Sandy Beaches Cruise V – M/S Leeward (Caribbean Sea)
I’ll hand it to Delbert McClinton, the man knows how to throw a party.
When I saw an ad last summer in No Depression [#16, July-Aug. ’98] for Delbert McClinton’s Sandy Beaches Cruise, and it listed a musical lineup that included Joe Ely, Asleep At The Wheel, Al Anderson, Mike Henderson, Robert Earl Keen, Marcia Ball and even Steve Earle, I thought it had to be a joke. What the hell would Steve Earle be doing on a cruise ship? I looked into it further and learned that in its fifth year, Delbert and friends averaged a 70 percent return rate for previous cruisers, and that the 1999 cruise was already 85 percent sold out, over six months in advance. Clearly it was no joke, and with some trepidation, my wife and I signed on.
The ship, the M/S Leeward, held 950 passengers and had two stages: an outdoor poolside stage, Coconut Willie’s, and an intimate inside room, the Stardust Lounge. Most groups were scheduled to give one show at each of the venues; daily show times were at 1:30 and 4 p.m. poolside, with nightly shows at 9 and 11 p.m. concurrent on both stages. Which meant on the very first night one had to choose between Joe Ely and Al Anderson, and three nights later between Ely and Asleep At The Wheel.
Ely kicked things off on Friday night with an apt “All Just To Get To You”, closing 90 minutes later with a tribute to fellow Lubbock native Buddy Holly, “Oh Boy”, before encoring with “Cool Rockin’ Loretta”. The set was highlighted by the interplay between stellar blues guitarist Jesse Taylor and flamenco guitarist Teye, and was a most satisfying beginning to what would prove to be an unforgettable week of great music.
Saturday afternoon sets were by Gary Nicholson and Asleep At The Wheel. Nicholson, whose set contained mostly self-penned Memphis soul music, was joined at various times by Jonell Mosser, Tracy Nelson, Becca Bramlett and Al Anderson. When Mosser and Tracy Nelson joined forces for a down and dirty rendition of “Living The Blues Tonite”, a sunny afternoon in the Caribbean suddenly felt like midnight in a smoky blues club. The music was that transforming.
Over the next week, the music continued to transform. Marcia Ball turned in three of the most polished and professional sets of the week with her brand of Louisiana and Texas R&B. With her right leg crossed over her left, swinging constantly, she attacked the keyboards like a woman possessed and took listeners straight to New Orleans in rollickers such as “Iko Iko”. In addition to her own sets, Ball led a revolving cast of eight keyboard players on six Roland and Yamaha pianos lined up side by side during Wednesday night’s “Piano-Rama” for a classic boogie-woogie cutting contest. Much as it was tempting to step outside and catch a bit of Monte Montgomery’s poolside set, no one left the Stardust Lounge during the two-hour keyboard festival.
Artistically, the highlights of the week were two sets by Steve Earle & the Dukes, who hadn’t played together in four months prior to the cruise. Earle had a relatively small following on board, but his fans were clearly the most fervent, and the opportunity to witness the Dukes’ incendiary live show twice in a week in such small settings was an unforgettable privilege. Although the two nights’ set lists varied considerably — the second night included a three-song solo acoustic foray — Earle & the Dukes closed both sets with the one-two punch of “NYC” and “Untamed” before encoring with “Wild Thing” and “Guitar Town”. It was hard to imagine that the high seas had ever heard the likes of Steve Earle wafting in the breeze.
Whether it was the presence of very ardent fans from all over the world, or whether it was because so many family members and musical peers were on board, no set during the week was less than inspired.
Robert Earl Keen entertained with a mix of older songs from his repertoire (“The Road Goes On Forever”, “The Little Things”, “Five Pound Bass”) as well as material from his new album Walking Distance.
Asleep At The Wheel declared the ship “annexed by Texas” and played a spectrum of songs that ranged from the jazzy “Jumpin At The Woodside” to the roadabilly anthem “Miles And Miles Of Texas” to a down-and-dirty “Milkcow Blues Boogie” to the crowd favorite “Hot Rod Lincoln”.
Mike Henderson & the Bluebloods stood out with their brand of blues-rock, introducing songs off their new release Thicker Than Water, and were joined each set by Tracy Nelson, with whom they’d previously recorded. Al Anderson & the Burn Unit, assisted at various times by McClinton, Mosser and Wayne Toups, rocked the crowd with the favorites “Get Rhythm” and “Poor Me, Poor Me, Pour Me Another”.
Another real treat for me was the discovery of artists with whom I was previously unfamiliar. Bluesy, soulful sets by Jimmy Hall, Lloyd Jones, Monte Montgomery and Gary Nicholson were a revelation, each group seemingly vying for the title of World’s Greatest Bar Band. In addition, virtually all the artists were accessible on a social basis for the duration of the cruise. One could see great music at night, and be able to compliment the musicians the next day. I’ve regaled friends with stories of trading cigars with members of Asleep At The Wheel; having casual conversations with Earle, Ely, Anderson, Nelson, and on and on; and seeing the artists offstage with wives and family members, snorkeling and playing with dolphins at one of the three ports of call (Grand Cayman, Roatan Honduras, and Cozumel).
Although my musical expectations were high prior to the cruise given the caliber of artists scheduled to appear, they were exceeded by the quality of music delivered throughout the week. At one point during Lloyd Jones’ poolside set on the last afternoon of the cruise, he was joined for a rousing version of “Cruisin’ For A Bluesin'” by Ely, Ball, Anderson, McClinton, Hall, Nicholson, Mosser and Stephen Bruton.
As a guitarist whose name I didn’t catch played yet another in a long line of great solos heard over the week, I turned to the woman next to me and said, facetiously, “Yawn, another great blues-rock guitar solo”. She answered, looking up at the stage, “Yeah, what are you going to do to impress me?” It was that kind of a week — music so good and so constant that you never took the smile off of your face.