Joe Bonamassa’s Keeping the Blues Alive Cruise At Sea VI set sail from Miami this past Tuesday as young guitarists Ally Venable and Brandon “Taz” Niederauer welcomed visitors aboard with strong blues-based sets. The music continued from those mid-afternoon performances until the wee hours. It’s all a little overwhelming for a first-time music cruiser logging thousands of miles of steps and dozens of flights of stairs zipping from one stage to another on the Norwegian Pearl.

** Day One ** 

In the Spinnaker Lounge atop the ship’s bow, Cedric Burnside–who is guitarist RL Burnside’s grandson, making him Mississippi Hill country royalty–played a driving, mesmerizing set that combined solo acoustic blues and electrified duo stomps, while accompanied by a drummer. Burnside has a magnetic charisma and true blues feeling in everything he does.

Downstairs on the Atrium stage, the sultry British duo Ida Mae was also making a little bit of instrumentation go a long way. Equipped with just distorted a National Steel guitars, a simple looper, and their stomping feet, the husband/wife team of guitarist/singer Chris Turpin and singer/tambourinist Stephanie Jean create a hauntingly full sound. Additionally, they get a bonus point for leading me to type the word “tambourinist” for the first time in decades of music writing!

Another unique discovery for me was that of Robert Jon and the Wreck a band which hails from Orange County, CA but sounds more like a group from Georgia or Florida. The group proudly wore their Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd influences on their sleeves and showcased a charismatic frontman (Jon) who’s hot licks played on a red Gibson SG.

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Guitarist Tommy Emmanuel played a magnetic, engrossing solo acoustic show, as he displayed an easy mastery of the fretboard and a charming persona. Emmanuel plays like a quartet reside in his two hands–bass, drums, rhythm, and lead guitars–and his fine singing voice makes him a quintet rolled into one person. On a boat full of blazing electric leads, Emanuel’s acoustic wizardry was a welcome change of pace.

Later in the night in the Spinnaker Lounge atop the front of the boat, back to back sets by Chicago blues club veterans kept things humming The lefty Toronzo Cannon sang witty original songs about life and love and played crisp, often Hendrix-inspired licks on his paisley Strat. Young buck Christone “Kingfish” Ingram joined him for a blazing number, the first of many times I’d see him over the next few days.

Late night on the same stage featured a performance from Joanna Connor, who’s been holding down multiple nights a week at the stalwart Chicago club Kingston Mines for years. Connor brought some of that flavor to the high seas, and her excellent band steamrolled along, with Connor playing jazzy comp and stinging leads.

The last act I saw before stumbling into my cabin to collapse was one of the most memorable in Matt Andersen, who delivered solo acoustic, folk-tinged blues. A big man with a big voice, the Canadian sings from a place of extreme depth and deep personal conviction. It was a mesmerizing solo performance from a truly original artist.

** Day Two ** 

Living Colour might not qualify as a traditional blues band–as they readily admitted from the Pool Deck stage–but the late editions fit right in. “The blues is the root of it all,” singer Corey Glover said. There’s an undeniable power in the fact that the band is the same four guys who formed in New York in 1984 and pushed for broader recognition of black rock bands, through guitarist Vernon Reid’s leadership of Black Rock Coalition among other actions.

The band is a well-oiled machine. Bassist Doug Wimbish displayed some impressive slide chops, echoing the Mississippi Delta in an unexpected way. Other highlights included a cover of Cream‘s “Sunshine of Your Love” and Reid’s aggressive, Avant-tinged bursts of guitar fire, which stood out on a ship full of more similar artists.

Kingfish is one of the buzz artists of the cruise–and in blues in general right now–as the 21-year-old wunderkind whose self-titled debut album released on Alligator Records was nominated for a Grammy. His show in the Spinnaker Lounge had artists streaming up into a packed room, and he quickly showed that hype is well deserved, turning in a blistering 90-minute set that started in high gear and never really slowed down. He even called up 20-year-old Texas guitarist Ally Venable for a memorable sit-in.

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Later, backstage at the evening’s big event where Buddy Guy was up on the Pool Deck, the members of Living Colour one by one congratulated and encouraged a beaming Kingfish before posing for pictures. “That was dope,” he said to me. In front of us on stage, Guy played an excellent show, without much of the stop and start songs that he often leans too heavily on At 83, Guy is still a force of nature, absolutely magnetic on stage. It’s impossible to look away while he’s on stage. The set ended with Bonamassa and Kingfish joining him on stage, a figurative passing of the torch.

Guy was the first musician I interviewed way back in 1985, and at the time his story was one of woe. He was unsigned, had just lost his Checkerboard club, and was fairly bitter. These days he’s an elder statesman, taking the stage to a surging standing ovation, and a good chunk of the crowd wearing his trademark polka dots in salute.

The night closed down with a riveting set by Brandon “Taz” Niederauer. I met Taz when he was nine and have watched him and his career grow and develop over the years since. Maybe I’m biased, but Taz has developed into a mature artist while maintaining his youthful enthusiasm and harnessing his prodigious guitar abilities, while also now singing and fronting the group himself. His backing trio is locked in and Sympatico to Niederauer, and from the Jimi Hendrix song that opened the night to the Bobby Blue Bland via Col. Bruce Hampton “Yield Not to Temptation” performance that closed it, Taz’s time on stage made for a great set. Kingfish even came up for the last two songs and the two young guitarists were dynamic, joyful and riveting, exchanging wide smiles and burning licks.

Scroll down to check out the full gallery of photos from the first day of this year’s cruise, courtesy of photographer Will Byington. Stay tuned for more updates from aboard the Norwegian Pearl as Keeping the Blues Alive Cruise At Sea VI sails into the weekend.