Keeping The Blues Alive at Sea IX – A Solo Traveler’s Experience

A floating blues rock music festival? Yes Please! Joe Bonamassa’s ninth sailing of the Keeping the Blues Alive at Sea cruise sailed from the port of Miami on March 18th. The event is in support of Joe’s Keeping the Blues Alive foundation geared towards keeping music curriculums in schools. Each sailing features a pair of performances by Bonamassa himself along with a lineup of musicians from all levels of notoriety.

This year’s lineup included Grace Potter, Black Country Communion, The Marshall Tucker Band, John Oates, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Jimmy Vivino, King King, Jackie Venson, Brandon “Taz” Niederauer, Robert Jon & The Wreck, Nikki Hill, Ron Artis II and The Truth, Jesse Roper, Daddy Long Legs, Jerron Paxton, Ghalia Volt, Jack Barksdale, Fortune Child, Dwayne Haggins, Memphissippi Sounds, and The Jake Walden Band. Along with artist performances, there were special collaboration sets, autograph sessions, and a session where guests could jam together. As the cruise progressed there was no telling who could walk on stage for a cameo.

The shows were held in any one of the five venues set up on the ship. Except for featured shows on the pool deck, multiple venues would be active at any given time. The four-day sailing included a port of call in Cozumel, Mexico on day three and a pair of days at sea filled with live music. Sea days started with a pair of acoustic morning sets in the Atrium at 9:30 and 10:45 before getting things fully underway across all venues. Final shows of the night kicked off anywhere between 11pm and midnight. With few exceptions, sets were limited to 75 minutes to keep everything on schedule. All shows were general admission seating/standing.

Boarding day had a couple of performances before a time out for the mandatory safety ‘briefing’ that all cruises require. As I boarded, I literally heard music to my ears. I checked the artist, Dwayne Haggins. Make a mental note to check out that one. A veteran of five previous cruises, the sail away show tends to set the bar for the rest of the cruise. It is the first featured show of the sailing and everyone, including all the artists, are on board getting amped up for what is to come over the next four days.

King King nailed it with a sweltering set. These two brothers from Scotland do not tour the States much, but they had a contingent come out from the UK for the cruise. They would become the biggest buzz of the boat. What followed is something that I have found to be a common occurrence on these cruises. You get a schedule for all four days when you board. It is formatted to fit into a lanyard pouch that is mailed to you a few weeks before sailing. My schedule said Marshall Tucker Band was playing at the theater. When I got there it was John Oates. Nothing against John. I did hang out for the first couple of songs and wasn’t feeling it. Check the handy schedule and off to see Jerron Paxton. Paxton is a blues time machine sitting on a stool in his overalls playing two different banjos (one is over 150 years old!), acoustic guitar, harmonica, piano, and bones (yes bones) you’re whisked back to the rural blues of the 1920’s and 1930’s and love it!

The featured show of the evening was Black Country Communion. A modern-day super group features Joe Bonamassa on guitar, Jason Bonham on drums, Derek Sherinian (Dream Theater) on keys and Rock n Roll Hall of Famer Glenn Hughes of Deep Purple and Black Sabbath fame on vocals and bass. To say the band leans heavy would be an understatement. They rocked a crowded deck of blues lovers and pulled the inner rock and roll child out of all of them. They played a couple of tracks from the upcoming album V, adding anticipation for its summer release. Robert Jon and the Wreck had a 10pm show in the theater and the day one crowd was still full of vigor. They were well rewarded with an excellent set. This is the band’s fifth cruise, and they are definitely comfortable in these venues. The evening closed out with Daddy Long Legs and an edgy old school New York R&B quartet featuring some solid rockabilly chops and wicked harmonica.

Robert Jon and the Wreck perform at Keeping the Blues Alive at Sea IX

As I mentioned, multiple shows, multiple venues at any given time. At this point, I had missed four artists performing at different venues, much like some land-based counterparts. However, all is not lost. Most artists perform three out of the four days at different venues. If your desire is to see as many artists as you can some careful planning and a little luck will be needed. I have seen different fan approaches to this. There are squatters who will find a spot for the entire day with little movement between venues. Squatters mostly appear on the pool deck. They have their spots for the featured shows and see whoever passes through otherwise. You just hope these people use plenty of sunblock. Rotaters move between venues. They dispatch an emissary early from one show to grab seats at another. All shows are general admission, but, if you see someone sitting solo, they are usually holding a spot for someone else. I fly solo, so rotating isn’t an option. Then there’s the groupies who follow one or two artists to whatever venue they’re playing. The King King contingent qualifies here. Premium spots require advance presence, usually about 20 minutes before a show. I have also split shows where I’ll see half of the show, which I secured a spot for, and then off to another around when the rotaters start moving. Whatever method deployed. Don’t stress, you’re going to hear great music!

Like kids at Christmas, the boat was up early for their presents on day two. Both acoustic shows were standing room only. It was the first acoustic show that I was introduced to Jack Barksdale. I sat in awe as I watched this 16-year-old navigate his acoustic set like a grizzled veteran. Keep an eye out for this one. I have a feeling the arc is high. He’s already received praise from American Songwriter, NPR, and Premier Guitar. It was then off to introduce myself to another name new to my ears. The Jake Walden Band. Holy smokes! The Stevie Ray Vaughan/ Warren Haynes influences just ooze out of the man. This Florida based jam band impressed the hell out of the folks that were there as many had left for the first of two autograph sessions held on the cruise. I completed the trifecta of new artist wins with Dwayne Haggins (from my mental note yesterday) whose cover of The Doors “Five to One” will be a lasting memory. Followed by another when soulful guitar master Ron Artis II had his 9-year-old daughter cameo vocals on “No Weight”. Equally impressive was Ghalia Volt, who I had seen a couple of years ago in her ‘one woman band’ days. She’s so much more impactful with a band behind her and the freedom to let loose and do some serious sliding.

The evening lineup was dominated by two shows. Grace Potter had the featured show of the evening on the pool deck and delivered a high energy sultry performance that the audience greedily devoured. The first special show took the late-night slot as Robert Jon and the Wreck along with cameos from a number of artists did a Tom Petty tribute set. The venue choice was questionable as the atrium was way too small for the throng that showed up for this one. Regardless this star-studded mostly sing-a-long affair through the hits of a legend had everyone walking away grinning like the Joker. Jesse Roper closed out the night with a midnight show, but my tired eyes and ears gave out.

Port of call day. Or ‘Halftime’ as I like to call it. Eardrums were given a break as folks went for shore excursions in Cozumel or chose to stay and relax on the boat (squatters). One of my favorite sights of these cruises is as the sail away shows take place on the pool deck, neighboring cruise ships in port begin to have folks gather on the rails of their upper decks to peer into the live music going on our boat. They certainly had a treat as Kim Wilson and his Fabulous Thunderbirds delivered a solid set mixed with old hits and new songs from their forthcoming album. From the swampy heat of the pool deck to the cool darkness of the theater, I was reminded just how many hits Marshall Tucker Band has had over the decades. In an oddity for these cruises, Marshall Tucker Band provided a scarcely heard sax and flute solos. This lineup certainly leaned shredder. Nostalgia filled the air as memories of days past were raised with their all too familiar tunes.

However, this would be Joe’s night. Questions about Bonamassa’s health had circulated as he had to cancel a show in Clearwater just before the cruise. He addressed the concerns during the Black Country Communion show, “reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated.” Yet Joe didn’t have to sing during that show as Glenn Hughes carried the vocals. By the end of a typical outstanding nearly 2-hour Bonamassa set, Bonamassa easily dispelled any doubts.

After Joe’s signature set came my favorite collaboration show, Campfire Stories. It first made its appearance on the fifth sailing of Keeping the Blues Alive at Sea and has been on every schedule since. Campfire stories is a group of artists gathered around a faux campfire in a Nashville type setting where one artist acts as an MC and they go around telling stories behind the songs they’re about to play. ‘Soul bearing’ was a term Alan Nimmo used. I’d have to agree. John Oates hosted this year’s version with Nikki Hill, Artis, and the Nimmo brothers from King King. Cheeks got wet on this one, especially with Alan Nimmo describing how his brother Stevie’s approach to being diagnosed with cancer inspired the popular “You Stopped the Rain.” This finale brought the house down and touched more than a few souls.

Emotionally staggered, I checked my handy schedule and saw that Jake Walden Band’s 11:15pm show was underway. To my astonishment, I walked into a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” and “Echoes”. Walden and his band already made a lasting impression when I saw them the previous day, but this was one of those ‘Wow’ moments. I looked around the crowd and saw many jaws agape as they joined me in disbelief of what I was hearing. Tremendous performance and exclamation point to another great day of music.

Day four. The finale. Over 20 shows and events spread over a little under 14 hours. There was a second autograph session. A whiskey tasting with Daddy Long Legs and a guest jam session where fans with instruments were provided a backline and could sign up and jam together. As the day started, I treated the crowded schedule as a blank canvas. I was in a rare position where I had already seen the majority of the artists in the lineup and could be whimsical with the day. I caught the second acoustic morning show with Memphissippi Sounds featuring Junior Kimbrough’s grandson Cameron Kimbrough and Damion “Yella P” Pearson on harmonica. Nothing like starting the day with some coffee and acoustic hill country blues! I then decided to split Dwayne Haggins and Ron Artis shows since they started 15 minutes apart. Both reinforced my earlier impressions of solid artistry. Ghalia Volt then provided one of the more entertaining shows as she left the stage to booty bump with a fan to “Shake That Money Maker” and took a shot to empty the glass she would use to slide her way through the following jam.

Late afternoon found me in the theater for Brandon “Taz” Niederauer. I had seen ‘Taz’ on a previous cruise when he was Jack Barksdale’s age. Now at the ripe old age of 21, Niederauer firmly cemented himself as the leader of the next generation of guitar virtuosos with a sizzling performance. Grace Potter followed with the first featured show of the day as she focused the set on her new album Mother Road and closed out with one of my favorites from the Nocturnals days “The Lion The Beast The Beat.” Following a necessary break to take care of disembarkation logistics for the next day, The second feature show of the day Jimmy Vivino’s All-Star Super Session took place on a very windy pool deck. Along with Bonamassa and fellow guitarist Josh Smith, Vivino deftly navigated multiple guest appearances as Barksdale, Walden, Nimmo brothers, Daddy Long Legs, Artis II, Volt, Kim Wilson, Henry James and Robert Jon from Robert Jon and the Wreck, and many others through a legendary jam session of blues and rock covers. The wind was ferocious that night, but not enough to quell the immense magnitude of talent that paraded across the stage.

Thankfully that would be the last show exposed to the elements for the evening. Moving indoors, I had to catch a second set of King King and was well rewarded. The UK had the second largest representation on the boat, outnumbering all but the US guests. King King had a lot to do with that and one could easily see why. With songs like “Rush Hour” and the introspective “When My Winter Comes,” the boys from Scotland displayed a range and showmanship that makes them a crowd favorite. Splitting late shows between Jackie Venson’s incredible guitar work and Nikki Hill’s high energy performance would place the cherry on top of the evening and close out an utterly amazing experience.

As the crowd grudgingly shuffled off the boat the next morning, I reflected on the withdrawal that takes place in the days following this event. Days where decision making revolves around which show is next and when can I squeeze in a bite to eat revert back to reality and a yearning for next year’s cruise. Keeping the Blues Alive at Sea X is already sold out for 2025. Sixthman who expertly oversees these charters aboard the Norwegian Pearl is doing a first available process for those who want to get into a queue as cabins become available leading up to the event. Sign Up!

For the tenth anniversary, Bonamassa, Sixthman, and team have added an extra day and port of call to the itinerary. The March 2025 sailing will stop in Harvest Caye, Belize and Costa Maya, Mexico. The initial lineup features Big Head Todd and the Monsters, Larkin Poe, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Samantha Fish, Eric Gales, Joanne Shaw Taylor, Eddie 9v, Jimmy Vivino, and many others yet to be announced. It promises to be a lifetime event and this blues lover’s heart can rest content knowing we’re booked. Ready for a trip to blues rock nirvana in ’25!

One thought on “Keeping The Blues Alive at Sea IX – A Solo Traveler’s Experience

  • King king never fail to deliver and are an asset to any lineup. But this cruise sounds as if older fans are not welcome. Calling people who cannot stand for hours at a time squatters is disgusting. Its not band time but the waiting times that are hard on ones feet. It sounds like entertaning spaces cannot cope with large numbers. Imagine booking to see your favourite band and cant get in. As to where it goes does anyone care. After seeing people hospitalised after eating ashore in mexico I certainly would not leave the ship. So this older muso will stay away.


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