Anna Maria benefit concert aids Florida fishermen

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All photos Sara Stovall/Catalyst

The Deepwater Horizon oilrig exploded on the night of April 20, 2010 and bled almost five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The oil spill, now considered the largest offshore spill the U.S. has ever seen, came as a catastrophic blow to fishermen in the Gulf. Fortunately, Gulf Coast citizens continue to mobilize and come to their aid. On Nov. 19, Anna Maria Island’s Save the Gulf benefit concert kicked off at Holmes Beach City Hall Park. A total of 22 bands performed over the course of three days, and while admission was free to the public, the event organizers pledged all the donations collected at the gate to the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage, where it will go to supply a fishermen’s relief fund.

Loretta James, frontwoman of the Loretta James Band, decided to organize a benefit concert just a few weeks after the spill. Her friend Jeff van Praag stepped up as her first collaborator in the event. As more and more bands –– local and from afar –– signed on to the roster, the event blossomed from a mere brainchild into a three-day festival, complete with two stages, tents from local vendors, carnival food and a marine education pavilion.

James wrote on the event’s website,, that the concert’s mission was “to provide financial and spiritual relief to our local communities through music. Local musicians will perform at a series of coastal concerts. Proceeds will benefit local charities engaged in mitigating the immeasurable harm done to Gulf Coast residents and wildlife in the BP Oil Disaster.” Budweiser, Sarasota Guitar Company and the Islander, Anna Maria Island’s newspaper, acted as some off the benefit’s biggest sponsors.

The kick-off concert featured hour-long sets from local acts the YaHoo’s, Kip DeBellevue and van Praag’s own band, Not Tuna. Two guitarists from Chicago, R. J. Howson and Steve Arvey, played electric and acoustic blues sets respectively. Fiction20Down, a Baltimore roots-rock band, headlined the kickoff. The Save the Gulf concert was the 13th of their 19-stop Southeast tour.

The crowd remained sparse until well after the sun went down. About 80 people, musicians and vendors included, were thrown into even deeper darkness a little after 6:00 p.m., when R. J. Howson and his backup band blew the generator. Within two minutes, however, the power flicked back on and the band launched right in mid-song, seemingly unfazed.  They rounded out the hour with plenty of blues covers and some original numbers, such as “Bluesmobile” and “Shrimp Juice.”

The crowd began to thicken throughout the next hour as Steve Arvey growled and strummed through his acoustic blues set, with singer Rebecca Bird joining him at the microphone for several numbers. By the time Fiction20Down took the stage, about 200 people milled around the open field, munching on ears of roasted corn, slurping margaritas and trying their luck at the local business raffle. The weather stayed clear throughout the evening, with a stiff ocean breeze that encouraged patrons to dance, hug together for warmth or hop back on the rum-and-coke line. While the threat of oil never oozed far south enough to endanger the beach close by, the Save the Gulf concert series brought people together for a good time in the name of a good cause.

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