Why the blues?
Why are my wife Patricia and I drawn to music found at the bottom of a shot glass, the music of the scorned and shattered? Why do we end so many of our nights sipping something bitter while we listen to John Lee Hooker’s soulful riffs, Koko Taylor’s growl, or B.B. King’s singing guitar?
It’s because blues musicians turn misery into music. They warn us what the world can do and steel us against us. They preach that even in the darkest of days, light exists — and that the purpose of life is to live it. As B.B. King once put it, “the blues is pain, but it’s pain that brings joy.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Patricia and I always knew a blues cruise — the sun, the sea, and the live music we love playing nearly 24 hours a day — would be our ideal vacation. But in the 17 years we’ve been together, the cruise dates always conflicted with our work schedules and child-rearing responsibilities. Until now.
On October 24, we boarded the Westerdam in Fort Lauderdale for 7 glorious days as part of the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise. Allow me to share a few of the highlights with you.
One of the greatest joys a music lover can have is discovering brilliant young musicians you never knew existed. Aboard the Westerdam, that happened several times.
We were astonished by Shun Ng, a 25-year-old Singapore-born, Boston-bred singer and guitar prodigy who’s been touring with Magic Dick, the blues harmonica player who first gained fame in the 1960s with the J. Geiles Band. Shun is a brilliant, remarkably original guitarist. And his voice, as Magic Dick aptly puts it, is half-way between Michael Jackson and James Brown.
Yeah, I know. It’s hard to believe that. So check it out here for yourself.
It was also the first time we got to hear Jonathon Boogie Long, a young Louisiana bluesman who knocked us out with both his singing and his virtuosity on the electric guitar. Check out an example of his work here.
It was great to see the great Buddy Guy live again, although we’d seen him this summer at the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank, NJ. We never miss a chance to see Buddy, our greatest living bluesman. If for some reason you aren’t familiar with Buddy, check him out here.
And we were honored to hear the elegant Allen Toussaint sing and play the piano just ten days before he died suddenly while on tour in Spain. Check him out here as he sings one of his finest compositions, “Southern Nights,” just as he did for us aboard ship.
One of the perks of a blues cruise is that you get to rub elbows with the musicians, who hang out by the pool and in the ship’s bars and restaurants between performances.
We had the chance to renew our acquaintance with Tommy Castro, who remembered us from the days when we brought our child, Mikaila, to see his live performances in small blues clubs in New York and Chicago starting when she was just six years old. Tommy asked how she was doing, so I showed him a photo of the beautiful woman she has become. Some Tommy for you right here.
I had a great 90 minute conversation about music, books, and growing up in Massachusetts (which we both did) with Magic Dick. We also talked about the brilliance of his new collaborator, Shun Ng.
I also discussed both music and books with Rick Estrin, the singer and harmonic player who fronts The Nightcats. When Estrin learned that I write crime novels, he raved about how much he loves Elmore Leonard’s writing, asked for my card, and promised to pick up my books. Here’s a bit of Rick Estrin for you.
The first time Patricia and I saw Quinn Sullivan perform, he took the stage with Buddy Guy at B.B. King’s club in Manhattan when he was just eight years old. Turns out, he first picked up a guitar when he was three. He was still a little boy when he showed up with his guitar at a Buddy Guy concert, and Buddy invited him onto the stage to show what he could do. Impressed, Buddy took the boy under his wing.
Now, at age 16, his singing voice has matured and his guitar playing is so good that he, along with Ng, Boogie Long and Ronnie Baker Brooks, make Patricia and I feel good about what the future holds for the blues. On shipboard, Quinn performed solo and also took the stage with both Buddy and Brooks. Here’s Quinn performing with Buddy a couple of years ago. And you can get a taste of Ronnie Baker Brooks here.
I could go on and on about the other fine musicians on board: about Tab Benoit, Mitch Woods, Irma Thomas, Terrence Simien, Darrell Nulisch, Theodis Ealey, Keith Crossan, Vasti Jackson, Kenny Neal (when we stopped off for a few hours in New Orleans), and many more.
But for me, the highlight of the trip was watching my wife Patricia Smith, one of our greatest living poets, perform a sexy piece about
a sax player with Crossan as her accompanist. At first, Crossan, who had just met Patricia and had never heard the piece, was hesitant, blowing just a few notes. But soon, he caught her rhythm, turning the moment into a conversation between poet and sax player.
Did they bring the house down? Do you really have to ask?
Will we go on a blues cruise again? You bet. We’ve already booked one for next fall.
Meanwhile, we can enjoy the memories with the many photos we took on the trip. Here are a few more.