Welcome aboard to the world’s biggest 7 day blues party! Yes friends, 7 days where you can’t tell the blues artists from the fans. Although everybody’s experience is different –and a blues cruise vacation is exactly what you make it– a good time is had by all… day after day!
So I’m going to tell you about my experience on my 4th LRBC a few weeks ago. I try to get on board pretty early so I can learn the layout of the ship and how to get from concert venue to concert venue in the most efficient manner. And by doing so you get to see and talk to some of the artists before any action really starts. Right off the bat I ran into Cyril Neville who was as lost as my wife and I. Later I saw Lucky Peterson on a lounge chair outside his stateroom while walking the Promenade Deck.
The first night they always have a BBQ on the pool deck at departure. This time it was Rick Estrin and the Nightcats hosting the BBQ. The best part being when Kid Anderson went into a guitar solo playing slide with a cell phone. Next came the Virgin and Returnee Parties. The artists for these are never announced. As a returnee I went for my free champagne at the Showroom at Sea. And to kick it all off was Los Lobos with Lee Oskar on harp. Talk about setting the bar high. These guys were fantastic! I had seen Lee Oskar a few years ago with the Low Rider Band (the band formerly known as WAR but due to legal limitations cannot bill themselves as WAR any more). But I swear Lee was better with Los Lobos who were great in their own right. The consensus opinion was that this was the best Returnee Party in history.
After that we stayed at the Showroom to check out Walter “Wolfman” Washington.
He was one of the artists I specifically wanted to see on this cruise. Bman had turned me on to Walter back in about 1991 and I’d never gotten a chance to see him live. I was not disappointed. Wolfman Washington with his jazz-infused, New Orleans funk style blues was great. Sadly not too many people attended this show. I imagine on account of going to see Ruthie Foster instead. When Ruthie’s set ended the crowd packed into Walter’s gig for the last half hour.
As for me, when Walter’s set ended I went out to the Pool Deck to hear Royal Southern Brotherhood. But I only heard a few tunes featuring mostly Mike Zito because I had to head back to the Showroom for Irma Thomas. That’s the dilemma about the Blues Cruise. There’s so many good people to see and you just can’t possibly be in two places at once. Well, Irma Thomas was great. She did not work from a set list. She just said “This is not your regular kind of show. I’m gonna call the tunes unless there’s something special you want to hear. Let me know what it is and we’ll do it.” Irma would not be the only artist to take that approach.
Day two was in Key West, FL. Supposedly for Fantasy Fest which started the night before. But by pulling into port at 8:30am all the naked spray painted Fantasy Fest breasts, and other body parts, were all in bed sleeping from the previous evening. So we had our own Second Line parade up Duval Street led by keyboardist, Mitch Woods, dressed as Liberace and the Wild Magnolias (Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and Big Chief Bo Dollis Jr.). It terminated at Sloppy Joes Bar where Mitch led a jam that lasted from 10:00am until 3:00pm.
Toward the end of the jam, Walter “Wolfman” Washington joined Mitch and the band for a couple numbers. When he came down off the stage I got to talk to Walter and joke around with him. What a great guy! You may not know this, but Walter was one of the first “name” artists who started to play New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. There are many who say he saved music in New Orleans after the hurricane because so many musicians had fled to Houston, Dallas, San Francisco and all points in between to make a living since most clubs in New Orleans had shut down. But not Walter. He immediately began playing his regular gigs most notably at the Maple Leaf Bar –where he still has a weekly gig. When people saw Walter back, they came back too!
So at 5:30 the ship had to leave Mallory Square in Key West cause if any of you have ever been there for the Sunset Party (Circus) which happens every night… well you just can’t have a huge freakin’ cruise ship obstructing your view. But that’s OK with us ‘cause Our Ship Kicks Ass and we gonna have a good time anyway.
And sure enough we did. Reason why? Dwayne Dopsie and the Zydeco Hellraisers! Over the course of the cruise I saw these guys play 3 gigs and they were absolute Zydeco Dynamite on every one!! Led by accordionist Dwayne Dopsie, and fueled by saxophonist Reginald Smith and washboard man, Paul LeFleur (The Marlboro Man) they rocked the ship. What a passionate performance! I can personally attest to the fact that the man was soaked from head to toe at the end of every set. Even the dude’s jeans were completely soaked!
A day at sea is always filled with great blues and it took us a day and something to get from Key West to New Orleans. It was a Sunday and we got the day started with a Gospel Brunch with Ruthie Foster which was fantastic!
The rest of day three was highlighted by more of Dwayne Dopsie and the Zydeco Hellraisers, the hardest working band on the ship! A set by Popa Chubby on the Pool Deck was particularly good. Man he really ripped the place up. I was extremely impressed with Popa Chubby. I knew he was good, but not that good! Reminded me of Leslie West. In fact, better than Leslie West even. And that’s saying something.
Coming up the Mississippi into New Orleans I had the pleasure of enjoying the ride with Dion Pierre – bass man for the Zydeco Hellraisers and Kevin Minor –drummer for the Zydeco Hellraisers (and alumni of Hopewell High School in Aliquippa, PA) both of whom call New Orleans home. We passed the bayous and levees. Up past the New Orleans Battleground where Andrew Jackson and the pirate, Jean LaFitte, defeated the British in 1814. To the canal in the 9th ward where Minor pointed out to me “That’s the canal that flooded and fucked up all this area over here.” Very few people approach the city from this direction and it was clearly impressive even to the folks who live there.
The city was impressive too. My wife and I walked about 8.5 miles that day. Started out for an Oyster Po’ Boy at Mother’s on Poydras. Then down past the House of Blues on Decatur into the French Quarter. Up to Preservation Hall. Past the Old Absinthe House. Over to the St. Charles Trolley and a trip out past the Garden District to the famous Maple Leaf Bar home of New Orleans blues, jazz, zydeco, and everything in between for as long as anyone can remember. A few beers and some serious music discussion with Regan the bartender and then a trolley trip back into town. Arriving just in time for a bus ride out to the Mid-City Lanes Rock N Bowl where we heard the wonderful guitarist June Yamagishi (who you can see in the HBO series Treme’).
Another day at sea followed featuring Ft. Lauderdale guitarist, Albert Castilia, whose set was accompanied by guests, Samantha Fish and Mike Zito. It is about at this point in the trip that musicians who jam together until 4:00am every night on the pool deck begin to crash each other’s scheduled sets and you never know who you might see or where. Johnny Winter? Kim Wilson? Rev. Billy C. Wirtz? Andy Forrest? Dave Keyes? Jimmy Carpenter? They were all there and would just show up. It was great!! Lucky Peterson was also a high point of the sets I saw on our way to Progreso, MX.
In Mexico, I guess the people who took the tour of the Mayan ruins enjoyed Mexico but I opted to stay on the ship and drink poolside all afternoon. It was a good choice. It was a day of relaxation for the musicians. And they were hanging poolside too. I never intruded on their personal time but it was very cool to observe, for instance, a conversation between Kim Wilson, Rick Estrin, and Lee Oskar. Now that’s some harp royalty right there! Ruthie Foster and her band just kicking back with some fans. We caught a bit of Anson Funderburgh and Eric Lindell’s set early that evening too.
At 6:30 the next morning I headed back to the pool for the Sunrise Party except there was no sun. It was cloudy and we had some pretty damn rough seas. So rough the pool water was completely splashing out 7 feet high!! Somebody smuggled in some tequila and vodka and I mixed my own Bloody Mary and hung out with my fellow cruisers for a jello shooter to celebrate our last day in Blues Heaven on water. Had a hell of a time keeping my balance but I was better off than those who get seasick.
The feature of the last day was the Lucky Peterson Jam on the pool deck which was going great until Lucky decided to play some disco music and everybody kinda just walked away. Right up until that it was smokin’. But artists need to understand it’s the blues people come to hear and even though I agree with the Etta James claim that “It’s all blues, baby” other’s don’t.
The last set I saw was Marcia Ball who also just said, “Call the tune and I’ll play it.” I had not seen Marcia since 1999 at the Superdome in New Orleans and not much has changed except we’re both older and grayer. She still rocks on that electric piano and swings her long crossed leg the whole time.
Back in Florida I found myself waiting for my family to pick us up at the port alongside Popa Chubby. We all just turn into one big blues family on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise. It is an experience I highly recommend not only because the music is fantastic but it’s a very relaxing vacation. I’ll be on the next one in January too, hope to see you on board. I’ll be hanging in the Crow’s Nest. Just say, “Whatcha drinking, Stilladog?” And I’ll know you are a Bman’s Blues Report fan.