Joe Bonamassa’s Keeping the Blues Alive Cruise At Sea VI returned to land on Saturday after spending almost a week out at sea aboard the Norwegian Pearl as fans were treated to performances during the nautical trip from Buddy Guy, Brandon “Taz” Niederauer, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, and more. Following the first two thrilling days at sea, the Keeping the Blues Alive Cruise continued into the weekend with sets from Tommy Emmanuel, Paul Shaffer, and more.
** Day Three **
Paul Thorn’s “Campfire Sessions” saw the Mississippi singer/songwriter share a stage with Tommy Emmanuel, Matt Andersen, and Mike Farris, as they held onto their acoustic guitars while a fake campfire billowed in front of them as they each went down the line swapping songs. All four musicians are excellent solo performers in their own right, and each with different strengths–Andersen’s deep, spiritual voice; Ferris’ gospel roots and preachers’ charisma; Thorn’s droll delivery and exquisite humor; and Emmanual’s blazing picking and sensitive songwriting. They finished the “Campfire Sessions” set by collaborating on Jimmie Rodgers’ “T for Texas” and swapping verses on the standard “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”. The performance made for a lovely interlude and a nice break from all the screaming guitars–many more of which were to come later that night during Bonamassa’s memorable Pool Deck set.
The cruise host ended the night with what he termed a “Cavalcade of Stars,” where a stream of guest guitarists came together to make for a very unusual and memorable show. First up was Emmanuel, who provided the rare opportunity to see the acoustic master play some electric guitar for once. Armed with a Fender Telecaster, he and Bonamassa tore into Delaney and Bonnie’s “Well”, culminating in an extended back and forth between the two guitarists. It was thrilling to hear Emmanuel play electric–on which he started his career–which he does completely differently than he does on the acoustic, complete with a rhythm-driven, R&B-based approach.
The two were joined next by Josh Smith–who’s earlier afternoon set was one of the cruise’s highlights–for an extended rip through Albert King’s “Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home”. Smith was one of the cruise’s great enjoyments for me, as he is nothing short of a fantastic, wide-ranging player whose work I have enjoyed on videos and recordings, but never live.
Watch Emmanuel, Bonamassa, and Smith tear through their collaborative Pool Deck cover of “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home” below.
Joe Bonamassa, Tommy Emmanuel, Josh Smith – “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home”
As Smith and Emmanuel departed the stage, they were replaced by Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, who seemed to be everywhere during the cruise, and Joanna Connor, a longtime Chicago club staple whom Bonamassa introduced by noting that he had just produced an upcoming album for her and hailed as “The best damn slide guitarist around today.” Mid-song they were joined by Paul Shaffer, who stood to Reese Wynans’ right and delivered a surging Hammond organ solo.
The last guests of the night were Jared James Nichols and Vernon Reid (Living Colour). The three guitarists led fans through a heavy take on Bonamassa’s breakthrough song, “Ballad of John Henry”.
Late night highlights included Mike Farris and the Fortunate Few and Paul Thorn playing back-to-back sets heavy on Southern storytelling and tight ensemble playing. Both of them are excellent performers, songwriters and bandleaders. Highly recommended.
** Day Four **
The last day of the cruise began with a great talk by… me. There’s no way to write about such a thing without a deep conflict of interest, but I came on this cruise to give a talk about Stevie Ray Vaughan with a focus on my book, Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan, and I did so in the Starlight Theater. I was joined by Emmanuel and Double Trouble keyboardist Reese Wynans, who is now a member of Bonamassa’s band. Together, we talked about striving for musical greatness, the role of a band, sobriety, and much more.
In the same theater immediately afterward, producer Kevin Shirley–a rock legend who has been intimately involved with Bonamassa’s recording and success over the past decade–gave a funny and quite interesting talk discussing the origins and recordings of some of Bonamassa’s most popular songs.
The day’s schedule was rearranged at the last minute when the Pool Deck stage was dismantled due to high winds and choppy weather forecast. That moved the evening’s two big shows inside to the Stardust Theater. Paul Shaffer’s “Super Session Jam” got split into two shows, featuring, among others, Connor, Thorn, Wynans, and Emmanuel, along with Matt Andersen, Living Colour bassist Doug Wimbish, and drummer Will Calhoun, Taz Niederauer, Toronzo Cannon, Bonamassa singers Juanita Tippins and Jade McRae, Mike Zito, and, of course, Bonamassa. It was a rollicking and very fun jam session, which felt appropriate given all the blues-oriented talent on the ship at once. As the night wore on, the ship was listing more and more, movement felt particularly keenly in the theater, which sat in the bow.
Watch the all-star collective perform a take on Albert King‘s “Born Under a Bad Sign” during Shaffer’s “Super Session Jam” below.
Paul Shaffer’s Super Session Jam – “Born Under a Bad Sign”
[Video: Rich Foster]
Following those sessions, Reese Wynans and Friends played the theater’s final shows which featured a house band of drummer Tom Hambridge (Buddy Guy), Josh Smith, and his bassist Travis Carlton (son of jazz guitarist Larry Carlton). Joined at various times by McRae, Hall, Bonamassa, Farris, and others, they played a set appropriately heavy on Stevie Ray Vaughan and closed out the cruise’s major shows in stellar fashion as the seas continued to remind us exactly where we were, tossing us left and right.
Not quite ready to turn in, I made my way on shaky legs up to the 13th floor to the only stage which felt the swaying sea more than the theater in the Spinnaker Lounge located at the very top front of the boat. There, Kingfish played a terrific set, despite battling seasickness that forced him to play in a chair. With his trio augmented by keyboardist Marty Sammon (Buddy Guy), Kingfish didn’t allow his unsteady legs to distract from a passionate performance. It was a great end to the cruise for me, and as I stumbled back into my room in the wee hours and was shocked to see the lights of Miami out my window. We were out of the storm and headed to port.
Scroll down to check out a small gallery of photos from the final two days of this year’s cruise, courtesy of photographer Will Byington.
Keeping The Blues Alive At Sea will set sail again next winter for the eighth edition of the annual cruise on March 8th-12th, 2020. Head to the event website to stay up to date on information leading up to next year’s event.