Just before the traditional 5 p.m. end of the work day on a picturesque Friday on Fort Lauderdale beach, the lovely DJ Bad Ash fired up Luke Bryan’s “Country Girl (Shake It for Me),” turning the sand into a gyrating happy-hour party for thousands of people who had played hooky from their jobs, including one woman sporting a T-shirt that read “I just want to drink and rescue turtles.” Welcome to Tortuga Weekend.
With a bill that included stars such as Luke Bryan, Darius Rucker and Brett Eldredge, the fifth annual Tortuga Music Festival kicked off three days of tunes from some of country music’s most popular performers on Friday under skies so pristine that it was all anyone wanted to talk about.
As Tortuga fans know, the weather was also the main topic of conversation on Day 1 last year, when black skies hurtled rain, lightning and high winds onto the beach, sending festivalgoers running for safety, many of whom were miles away by the time the storm passed and headliner Dierks Bentley took the stage. If Tortuga organizers prayed for some kind of payback this year, they could not have expected a better answer, with temperatures in the mid 70s and not a cloud in the sky.
Cold beers, bikinis and bro-country anthems were the order of the day, a perfect prescription for a couple like Tim Belton and Victoria Harris, Tortuga rookies who endured a 20-hour trip from stormy Baltimore, where flights were backed up for hours on Thursday. Minutes after arriving at Tortuga they were with friends, toes in the sand, toasting their good fortune with $12 chilled Fireball shots.
“The sun, the sand, the beach, the people. This feels great. It’s amazing,” Belton said.
Belton had gotten Tortuga tickets as a surprise birthday present for Harris, who seemed overwhelmed with the wealth of listening options that stood before her during the weekend.
“Dustin Lynch, Kenny Chesney, Granger Smith. There’s so many freaking people!” she said.
Anna Liscka and Bill Pearse, of Miami, arrived at Tortuga via a shuttle from Bayfront Park ($12 each way). Liscka, a health care consultant, took a half-day off from work to catch some of her favorite acts, including Bryan and Eldredge. She and Pearse, a pilot for American Airlines, moved from Columbus, Ohio, two years ago.
“This isn’t just happy hour. It’s happy day,” Liscka said. “This is so unique. You’re out on the beach, listening to music. Where else are you doing that?”
The festival, expected to draw 90,000 fans through the weekend, got off to a strong start with first-rate early sets by Delta Rae, G. Love & Special Sauce and Rucker (an excellent cover of Prince’s “Purple Rain”). It continues on Saturday with acts including pop singer Daya, rapper Nelly, and rising country stars Maren Morris and Chris Stapleton. On Sunday, featured performers include Old Dominion, Alan Jackson, Slightly Stoopid and headliner Kenny Chesney.
Chesney’s set is at the top of Patrick Ryan’s Tortuga to-do list.
“He sings ‘Boys of Fall.’ That’s my song,” said Ryan about Chesney’s football-themed anthem. Ryan, attending Tortuga on Friday with fiance Zashia Santiago, is a quarterback for the Atlantic Sharks of the Rivals Professional Football League, an NFL developmental league in Miami.
The dreadlocked Fort Myers native is, admittedly, a late-comer to country music, but has been converted by Santiago, who sported a John Deere trucker hat. The Miami couple were making their first trip to Tortuga.
“My fiance here is the big country music fan, and now I kind of fell in love with it, too,” he said. “It’s kind of our thing now. We go line dancing every Tuesday.”
Ryan has a game on Saturday but they hope to return for Sunday to see Chesney.
“Today’s weather is freaking perfect. Hot and sunny but then windy. Man, it’s the best day,” Santiago said.
Steve Jones, of Lake Worth, was at his second Tortuga, but his first since the inaugural event in 2013. Jones was impressed with how well organized the festival was.
“I’ve been to the bathroom three times already,” Jones said, Corona in hand. “No lines, no hassle.”
In the background Rucker offered a cover of John Mellencamp’s “Little Pink Houses,” singing “Ain’t that America, for you and me.”
The Tortuga Music Festival continues Saturday and Sunday, April 8-9, at Fort Lauderdale Beach Park, 1100 Seabreeze Blvd. Single-day general-admission tickets cost $99, $399 for VIP at TortugaMusicFestival.com.