Are there any readers of OffBeat who don’t love a music festival? (That’s a rhetorical question!).
Obviously, we’re all into the music festival experience, in fact, the Jazz Fest was probably the driving force behind the creation of OffBeat.
But a festival is more than just the music; it generates a community that regroups every year of the festival and often stays in touch after the event. They’re the music freaks that attend every year, spread the word to their friends, and those who are the hardcore supporters of the music.
Last week I experienced, for the first time, a full-fledged music cruise: a music festival on-board a ship, with not only great music, but comfort, to boot.
I’ve sailed on several cruises. They are relaxing ways to vacation with an all-in-one price that is relatively affordable when you consider that hotel, meals and recreation are included in one cruise price. Cruising truly forces you to relax, first by making you cut off access to the multiple channels of media that bombard us all daily: phone calls, mobile calls, social media, texting, email and the internet—unless you’re willing and able to pay exorbitant prices for internet access.
Cruises, though, have a downside. Cruisers are sometimes forced to do things that aren’t exactly of interest to everyone. For example, eating at strictly enforced times, “dressing up” for certain meal periods, being with people with whom you may not have anything in common. Every cruise has a casino (I’m not into it). And entertainment that’s not exactly what I’d prefer.
The 29th Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise (LRBC) was a revelation. It had none of the downsides: casual, everyone was into the music, the food was first-rate, and it was very comfortable.
It’s literally a festival on a ship. As festival freaks of a certain age are aware, a music festival, while soul-satisfying music-wise, can be an extremely exhausting experience. The LRBC was like going to a great music festival without the heat, without the schlepping from stage to stage, with no parking issues, fantastic sound, and great drinks and food (all you want, all the time). You don’t have to stand sardined in a crowd to hear and see great musicians. The musicians mingle with their fans during the cruise (it’s almost like having a backstage pass). Moreover, the musicians get a chance to relax, cruise, network with their peers, meet intense fans of their music, and actually even be exposed to new fans and possible future gigs. Very good vibes all around.
Cyril Neville and Swamp Funk performed several shows during LRBC 29, and when I asked him if he enjoyed it, he was big smiles: “Oh yeah, it was great,” he said. “We were treated so well, and I’m also coming home with a pocket full of business cards. I made so many great contacts and got to jam with some great people. I’d go anytime if they ask me back.”
You know how annoying it is at a festival when you’re stuck next to some jerks who yap loudly during the performance (and not about the music, either), and who aren’t really there for the music—except maybe the national act they’re come to see while they guzzle down beer? It’s a party first, and music is just background noise. Not that way on LRBC. The cruisers are there first for the music. Period. There’s serious partying going on, of course, but the primary focus is on the music and the bands. There’s respect for the art form. Furthermore, people are concentrating on the music and not on their mobile phones and social media. It’s kind of the way the Jazz Fest used to be. Music first, party adjacent.
The lineup on this cruise included a stellar group: Buddy Guy, Taj Mahal, Keb’ Mo’, Booker T, Samantha Fish, Bettye LaVette, Tommy Castro & the Painkillers, Cyril Neville’s Swamp Funk, Chubby Carrier & The Bayou Swamp Band, Tommy Castro & the Painkillers, The James Hunter Six, G. Love & Special Sauce, Cedric Burnside, Ruthie Foster, Elvin Bishop and many, many more. Just great bands.
I never saw a more attentive or appreciative audience. The musicians had to love it, and I know the fans did. Another interesting thing was that we all had the ability to experience bands we weren’t that familiar with—just like at a big music festival. I heard some great music from the Marcus King Band (not exactly your standard blues repertoire—more jam band/jazz. I thought they were outstanding), Christone “Kingfish” Ingram (guitar wizard), Victor Wainwright (killer keyboard) and the Train. Couldn’t have asked for more from Coco Montoya (incredible) and the California Honeydrops adding their own twist to blues and R&B standards.
LRBC #29 sailed to the southern Caribbean, but to tell the truth, the ports of call weren’t as important as the music on the ship.
I cannot imagine the work it takes to put on an event like this. Anyone who’s been on a week-long cruise knows that you get on the ship at 3 p.m. or so on Saturday and disembark before noon on the following Saturday. This means that the ship has to be totally cleaned, re-stocked with food and supplies within the space of about nine hours; the old crowd goes and the new one gets on. It’s a highly logistically-planned event.
But think about having to check in all the musicians, bring in sound, lights and techs for 10 or so venues, literally build a fully-equipped concert stage on the deck all in that time period. Do sound checks. It boggles the mind. And yet, it was all done when we boarded.
The driving force behind this phenomenon, and numbers one through 29 LRBC is Roger Naber. Naber owned The Grand Emporium in Kansas City, MO (we used to send them copies of OffBeat for distribution at the club). To make a long story short on how the LRBC evolved, he told me he went on a four-day blues cruise just to check it out, and was really disappointed in the fact that the sound was awful. So he spoke to his partner and they put together their own cruise, which has been spectacularly successful over the years, by tweaking and changingthings until they got it just right.
Since then, many music-themed cruises have been developed (OffBeat’s Sam D’Arcangelo wrote about the Jam Cruise, for example, and called in “Jazz Fest” on a boat). There are rock cruises, jazz cruises, Kiss Tribute cruises, and many more. But most of them are four days long. LRBC and the Jam Cruise (Naber was an early investor in that venture) take it to the hilt and create an intense Jazz Fest-like festival experience.
If you want to hit the next LRBC, you’ll have to wait til next year, as the 30th cruise is already sold out. Highly, highly recommended.