Oh, baby don’t you want to go
Oh, baby don’t you want to go
Back to the land of California . . .
-1936, Robert Johnson
We’re on an AirTran flight from the East Coast to the West, and the pilot is unknowingly giving us a serendipitous beginning to a trip consisting of rhythm and blues. We’re flying away to a ship full of the blues – The Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise – and this captain is serenading his passengers with a homegrown harmonica riff before lifting off into the wild blue yonder. I’ve never before had a pilot – with any airline – wail on the blues harp. AirTran rocks!
Arriving at the San Diego Airport, we’re greeted by another auspicious beginning to this trip: a glitzy jazz band getting down with some brass in the baggage claim area. Picked up (on time!) by the friendly driver Olag from Beach Limo, we’re smoothly transported in a shiny black town car through the non-congested streets of this lovely California city. Palm trees wave in greeting, and San Diego sparkles with a magical nighttime waterfront charm. We glide into the Gaslamp Quarter, a swanky district founded by a San Francisco developer who in 1867 discovered this area then only known as Rabbitville.
Still maintaining much of the energy and spirit of its frontier days, the Gaslamp Quarter is a lively and happening place. There’s lots of upscale shopping and boutiques, hipster nightclubs and open-air cafes, super-model types and twenty-somethings decked out to the 9s in the latest trendy fashions.
The Marriott San Diego Gaslamp Quarter Hotel is an oasis of mod and hip architecture, spacious and clean rooms, and the coolest check-in desk this side of the Pacific. Illuminated from behind by colored lights, the counter is run efficiently by friendly staff obviously happy to be at your service. On the counter are bowls of all-American Boomer-era candy: saltwater taffy, Necco wafers, Pixie Sticks, and Hershey Kisses.
With lots of comfy seating and wireless internet access, the hotel lobby is a popular gathering space, and the restaurant – the Soleil @ K – includes a full breakfast with the Snooze and Cruise deal. Taxi vouchers are also part of the package, making it easy and convenient for cruise visitors.
San Diego’s cruise port is a simple ten-minute trip from the Gaslamp District, making this a more accessible terminal than most East Coast ports. Check-in is a breeze, and before we know it we’re on the Oosterdam, an exquisite and immaculate Holland America ship upon which even the elevators are of upscale showcase material.
We’re heading for Mexico; there’s blue sky above and blue water below, and a ship full of the blues. Cool.
Captain, tell your men to get on board
I sure see ’em just pull into another shore . . .
-1931, Bessie Smith
Blues Cruise has been sailing from Florida to the Caribbean since 1994, and in 2006 the first San Diego cruise was launched. Spearheaded by Kansas City music promoter Roger Naber, the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise is one-of-a-kind: the only all-blues-all-the-time cruise in the universe. Once a Blues Cruiser, always a Blues Cruiser, so it seems. Many of the passengers on our boat seem to be returning Cruisers, hooked on this event that’s not only a cruise but a music festival not to be found anywhere else in the world. Add to all that music a boatload of scrumptious food, and you’ve got the recipe for a great vacation. Even the Holland America employees are enjoying themselves.
“We never have bands like this on usual cruises,” says one young food service worker who hails from Indonesia. “This is sweet.” His co-worker, whose name tag reads “Hunky Dory” grins effervescently and nods in agreement. Hunky Dory is a favorite of the buffet diners. He knows everybody’s names. He never forgets. And he’s really, really liking this cruise.
“Blues Cruise is lots of fun,” Hunky Dory states. “I digging it very much.”
Hard-core blues aficionados mingle with casual fans and newbies on Blues Cruise, and the ship becomes a happy bubble of music-love, delectable food, and fun. Jam sessions are part of the norm on this ship, and it’s not uncommon to stumble across four or five blues legends getting together to create a brand-new impromptu tune born of spontaneous combustion.
In dictionary definition, the blues are basic three-chord progressions laid over 12-bar framework. That’s a sterile description, though, and it’s really all about the heart and the soul, the glory and the grit, the heartbreak and the hope. It’s about the improv: playing by ear and going with the flow. It’s about emotion and core connection, and it’s all about the way the blues makes you sway no matter the time of day. It’s about gutsy guitars and vocals, piano and percussion, harmonica and brass and music so solid and real that you long to hold it in the palm of your hand. Most of all the blues is about passion.
The blues are perhaps the purest form of American music, originating in the earliest days of this land with African spirituals and work songs. Passed down orally, the blues meshed in the late 1800s with Appalachian folk and country, creating new hybrids across the states. Nowadays, the blues have fragmented in form and grown in many different and interesting directions. There are Delta Blues and Chicago Blues, Country Blues and Texas Blues, East Coast Blues and Harmonica Blues and Modern Electric Blues. There are blues that don’t fit into just one category, and blues that make brand-new genres.
The Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise has it all . . . plus some.
Some people take the blues, go jump overboard and drown
Some people take the blues, go jump overboard and drown
But when they gets on me, I’d rather stay ‘n go sit down
-1938, Memphis Minnie
We’re in the darkened Vista lounge, nestled in plush red velvet seats, listening to Bernard Allison belt out his songs with so much power that the room seems to turn blue. Bernard, son of the beloved late legend Luther Allison, is holding his audience in rapt captivation with a fluid mastery of the frets that comes from years of practice, persistence, and passion, along with the luck and genetics that must come from being the son of Luther. Swinging his silver-beaded dreads, Bernard blends his body, the guitar, and the mystical invisible to create a performance that moves more than a few attendees to tears. “I love you, Daddy,” Bernard shouts toward the star-studded ceiling as his set ends.
With more than 75 performances, jams, and workshops, there’s a plethora of possibilities on Blues Cruise. The dilemma lies in how to choose. Perusing detailed scheduling placed in the staterooms each evening, some Cruisers plan a scheduled agenda. Others browse, ending up wherever the spirit – or the drumbeat – leads them. With varied venues such as the acoustically-inclined Queen’s Lounge and the outdoor Lido pool deck, the cozy Piano Bar and the top-of-the-ship Crow’s Nest, passengers on Blues Cruise are never struck by Shuffleboard Syndrome. This is one cruise that’s not highlighted by ice sculptures, although there is a cool RIP tombstone in the dining room on Day of the Dead theme night. Surrounding the ice are photos and flowers memorializing blues greats now gone to the great beyond.
Day of the Dead isn’t the only theme night on this cruise. There’s also Pajama Night, Mardi Gras, Pirates, and Hippies Gone Wild, with plenty of tie-dye, peace signs, swirls, and shiny white go-go boots. Shades of the late ‘60s are evident all over the ship, with the majority of Blues Cruisers being of Baby Boomer age.
“We’re the generation that’s always in search of connection and purpose,” said one cruiser, a 57-year-old artist from Pasadena. “We wouldn’t be content on a conventional cruise. We need meaning. We need to feel.”
And, baby, do we ever feel on Blues Cruise. The chills and thrills are as constant as the wake of the sea, moving Cruisers through the week on a wave of music that swells and rises until we feel as if we can reach the sky. It’s invigorating and refreshing and energizing, and we end each day with the kind of exhaustion that’s a good-tired, like the kind of sleepiness that settles over a swimmer after a day of catching waves.
When I sleep on this ship, I dream of the blues . . . and I wake up happy.
Leave your ego;
Play the music;
Love the people.
-Luther Allison’s motto
“Our ancestors brought these songs over on ships, and we’re keeping them alive on this ship. The old masters would be proud,” says a band member I meet in the elevator one day. I don’t remember his name, because there are so many blips of intersection connection on this ship. Musicians schmooze with attendees, and there’s no sense of star solitude or diva-style attitude at this event. I meet Marcia Ball in the bathroom, and Sistah Monica in the gift shop. We break bread next to Elvin Bishop, and dance with John Lee Hooker Jr. We eat lamb chops grilled by drummer Harold Brown of the Lowrider Band, and we pour morning coffee with Eric Sardinas.
“People are people and we’re all the same,” says one performer. “We’re all on this ship together.”
Eric Bibb drives that point home in his show, when he speaks of healing differences among humanity. “We spent a week on this ship and formed our own little community of peace and love,“ he says. “We proved that we can all get along.”
A common bond can be found in the lyrics of most of the musicians: a linked appeal of healing prejudice and strife. Peace is the theme of the week, here in this place where music is the bridge and there’s no color line or racial divide.
It’s so cold up north, that a bird can hardly fly
Well it’s so cold up north, that a bird can hardly fly
Now you know I’m goin’ back down south,
let this winter pass on by . . .
-1972, Muddy Waters
We’re in the Crow’s Nest, where a bearded guy named Pirate is the sound man. “Arrrrr,” he says. “Wait until you see the Homemade Jamz Band. They are amazing. Everybody’s raving about these kids. They’re stealing the whole show.”
Indeed they are. The vocalist/lead guitarist Ryan Perry is 15. His brother Kyle is the bassist, and he’s 13. Little sister Taya is the drummer, and the girl is waist-high to the usual Blues Cruiser. At the tender age of 9, Taya commands the skins with a stamina and steadiness worthy of envy from pro drummers who’ve had drumsticks longer than she’s been alive. Wearing pigtails and pink, Miss Taya is right on time, never missing a beat as her big bros take control of guitars so remarkable that jaws drop when they hit the stage. With bodies made of mufflers (Auto Zone), these are two uber-cool metallic axes with sounds that smoke and rumble like vintage Thunderbirds on a drag strip. Patent is pending and trademark paperwork is in process by the kids’ dad Renaud Perry, whose brainstorm of an idea will soon be exploding across the music industry.
“I just made the guitars two weeks ago,” he says. “I’ve already had some orders from big names.”
The Muffler Guitars are a big hit with the Blues Cruise crowd, and these three kids are surely channeling long-gone masters of the art. Ryan’s voice growls with a gravely intensity equal to singers five times his age. Kyle and Taya are tight on rhythm, and the admiring audience goes crazy when Ryan holds the guitar behind his neck and whips out a perfect lightning-speed blues riff.
“Eric Clapton, eat your heart out, baby,” says a dancer in front of the stage.
The family is sometimes joined by Dad on blues harp, as their mother snaps photos from the back of the room.
“I actually sometimes forget that they’re my kids, and I just enjoy it along with everyone else,” says Tricia Perry.
Sitting offstage, the Tupelo trio’s father never takes his eyes off his children, and neither does anybody else. Seeing the Homemade Jamz Band is one of those experiences where you just know that one day you’ll brag of seeing them before they were a household name. The kids captured 2nd place in the band category of the International Blues Challenge, competing against 93 adult bands from all over the world. Since their coup at the Challenge, the kids have been picking up gigs all over the place, yet remain unaffected, polite, and respectful.
“It’s been a whirlwind,“ says Tricia Perry. “I don’t know why it’s happening, but we’re just going to go with it.”
The youngest blues band to ever perform on Blues Cruise, Homemade Jamz is obviously committed to keeping the blues brilliantly alive. I close my eyes while they play, riding the waves of music, and it’s hard to believe that the total combined years of these gifted musicians is less than my age.
“It’s like they’re old blues souls inside kids‘ bodies,” raves one listener. “It’s absolutely unbelievable.”
Two other youngsters from the new generation of the blues are also onboard, performing in jam sessions in the Crow’s Nest. Jumpin’ Josh, 11, from the Seattle/Tacoma area is the quintessential blues dude: sunglasses, harmonica, guitar slung across his back. Little Lisa Cayo, also of Tacoma, invokes shades of Janis Joplin and Tina Turner with deep and powerful vocals that are stunning to hear coming from the lungs of an 11-year-old. Brought on the boat by the encouragement of trombonist Randy Oxford, Little Lisa and Jumpin’ Josh join the Homemade Jamz Band in ensuring that the tradition continues.
“I’m so excited about these youngsters,” says Cookie Taylor, daughter of blues queen Koko Taylor. “I am so thrilled.”
So are we.
Everybody starts to jumpin’,
when the clock is strikin’ nine
Yes the house starts rockin’,
when the clock is strikin’ nine . . .
-1962, Lonnie Johnson
We’re on the Lido Pool Deck, and John Lee Hooker Jr. is bringing down the house with his band, plus a few friends pulled from the audience. A row of tangoing Holland America crew members are off the clock, and they’re rocking along with the cruisers, still decked out in their white uniforms.
“We children of the legends are carrying on,” Hooker says, tipping back his bowler hat. “My Daddy used to hold me up on stage and say, “Sing it, boy.”
John Lee is still singing it. Joining him on an electrifying jam session are other sons of legends, Bernard Allison and Ronnie Baker Brooks. The water stretches endlessly to the horizon, and the music of the blues lives on.
I looked down the ocean
As far as I could see –
in the fog I saw a ship
It headed this way
Comin’ out the foam
It must be my baby . . .
-1966, John Lee Hooker