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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
 
 

THE LEGENDARY BLUES CRUISE
Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean,
October 17th-24th 2009
Part One

Did I tell you that we’d been sailing, Serge? Not our usual navigating through God’s Hebridean playground, oh no. We spent a week in a floating nightclub on a Blues Cruise. And before you ask, despite the amount of booze that some of our fellow revellers managed to tuck away (enough, in a few cases, to send them to Davy Jones’ locker), I do mean Blues Cruise.

Blues Cruise
We heard about these things from some crazy Americans we met at a Ray Davies concert in London and decided that, like Rome, we had to do it, just in case. And we’re on board with the Old Folks who’ve driven down to join us from British Columbia, which reminds me: I wonder if they’ve managed to navigate their way back yet? The boat (think of it as a medium-sized four star hotel) was going to take us to Mexico. Or at least that was the plan, until Hurricane Rick, lurking menacingly to the South, intervened to prevent us sailing into the Gulf of California. So apart from a couple of hours at anchor in rough seas off Cabo San Lucas, and a few hours in Ensenada, we spent seven days steaming round in circles in the Pacific listening to some very good blues.
Blues from around midday ‘til… well, your reviewer and the Photographer pleaded jet-lag and hunkered down with a late-night glass of Cutty Sark (an appropriate choice from a limited selection in the Ship’s Stores) around midnight most nights. But I swear you could still hear music from our veranda at three in the morning, and I know the Old Folks were up regularly ‘til two and three. Twenty-three acts performing over two big stages (one in a luxurious nightclub, the second up on a sometimes windy deck) and two smaller bar venues, with a fifth bar devoted almost entirely to ‘Pro-am Jamarama’. Each of the acts got three stage slots, but some of the artists also performed with band members and friends in the bars deep into the night. ‘Special guest’ Debbie Davies, in addition to performing with Coco ‘Big Breakfast’ Montoya, seemed to be in every bar with her guitar (often singing with Australian Fiona Boyes) , as did Susan Tedeschi. But I’ll be honest and confess that it was impossible to keep up with everyone, so I’m afraid this is only a partial account, occasionally drawing upon the hazy recollection of the Old Folks.
Debbie Davies and Coco Montoya
Debbie Davies and Coco Montoya
You simply had to make some choices about who you really wanted to see, and at the top of my list was Mavis Staples and her band. She was unfortunate to take to the stage on the ‘after-dinner’ slot on Day Two, when the tentacles of Hurricane Rick were just reaching out to the boat. And ‘though she may have stumbled a little as the boat pitched and tossed (“Now I ain’t been doin’ no drinking, y’all”) she still turned in a fantastically powerful performance. So much so that we saw parts of both her other shows. The act might not change much, the stories and reminiscences may be the same, but they no lose no impact for that ; they are, after all, drawn from her own experience. She’s breathless and husky, shouting, barking and grunting as much as she sings, and cackles with a positively wicked laugh that she certainly didn’t learn in church. But go back and listen to some of the old Staples Singers material and you’ll pick her voice out straight away: it’s as distinctive now as it was then. The set was mostly drawn from ‘Down in Mississippi’, with some covers like ‘Respect’, ‘The Weight’, and some old Staples hits. Of course, if Ms Staples isn’t a big enough attraction then there’s her guitarist Rick Holstrom (who later in the week performed a stand-in set with his band as the other musicians began to tire). He’s a reverb-charged Fender artist of huge accomplishment, and his spare haunting accompaniments are perfect for Ms Staples' sometimes dark material. There’s more on the way: in conversation the positively charming Ms Staples revealed that a new album will be recorded early next year and a visit to London is on the cards, too. We’ll be there.
Mavus Stapple Rick Holstrom
Mavis Staples, Rick Holstrom
Former John Mayall guitarist Coco Montoya had opened proceedings as we sailed away from San Diego. He’s a rare upside-down left-handed player, but that didn’t seem to impair his very fluent playing. He had a tendency to veer towards crowd- pleasing rock rather than ‘pure’ blues; it seemed to please this crowd but didn’t necessarily benefit his performance. The same could be said for Michael Burks (whom we saw last year in Helena), a really powerful player who also probably crossed over once too often into rock-blues, rather than blues-rock. Hot-shot guitarist and fashionably unkempt Kenny Wayne Shepherd whom we saw more often in the dining room with his family than performing, seemed to have almost left the blues behind, with a vocalist, Noah Hunt, who sounded astonishingly like a young(ish) Paul Rodgers. Indeed, the overall sound that could have come from early 1970s British rock bands, being none the worse for that. Hardly surprising then that he’s a former participant in the Experience Hendrix tour, or that he tends to end his set with Voodoo Chile. Or for that matter, that he has his own ‘signature’ Stratocaster. In a slightly different vein was Tommy Castro, who also mixed great blues guitar playing with rock, but featured in addition a distinct soul sensibility and a clear fondness for the music of Steve Cropper and his colleagues back at 1960s Stax. This was helped by the presence of an accomplished brass section, some fine playing of the well-used Hammond B-3 that sat on both stages, and Castro’s great singing. For the record, his last set on the Pool Deck was very, very loud.
Michael Burks
Michael Burks, Tommy Castro and a tribute from the galley
Given that there was so much rock around, it was refreshing to get a couple of good doses of the very unreconstructed Roy Gaines. This well turned-out old-fashioned guitarist and bandleader delivered Texas Jump-style blues, closely modelled on T-Bone Walker, with whom he worked with over a number of years. But in addition to occasional stints as an actor in commercials, Gaines also played with a huge number of artists across the blues spectrum and into jazz, e.g. Bobby Bland, Coleman Hawkins , Ray Charles and the Jazz Crusaders; all this reflected in his guitar style.
Roy Gaines
Roy Gaines, Buckwheat Zydeco
Similarly unreconstructed was Buckwheat Zydeco, with his formulaic up-tempo Louisiana party music. He is a particular favourite of the Photographer for his version of George Perkins’ 1970 hit ‘Cryin’ in the streets’, which he recorded for the fabulous ‘Our New Orleans’ post-Katrina fundraising album. Produced by Ry Cooder, who also played guitar, and with Jim Keltner on drums and the late and lamented Jim Dickinson on piano, it’s the sort of ‘must-have’ track that might make you think that Mr Wheat isn’t quite as unreconstructed as you might think. And I should add Mr Wheat’s remarkable and energetic accordion playing was matched only for remarkableness by his coiffure, which left a trail of olfactory evidence everywhere he visited on the ship. - Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate)
Listen: Mavis Staples on MySpace
 

THE LEGENDARY BLUES CRUISE
Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean,
October 17th-24th 2009
Part Two

I’m not particularly keen on getting too close to performers; it seems to me there’s something quite important about keeping your distance.  I’m sure many musicians must feel the same about their audience.  It’s not about being aloof, it’s just that getting too close can compromise your judgement, and erode some of the essential magic that gives great artistes their ‘aura’.  But just try keeping your distance on a boat, especially after a few days.  You live with the performers – Mavis Staple’s cabin is just a few doors down from ours – and more importantly you eat with the performers. 

El Dia
El Dia de los Muertos, Blues Cruise-style
And believe me, if I learned one simple fact it’s that eating, next to the music (and the drinking), is about the most important activity on a cruise ship, both for cruisers and performers.  It’s possibly a value for money fixation, but there’s food being served somewhere from seven in the morning to three or four the following morning. And where there is food being served, there’s always someone to eat it.  Actually gorge is the word that springs to mind. It’s hardly surprising that the charming Indonesian waiters are almost as crazy as their guests by the end of the week.  They on shift ‘till about four in the morning; breakfast service is at seven.   So it’s breakfast, lunch and dinner with the stars, and let me tell you that seeing some of them eat is the best way to destroy the magic at a stroke. Lest you‘re wondering I’m not just talking about Coco ‘Big Breakfast’ Montoya, or Dave ‘Two helpings’ Mason, or Michael ‘More Pancakes’ Burks.  Well, as they say, “what goes on the boat stays on the boat”, so my lips are largely sealed. 
You bump into people all over the place, when you’re not bumping into the boat of course..  The colourful and highly energetic Café R&B singer Roach Carruthers, and her husband and guitarist Byl, brought with them their charming son, whom we saw every morning as we took our daily constitutional.  I had a wonderful chat in the lift with Lonnie Brooks about the difficulty of adjusting to time zones (it turned out later that at that precise moment Mr Brooks Snr should have been talking at a workshop session about song writing). And naturally enough the Photographer, for whom the word ‘distance’ has no meaning, could barely restrain herself (or be restrained).  Has,Buckwheat Zydeco yet recovered from the embrace (or was it an assault?) that he received from his No 1 Fan whilst trapped in the lift?  Cafe R&B
Cafe R&B
One morning we also spent a couple of deck lengths trailing Johnny Lee Schell, guitarist and singer with the Phantom Blues Band, whose idea of keeping fit involved strolling with a stogie. 
The Phantom Blues Band, as I’m sure you’ll be aware, were formed in 1993 as a studio band for the recording of Taj Mahal’s Dancin’ the Blues, since when they’ve recorded and toured extensively with Mr Mahal, as well as releasing their own material and supporting other artists.  Their first set out on the deck was very accomplished – this is a band to die for – but they lacked the presence and charisma of a strong front man.  
Dave Mason
Dave Mason with Phantom Blues Band
So that’s why we bobbed and bounced around in the bay off Cabo San Lucas, uncomfortably close to Hurricane Rick, while we waited for former Traffic co-founder Dave Mason, to join the boat. Mason of course walked out on Traffic (or was he fired?) after the release of their second album, and although he’s had a moderately successful up and down on-off career in the United States (he’s even a partner in a guitar-making business) he’s more or less history back in the UK, merely a curiosity, with a bit of a reputation for being ‘difficult’. 
And, as we all agreed, an odd pairing with the Phantom Blues Band for a Blues Cruise, and sadly not a great success.  There was some surprising heckling for such a convivial occasion during Mason’s first set with the band from audience members impatient for Mason to join them on stage (you may remember that in the past he was infamous for not showing up at gigs); he ended up playing for about a third of the set and it wasn’t too impressive.  As Schell told a fellow deck-walker, “Dave was like a fish out of water last night and didn’t really know what he was doing, but he’ll settle down after a couple of days”.  Well frankly he didn’t seem to, although he certainly did enjoy his breakfast.
Lonnie Brooks
Lonnie Brooks
A more inspired and successful combination was the Brooks family band, featuring brothers Ronnie and Wayne Baker Brooks, and pater familias Lonnie Brooks, aka  Guitar Junior, aka Lee Brooks.  With their band the Brooks entourage charmed audiences over the week in their three sets and frequent guest slots with other artists.  In addition, under the watchful eye of producer, journalist and musicologist Dick Sherman they participated in one of the highlights of the Cruise, an extended workshop on the Chicago Blues. Lonnie Brooks was born in Louisiana and, as he explained, was making a good living as a guitarist (Guitar Junior) in Texas before meeting up with Sam Cook, who took him to Chicago in 1960.  There he encountered another and well-established Guitar Junior, and as a consequence changed his name to Lonnie Brooks.  He’s semi-retired, but still managed most of his trademark licks on his hugely over-amplified Gibson SG, his deep voice strong and resonant.  Even with such a youthful and polished band, his style harked back to the less sophisticated heyday of the Chicago sound, with some welcome rough edges to his playing that were noticeably missing elsewhere. 
Ronnie Brooks
Ronnie Baker Brooks
Ronnie Baker Brooks was a guitar prodigy but turned away from the instrument for a time as a teenager (“I broke my daddy’s heart”), conscious that his peers at college viewed blues music as something of an anachronism, and seriously lacking in cool credentials.  This subject, the retreat from the blues by those communities who created it, was a constant source of reflection in the Chicago Blues workshop.  Had anyone bothered to look around the boat, the sorry conclusion would have to have been that the Blues had been colonized by late-middle-aged middle class whites, many of whom no doubt saw it as a refuge of relative safety in the face of House, Hip-hop, New Wave, Garage, modern R&B et.al. To their credit, both Ronnie and brother Wayne, have positioned themselves as evangelists for the blues in all communities. 
The laconic Wayne Baker Brooks, author of the best-selling Blues for Dummies (he told a very funny story about the difficulty he had in getting his father’s endorsement for the book) opened the family set with a high-energy take on the traditional format, revealing himself as both an accomplished vocalist and lead guitarist. 
Jellybean Johnson
Jellybean Johnson
His album Mystery has been, as he reminded us on more than one occasion, highly acclaimed.  It’s no coincidence that on Ronnie Baker Brooks’ new album Torch, the lead track, featuring veterans Jimmy Johnson, Eddie Clearwater and Willie Kent (in addition to dad Lonnie)  is ‘The torch of the blues’.  Ronnie explained how the blues had lost its foothold in those traditional Chicago communities that had welcomed migrants from the South before and after the Second World War.  But clearly as you can hear on his record, he hasn’t given up the fight by a long way.  The album, incidentally, was produced by Jellybean Johnson, who joined Brooks  for ‘Love me baby’, to play a simply soaring and note perfect Hendrix-inspired solo that nearly upstaged Ronnie’s fluid and fluent contemporary take on Chicago blues soloing.  
Brroks Bros
The Brooks Brothers Band
Joining the Brooks on stage for the seminar was Elvin Bishop, who as it turned out was one of the real stars of the whole Cruise.  Bishop turned up in Chicago in 1959, a country boy from heavily segregated Okalahoma, who was staggered by the warmth and welcome of the City’s blues community (he was in Chicago to study Physics at University but why let that spoil the story).  As he explained, there were so many blues clubs in Chicago at the time that anyone with a guitar who knew a few tunes was likely to get a seat in a gig.  Bishop found a mentor in guitarist Little Smokey Smothers, and played with artists such as Hound Dog Taylor and Junior Wells, before forming a band with a young man whom he had met shortly after his arrival in the city; the rest as they say, as far as the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was concerned, is history. 
Bishop, his distinctive style of slide guitar well established, left Butterfield in 1968 and commenced on a solo career that saw him develop a distinctive form of high-energy country-blues R&B.  He scored a top-ten hit with ‘Fooled around and fell in love’, and after years of touring gave up a long-standing love affair with the bottle in the 1990s.  “My band’s been sick, my wife’s been sick, almost everyone’s been sick, but  this up and down, rolling round thing just reminds me of when I was drinking, except it ain’t costing me a dime”.  His three irresistible shows were delivered with an unfailing, if not slightly crazed enthusiasm, shared by his band which featured  Steve Willis on keyboards, Bobby Cochran on drums and vocals (his sweet soul voice a useful foil to Bishop’s cracked country tones) and Ed Earley, whose trombone was a perfect accompaniment to Bishop’s slide guitar in some very slick arrangements.  Elvin Bishop
Ed Earley and Elvin Bishop
Buy Bishop’s 2007 Booty Bumpin’ live album and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what the band sounds like live.  Buy his 2008 The Blues Rolls On to be reminded that he is still a very serious and highly-regarded blues musician – but you could see that just from the affection with which he was regarded by the Baker-Brooks clan.  He also, in perhaps the most surreal moment of a pretty surreal week, gave a cookery demonstration (pork chops and stewed okra) along with Cochran (oatmeal pecan cookies), but that’s another story. Elvin Bishop

Postscript
Twelve hundred blues musicians and fans on board a cruise ship, storm-bound  in the Pacific for a week, can give you a pretty myopic view of the degree of enthusiasm (misguided or otherwise) that currently exists for the blues.  So we were brought back to terra-firma with a bump a few days later when we joined twenty-odd enthusiasts in San Francisco’s world famous Biscuit and Blues club to see local boy David Landon and his band, with guest artist Chris Cain.  Although half the audience proved to be an office party noisily slurping  jugs of tequila and scoffing chicken wings, who left after the first set,  two real fans had flown from Chicago especially to hear Landon play.  There were also a few familiar faces in the joint: Landon’s bass player Steve Evans works with Elvin Bishop, and drummer Randy Hayes with Coco Montoya.  Landon was certainly very accomplished, although a charisma-free on-stage persona didn’t help his cause, especially when Cain was somewhat larger than life (well, certainly larger than his straining bib and braces).  Their techniques contrasted starkly; Landon somewhat restrained, prudent and economic with his solos, whilst Cain was profligate in the extreme, with a “why play four notes when you could play ten?” approach to everything he did.  But Landon produced one instant of sheer brilliance during the night when he held  a note on his Gibson Es, using all the sustain it would give him, for longer than I ever heard before (and that includes listening to the King of Sustain, Buddy Guy).  So one memorable moment which made up for a lamentably tiny audience, sadly so familiar to a British blues enthusiast. - Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate)

Listen: Wayne Baker Brooks on MySpace Elvin Boshop on MySpace




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