Thousands flock to downtown Lawrence for Johnny Winter, beginning of Free State Festival

Concert goers smile with anticipation as Johnny Winter takes the stage during a performance Wednesday night outside of the Lawrence Arts Center as part of the Free State Festival. Prior to the concert, a documentary on the life and career of Winter, Johnny Winter: Down and Dirty, was shown at the Arts Center.

Legendary blues player Johnny Winter performs during a free concert Wednesday night outside of the Lawrence Arts Center.

Anyone hungry for a weekend of ideas, art, music and film got a solid appetizer Wednesday night from celebrated blues guitarist Johnny Winter in downtown Lawrence.

Outside the Lawrence Arts Center in the warm June night, the co-headliner performed in front of 2,000 onlookers on New Hampshire Street — just after many of them sat through a documentary that detailed his life — to officially mark the beginning of the 2014 Free State Festival.

“It’s a beautiful evening,” said Susan Tate, executive director of the arts center, which organized the festival. “(People) are dancing and loving the music.”

Most of the 900 block of New Hampshire Street was reserved for the festivities Wednesday. Visitors strolled freely about the corridor lined with food and drink vendors, who added the signature scents of summertime — beer and grilled goods.

People leaned against the buildings on either side of New Hampshire Street, lawn chairs were unfolded in the road and, up top, crowds lined the ledges of the parking garage for a bird’s-eye view.

Winter took the stage about 9:30 p.m. sporting a black cowboy hat, his white-blonde hair in a ponytail. He launched into his act, playing covers of “Johnny B Goode” and “Got My Mojo Working,” pausing only to thank the crowd and name the next song.

The 70-year-old Winter, ranked as the 63rd greatest guitarist of all time by Rolling Stone, is one of several musical headliners at this year’s festival, which continues through the weekend.

Fans of the concert’s opening act, Samantha Fish, a Kansas City blues musician, were also in attendance. Dustin and Erica Lewis traveled from Overland Park to see her after hearing about the festival on Twitter.

“We’ve had a great time,” Dustin said. He then summed up the night by considering what he held in his hands and what lay ahead: “Beer, food, great music.”

Daniel Hawkins, of Lawrence, who described himself as a blues fan, stuck around after the sold-out screening of “Johnny Winter: Down and Dirty,” which played at the arts center’s main stage prior to the show. The film, which premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, follows Winter for two years and delves into his rambunctious past. Hawkins called it “really good.”

Festival events pick up again Thursday night with an art exhibit and a panel on technology at Pachamamas; a story slam at the arts center; and another documentary-and-live-performance combo by Grant Hart, of Hüsker Dü fame.

The conferences, concerts, art shows and screenings will continue again Friday evening and all through Saturday and Sunday across downtown Lawrence.

Standing not too far from the stage, Kathy Clifford, of Lawrence, raved about the atmosphere of the evening, saying the reason she recently moved to Lawrence was because “it’s alive” and cares for the arts.

Clifford said she’d be coming back for more of the festival this weekend.

“I love it,” she said.