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Rockin’ on the high Cs

Inside an R&B cruise – as passenger and player

By Rev. Billy C. Wirtz
Correspondent

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  • Blues voyage

    Details on upcoming Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise sailings: www.bluescruise.com.



Monday, 5 p.m.: Jimmy Thackery and I are sitting poolside, laughing and swapping lies. As usual, about 20 minutes into our conversation, one of us begins a road story with “Remember that night at the Double Door in Charlotte when…”

The breeze shifts slightly, the sun calls it a day and a full moon bathes the ocean, as shared memories of lives spent in a thousand Double Doors ramble into the early evening.

Monday, 9 p.m.: I’m sitting in the third row of the main concert hall with my friend Judith, a retired media executive from Atlanta, who I met years ago on the cruise. Tonight we are in the presence of royalty, listening to the star of the cruise, Bobby “Blue” Bland, as he and his horn section wail through the opening bars of “St. James Infirmary.”

1 a.m.: I wind down the day with a Cohiba and chatting with Sirius radio host Bill Wax on the smoking deck.

It’s only the first full day aboard The Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise. And I am at work.

Under the blues moon

The first Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise sailed in 2002 with 800 passengers and 100 musicians. This October it sails with around 1,400 cruisers and 300 musicians. I was on the first one, and have been on about six more since – most recently last fall, aboard Holland America’s Zaandam for a Sunday-to-Sunday swing out of San Diego. The chartered cruises are something akin to summer camp for grownups who love music.

Prepare yourself – it’s not cheap. Next month’s cheapest inside double was $1,675 per person, but consider this: The two cruises, one in October, one in January, often sell out months in advance, and there is a perpetual waiting list. On any given cruise, 85 percent of cruisers are returnees. The others, many of whom have been on yearlong waiting lists, are deliriously grateful. (A few openings remain for the Oct. 27 cruise.)

Cruise director Roger Nabor and his staff book a diverse mix of style and performance. There are always a least two world-class headliners – my most recent cruise featured Bobby Womack in addition to Bobby “Blue” Bland. The late Etta James, Johnny and Edgar Winter, Dr. John, Tyrone Davis, Commander Cody and Little Milton have all shared the featured spotlight. Taj Mahal is often listed as the spiritual director, performing with a variety of groups on almost every sailing.

Along with the headliners is always a virtual who’s who of the roots-music world: Jimmy Thackery, Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Shameka Copeland and Tommy Castro have all been on numerous cruises. Each cruise also has a couple dozen special “guests” – A-list players such as pianist David Maxwell, “sacred steel” pioneer Aubrey Ghent and even the legendary Dion (“Teenager in Love,” “Abraham, Martin and John”). The guests do workshops, join bands during the shows and – above all – are there for the jams, which don’t even start till 1 a.m. (Many people actually catch a nap and set alarms to not miss them.)

Each jam is hosted by one of the featured bandleaders, who handpicks the core group for the evening; player after player, solo after solo, they proceed to stretch the boundaries. It’s neither a “cuttin’ contest,” nor a clash of egos, merely an impossibly great mix of musicians taking it to another level. Where else can you watch Elvin Bishop, two members of the Thunderbirds, Tommy Castro’s’ drumme, and a guest saxophonist (just off a tour with Paul McCartney) get up with no rehearsal, and play a medley of swamp-pop classics followed by an Elvis tune and an Otis Redding ballad?

The music thunders off the stage, the players caught up in the moment, people from all over the world laughing and dancing with total strangers. Even the normally stoic Indonesian bartenders and wait staff are dancing with passengers, swept up in the moment. The full moon, the night breeze and the stars complete the picture, almost as if under orders from Neptune, snapping his fingers and grooving down below.

Some folks benefit from rehashing childhood traumas while sitting in a drum circle. I found that dancing around like a total fool at 3 in the morning while the jam band played “Shake a Tail Feather” to be equally therapeutic.

It isn’t until 6 a.m. that the ship is relatively quiet.

Around the clock

Last fall on the Zaandam I had double duty as a writer and a musician – helping with a tribute to Bobby Bland and playing a show at the piano bar. The hired (and extremely well-paid) groups and artists play three or four times during the week at scheduled times. Appearance at the jams is highly “encouraged” but do not count as performances. Each cruise has at least one headliner who does two 90-minute shows during the trip. These are name acts you would normally spend $50-plus to see at a club or festival.

Musicians are given VIP treatment, but the pace is exhausting.

There were two main stages on the deck. An indoor concert hall seated several hundred; there was an all-night piano bar and two smaller lounges for more intimate shows. Many of the shows overlap. Multiple performances ensure that it’s possible to see every act at least once.

With the exception of backstage areas, there are no “musicians only” areas. The total immersion nature of the cruise means Berlitz School of Interaction between artists and fans. Before the ship leaves port, there is a mandatory meeting for band leaders and solo artists where players are informed that mingling, chatting with and hanging out with cruisers is strongly encouraged.

The only exceptions tend to be the big-name stars. On previous cruises, Etta James, Koko Taylor and Johnny Winters often remained in their suites until their performances. However, there are two late-week autograph signings that all performers are required to attend.

Returning artists quickly learn to schedule some daily “quiet time” to recharge.

The action overload gets tricky for musicians and for passengers alike: The happily tipsy cruiser still on his stumps at 6 a.m. may be going strong hours later. A first-timer may be up continually for the first three days, eventually making neither sense nor sentences, and operating just on overdrive.

Musicians’ cabins are spread out among passengers’. As quiet time is your call, bumping, thumping and chatter in the next cabin is to be expected. That said, between earplugs and blackout shades on windows, where you sleep can be as quiet as a tomb.

The rooms are small, functional and comfortable. For guys like me – 6-foot-4, including tattoos but not my boots or Elvis hair – they are cozy. If you’re 5-11 or under, you’ll do fine. There are also suites for headliners and higher-rollers.

For many, the days begin around 11 a.m. with formal workshops on instruments, the music biz and more.

Who inspired some of these great musicians? What have they learned along the way? What are some of the various styles and what differentiates them? These and other matters, large and specific, are covered in morning workshops.

I once went to a drummers workshop and listened to Tony Bronagel demonstrate not one but 10 different patterns of a blues shuffle” Likewise, I’ve had the chance to spread some of my knowledge about gospel music and its connection to the secular at these functions. For true music junkies, these workshops can be the highlight of the cruise.

Live music starts in the afternoon, headliners take the stage around 9 and the jams follow. Passenger or player, you take in as much as you wish.

The ‘tribe’

The shipboard camaraderie doesn’t end when the cruise does. Passengers belong to a tribe they paid a high-fare to join. One to a dozen people may later come up to you in a nightclub, wherever you go, and say, “Remember me?” Blues Cruise veterans even have reunions on land.

On the ship, seasoned cruisers are like the ninth graders at summer camp – arriving in the main dining room in packs, taking up tables for six to 10, wearing shirts from past cruises and loudly greeting old friends.

You watch the new “seventh graders” stand at the entrance to the mammoth room, casting awkward glances as they try to decide where to sit in a room full of strangers. Later that night you’ll spot them at the shows, maybe sitting off in a corner, or toward the back of the room, still a bit shy but beginning to warm-up.

Days into the cruise you can begin to spot the ones who have caught the fever and are getting their money’s worth. Under other circumstances you might worry – they look sleepless, a tad shell-shocked and maybe sport a bruise or two (“I slipped and fell while dancing at the jam.”). But you know the cruise family has increased by one, and numerous Kumbayah moments are only hours away.

Rev. Billy C. Wirtz is a musician, comedian and writer who tours the Southeast. His “Rev. Billy’s Rhythm Revival” radio show airs 10 p.m.-midnight Fridays at www.wfit.org. Reach him at planetbproductions@gmail.com.
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