Bedford Blues & BBQ fest serves up some tasty extras

BEDFORD -- The Bedford Blues & BBQ festival returns Saturday afternoon with more of just about everything.

More shade (think party tents and personal cabanas).

More choices for kids (a carnival with rides, not just inflatable bounce houses).

More alcohol (wine is being offered this year, instead of just beer).

And more barbecue (patrons can sample and vote for their favorite brisket and pulled pork).

And then there is the live music, which features 20 artists, including headliners Robert Cray and Taj Mahal.

The festival, which debuted in 1995 and earned a national reputation as a premier blues event, was canceled because of budget problems after only 16,000 people showed up at the 2004 event. In the past, crowds had swelled to more than 70,000 to hear big names like Robert Ely and Buddy Guy play in the field next to Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital H-E-B in Bedford.

After a four-year hiatus, city officials brought back the festival last year -- along with a barbecue cook-off featuring some of the nation's top competitors.

"Yes, we went on a hiatus and one of our major concerns was that we stayed blues," said Wendy Hartnett, the city's special-events coordinator. "We are trying to stay true to our roots and be a traditional blues festival."

Last year, about 15,000 people attended the festival, which came in over budget. The city used $157,200 from its tourism fund and budgeted $379,500, but expenses were $426,000.

Still, the hotels were sold out or filled, which was a goal of the event. This year, officials hope to bring in bigger numbers by listening to and learning from last year's festgoers.

"Several comments we heard last year is that more people wanted access to the barbecue," Hartnett said. "They said, 'You have barbecue and we can smell it, but we can't have barbecue unless we go over and beg the cooks.' So we are offering a People's Choice Award."

Hartnett said that for $10, patrons get 10 tastes of the barbecue being cooked by 50 teams in the state-qualifying barbecue competition, which is sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society. They then get to cast two votes in the People's Choice category.

Hartnett said another complaint last year was the lack of shade. This year's event will have a party tent where patrons can buy individual seats or an entire table and hang out in comfort and style.

"We are notorious for not having enough shade," she said. "This is a tented area with a table and chairs and a personal bar."

For those who want a little more privacy and a VIP experience, Hartnett said, 10 party cabanas can be rented each night. They include a table and chairs, a great view of the stage, carnival passes, a $40 food voucher and bottled water.

"We have already sold four each night [so there are six left]," Hartnett said.

Hartnett said that this year should also be more fun for children and teenagers.

"In the past, we had inflatables for the smaller kids," she said. "This time, we have a carnival for all ages."

Hartnett said there will also be traditional festival food, such as funnel cakes, as well as more-healthful options. Vendors will also sell art, jewelry and pottery. And, of course, musicians will play all afternoon and night.

Melody McDonald, 817-390-7386