ST. PETERSBURG — Brandon Niederauer wasn’t expecting to spend Sunday afternoon performing in front of hundreds at the 20th annual Tampa Bay Blues Festival, but as soon as the seasoned soul man hit the stage he erupted in guitar riffs bluer than his teal Gibson 120th Anniversary Les Paul.
He’s also only 11 years old, and in three years has become a prodigy that has performed at music festivals around the country and on the Ellen DeGeneres show.
Niederauer’s chance journey to the main stage of the blues festival, which this year boasted headliners Buddy Guy, Irma Thomas and Michael McDonald, seems straight out of a Tennessee Williams novel. The Long Island, New York native was performing at a bar in New Orleans last year when in walked one of his heros, guitarist George Porter Jr., for a sound check. The duo started an impromptu jam session, Niederauer “showed him a few licks” and then they “brought the house down,” he said. A few months later, Porter mailed Niederauer and his family VIP passes to see him perform in Vinoy Park. When Porter spotted his protege milling about with his father and several hundred early birds at Sunday’s festival, he pulled him on-stage for a soundcheck — and again to give the sweaty, swaying crowd a show worthy of a standing ovation.
At the end of the show it was Porter who went looking for Niederauer backstage, where he was drinking in congratulations and some much needed water.
“Stick around, I want to get a picture after I’m done doing these autographs,” he told the fifth-grader.
“Being up on that stage, it felt like fire was going through my body,” Niederauer said as he blew into a small harmonica that hung around his neck. “I felt like I was in some kind of zone. It just felt like I could fly.”
That fire and those rare musical moments are what’s behind the festival’s 20 year long success, an unusual feat when longtime local events like Taste of Pinellas and the Rock and Roll marathon have had to pull the plug in recent years due to spotty attendance. The weekend-long event is one of the oldest and longest-running in Florida, and in 2011 received the Blues Foundation’s 2011 “Keepin’ the Blues Alive” award for Best U.S. Blues Festival, said President of the Tampa Bay Blues Festival Chuck Ross. This year, more than 20,000 turned out for the shows, which benefit the Pinellas Association for Retarded Children.
Although many blues clubs across the nation have been forced to close their doors, including Ross’ own St. Petersburg blues club in the mid-1990s, the Tampa Bay area has always had a soft spot for blues and boasts “spectacular local talent,” Ross said. Ross is a music man himself, and used to sing and play harmonica at his festival in its earlier days with his electric blues band of 33 years, the Backtrack Blues Band.
“This festival is special because it really grew out of our love of music and performing music, which then grew into wanting to showcase other people who play music and one thing led to another and here we are,” Ross said. “The blues is universal. No matter what you ultimately chose as your favorite style of music you’ll find that there are big elements of blues music in all contemporary American music.”
You can even find it in “the rap and the songs with bad words” that Niederauer’s friends at school choose to listen to while the he spins Allman Brothers and Jimi Hendrix records with his father, he said. But seeing more budding musicians like Niederauer carry on in the footsteps of greats like Tampa Red, B.B. King, Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles is confirmation that at least one more generation has the blues, said Porter’s guitarist Briant Anderson.
“It’s very reassuring to know this fine young gentleman here is carrying on the torch for us old cats,” Anderson said. “I may not be here much longer, but he’ll be around a long time. He can hang.”