Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Festive Living at Sea - Sandy Beaches 21

Festive Living at Sea

Just returned from  the 21st annual Sandy Beaches Cruise  on the Norwegian Pearl with Delbert McClinton and Friends,  courtesy of WMVY radio and Sixthman Tours!  This was my first Sandy Beaches and first cruise ever so I felt it was time to fire up the old blog again to record some of my impressions.

Most of my vacations are centered around music festivals,  like New  Orleans Jazz Fest, Grey Fox and Rhythm and Roots.  I've never even wanted to go on a cruise unless it was one of these music themed ones so when I won the cruise from WMVY radio as part of their December fundraising drive I was so excited I could hardly wait!   I only had a few weeks to make the plans and had to make my own travel arrangement so it wasn't totally free but still it was a great experience.   A music festival on a cruise ship is like the perfect vacation, especially when it features some of the finest musicians around, many of whom  are unfamiliar  to most people, unfortunately.

There were some I was already familiar with and excited to see again, such as Delbert, Marcia Ball, The Mavericks, Lyle Lovett, Paul Thorn, and Fred Eaglesmith.  But there were so many more that I didn't know before but am now a fan of, like Teresa James, Red Young,  Mingo Fishtrap, the McCrary Sisters,and many more.  The best part was everyone on the cruise was all there for the duration (except Lyle Lovett who had to leave us on Antigua for a gig in Dallas)  so everyone was relaxed and happy and ready to jam!  

I've heard from some of the regulars that the Sandy Beaches cruise had its origin on a blues cruise that Delbert had played on a few times,  then was not invited back the following year,  so he started his own cruise  and invited some of his musician friends to join him.   They had so much fun they decided to do it again and again, so it became an annual event.  Most acts on this cruise played multiple 90 minute sets,  and many of the artists sat in with each other  so you had the opportunity to experience them in a lot of different settings.  Because it was organized by musicians for musicians*,  it is not so much about fame than about quality.  As someone told me, it's music "too good for radio". Some of these artists ARE on the radio (especially stations like WMVY) but alot of them are not household names to most folks.

*for the past 2 years the cruise was run by Sixthman promotions company, but next year Delbert and his family will resume the management of the cruise.

Family of Friends

Like other festivals,  many of the same people return year after year and catch up with friends, so it feels like a reunion. The first few folks we ran into on the ship were friends we know from Jazz Fest, one a first-timer. and another couple who had been on SBC 10 times before  so they introduced us to some of the other cruisers old and new  - everyone was so friendly and welcoming, they made you feel right at home even  as a first timer.  

Freedom to choose 

Everyone in your party can do whatever they want whenever... even though the ship is huge you can't really get lost - sooner or later you'll end up in the same place,  You could pay extra for internet service or text message but we didn't feel it was necessary.  You can leave notes for each other in the cabin or use the ship phone.  It was really nice to be unplugged from the outside world and just living in the moment for most of the week.   The seas were a little rough at first and it was windy, so the shows that were supposed to be held outside the first night were moved inside to the Stardust theater, but the schedule changes were seamless and everything worked out fine.  On the first night,  we saw Marcia Ball, Wayne Toups and Delbert McClinton. The first weekend coincided with NFL Playoffs so my husband Joe was occupied with watching football on Sunday while I enjoyed the music in the Atrium by Mingo Fishtrap and the McCrary Sisters..  The boat was mostly full of Dallas fans so it didn't go so well for them but everyone had a great time watching the games together in one of the bars.  Even if they had to pay over $30 for a a bucket of 6 beers!

Musical Highlights  

Paul Thorn - I had only seen him once before, with his band at the Narrows Festival in Fall River MA last year.  On the cruise I got to see him do 3 completely different shows.  First was a "fan event" at 11 am on Monday, what they call a  workshop at other festivals, where he told stories and sang a few songs. He took questions from the audience and was very funny. Paul is from Tupelo, MS  and speaks with an unmistakable twang, which adds to the story-telling.  I learned that he used to be  a prize fighter and does his own album cover art.  Later that night was a solo acoustic set in the Stardust Theater, where he did some different, and some of the same songs, with completely different stories leading into them, just as funny.  Then another night, when we were finally able to have a show out on the pool deck, he did a  show with his band, that rocked!  By now I was singing along with most of the songs as if I'd heard them my whole life. I would love to see Paul Thorn again at one of  our local fests like Rhythm and Roots.

Red Young - where has he been all  my life? After hearing rave reviews of his Sunday night set, we decided to check out Red Young in the Spinnaker lounge at the very front of the ship on Monday night.  It is a classy round room with a wooden dance floor and fabulous sound system, probably used for disco on most other cruises.  Red had assembled a pickup band of himself on keyboards, a 4-5 piece horn section including the incredible Dana Robbins on sax  and some of the guys from Mingo Fishtrap. (2 more names I'd never heard before but by the end of the cruise became a fan)   The band did mostly jazz and swing standards and were so incredibly tight!    Some people danced,  a few thought they were on "Dancing with the Stars"....and we gave it a go but the ship was rocking up there and I had a hard time keeping my balance!  I think he played shows in the Spinnaker nightly. The next morning I ran into him at breakfast and found out he has been touring with Eric Burdon and the Animals, and has played with just about everyone! He actually has been in our area before, but I had just not come across him, surprising since he has played with some of the  members of RI based Roomful of Blues.   He also hosted late night jams in the Bliss Lounge  on the ship, where he would play piano and be joined by anyone from Raul Malo to Teresa James to Delbert himself.    I think he has been on almost all (if not all 21) cruises with Delbert, whom he has known since 1965.  Red played B3 organ during Marcia Ball's set, and sat in with a lot of other bands too, and every time I saw him he was smiling!

Lyle Lovett - We missed his first show on Sunday after  a late dinner,  but on Monday he did a Q&A in the Stardust theater.   He also took questions from the audience but had his whole band with him and told stories about the songs before playing them.  Joe caught the whole show and I caught the last 20 minutes of it after the Paul Thorn event.  When I walked in they were doing Friend of the Devil. He was very engaging and funny, with his self deprecating humor.  Another couple who had also won the cruise from WMVY had the brilliant idea of asking to get our picture taken with him, and he not only obliged us with a photo op but we talked to him for a few minutes.  Later that night we saw the full show in the Stardust theater which holds maybe 1000?.  I have seen Lyle before but not in such an intimate setting... I forgot how good he really is, such a great song writer,  He didn't have the large band but a medium sized  one that included bass, drums,  keyboard, fiddle, and a guitar player who could pass for Matthew McConnahey

Marcia Ball/ Pianorama - I have been a fan of Marcia ball for more than 20 years since the first time  I saw her play the boogie woogie piano at the Ocean Mist in Matunuck, RI on a Monday night, and even though I have seen her so many times, she never disappoints. She was one of my favorites at Jazz fest last year and one of the reasons I was so excited to be going on the Sandy Beaches Cruise! She kicked things off with  an excellent rocking set the first night, and I was able to get down front and dance for most of it.  On Thursday afternoon at 2 pm she hosted an event called  Pianorama, modelled after the WWOZ piano night that happens during Jazz Fest, where she and every other piano or keyboard player  gets on stage together, at least 5-6 keyboards at once, where they all take turns leading a song or two while the other jam along. This was even better than WWOZ piano night because  Instead of a full band they used  only a drummer as accompaniment and it was compressed into 90 minutes instead of 5-6 hours.  She was joined on stage by Red Young, Teresa James,  and at least 7 others - I don't  remember all of the names but I know one was the 14(?) year old son of Delbert's keyboard player, and  he also played drums! The whole thing ended up with a finale where all 10 or so of them played together on the 5 pianos. It was definitely worth missing a couple hours of sunshine to be inside that theater.

Then on the last night Marcia played again, it was a mostly upbeat set that included many old favorites.  She opened  with "New Orleans is a Party Town" and a few other older songs, with the Mingo Fishtrap horn section joining he new sax player. She also played some songs from the excellent new album, the Tattooed Lady and Alligator man and ended up with "Play with your Poodle".  Once again we were dancing right down front for a good portion of the show.  We made a request on a piece of paper and although she didn't play it she hooked us up with a pair of tattoo sleeves after the show.

Teresa James - another one that made me think, where you been all my life??? This west coast piano player originally from Houston is also a song writer and band leader like Marcia, but different style, more R&B less New Orleans style.  She has a very powerful singing voice and enhanced her band with  lots of special guests including the ubiquitous Red Young and some horns and Marcia Ball got up to sing with her, along with some other special guests.  The highlight of that set was at the end where she asked all the women singers to join her onstage for a reggae-infused version of Janis Joplin's "Piece of my Heartt" , The guests included McCrary sisters and Kree Harrison of American Idol fame.  I caught a little on my camera video but the sound is terrible.  I hope a better video of this surfaces from Jay Curlee, the official Sandy Beaches videographer!

Mingo Fishtap - so who is this Mingo Fishtrap anyway?  I have  mentioned them a few times, as the horn players who kept popping up to join others....They are a  funk and soul band from Texas who can really get a groove going!  I got to see them once in the indoor Atrium and once outside by the pool. I was surprised and impressed to hear them do a cover of Peter Gabriel's Sledgehammer.

McCrary Sisters - a gospel group from Nashville, 4 sisters  reminiscent of the Staple Singers, they do a lot of good strong vocal harmonies and tambourine shaking that really made you want to get up and give thanks and praise!  They did some songs about sunshine and some songs about happiness, such a joyful sound! It says on the  SBC website that they are the daughters of one of the late Rev. Samuel McCrary, of the Fairfield Four. They were joined on stage by some young players from Nashville, one of whom was a violin player. I met his mom the first day.

Delbert McClinton of course, our host for the cruise,  played at least three times during the week. I saw him the first night in the theater, one afternoon outside while I was swimming in the pool, and  final set on Friday that included a non-stop parade of special guests.

Mavericks  - One of the few bands we got to see outdoors by pool, at night and it was a really fun show!  

We saw the AJ Ghent Band outside by the pool and in a late night jam plus  Fred Eaglesmith and Big Joe Maher and probably a few more I'm forgetting. So much good music over the seven days....., and we also got to dance to Wayne Toups a few times!

Late Night Jams

After the shows in the theater there were 2 Open Jams on the schedule.   I had brought my small red accordion, thinking it would be like Rhythm and Roots or Grey Fox, but it was more like an open mike, where you had to put your name on a list and  wait for them to call you up, where you could sing or play with a "house" band  that kept changing.   I thought about doing something but it was too stressful.   As one friend  pointed out, "hey you're not getting paid!".   I enjoyed it much more after I decided to just hang back and listen and dance with everyone else.  I have plenty of other opportunities to jam at my local festivals.   There was a steady stream of keyboard players, guitarists, sax, horn players, singers, most of whom were pros... this went on until 3-4  am every night. A few of the amateurs were folks who obviously were comfortable performing in front of an audience... but one of them was a spirited spoon player wearing a New England Patriots shirt, who  turned out to be an old friend  from RI I hadn't seen in about 10 years after she moved from RI to NC. 

The other open jam was the aforementioned Bliss Lounge jam hosted by Red Young.  Much more mellow atmosphere than the other one,  furnished with beautiful plush velvet sofas  and chaise lounges. You could fall asleep in there and be in heaven.

Ports of Call

So all the non-music people I came across leading up to the cruise, and even afterwards wanted to know "where are you going on this cruise"???  and some found it strange that we only stopped at 2 ports on a 7-day cruise. But this cruise is all about the music and the fellowship.  Honestly they could have just gone out a few miles and dropped anchor and it would have been fine.  But we got to stop at Antigua and St. Croix.   We ended up docking at a container port in Antigua, which is  known for the beaches so we just took an excursion to one of them that included unlimited rum punch.  That was fun.  In St. Croix we teamed up with another couple who had arranged for a car rental and we got to see a lot more of the island, including the old fort at Chirstiansted.  We ended up at Rainbow beach bar where there was a live band playing, and  the Mavericks were hanging out there doing a photo shoot, and we got to talk to them and take some pictures....  and that reminds me I forgot to mention them in my musical highlights above! Just added.

Sandy Beaches was a fantastic time with all the fun of an outdoor festival with none of the stress of worrying about weather or anything else really, no portapotties, excellent food and friendly people everywhere, and the added bonus of being in the Caribbean in January.   I hope to be able to do it again!

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