out into the crowd, Chesney teased and flexed and engaged the audience with a warm banter that felt equal parts Johnson City, Tenn., and St. John in the Virgin Islands.
A highlight came when Chesney brought Mac McAnally onstage for a duet of the latter’s evocative, small-town love letter “Back Where I Come From.” McAnally peformed a set earlier on Saturday, an afternoon that featured well-received performances from the Eli Young Band and singer-guitarist Ben Harper with blues icon Charlie Musselwhite.
The crowd stretched as far as the eye could see from the stage, a wide mix of ages and degrees of prosperity unified by a “two bare feet on the dashboard” mentality. They whooped in agreement when Chesney said, “This is officially the most fun we’ve had on the No Shoes Nation Tour.”
IF YOU GO
The Tortuga Music Festival returns to Fort Lauderdale beach 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday with performers on three stages: Brett Eldredge: 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.; Bright Light Social Hour: 12:30-1:30 p.m.; Kip Moore: 1:30-2:30 p.m.; Old Man Luedecke: 1:30-2:30 p.m.; Grace Potter: 2:30-3:30 p.m.; Lynyrd Skynryd: 3:30-4:30 p.m.; The Wailers: 3:30-4:30 p.m.; The Avett Brothers: 4:30-5:30 p.m.; Jake Owen: 5:30-6:45 p.m.; Sister Hazel: 5:30-6:45 p.m.; Gary Clark Jr.: 6:45-8 p.m.; Eric Church: 8-9:30 p.m. Admission: $99. Info: TortugaMusicFestival.com.
Photo: Mike Stocker, Sun Sentinel