Keeping the Blues Alive at Sea with Joe Bonamassa and Friends

Lee Zimmerman on March 29, 2024
Keeping the Blues Alive at Sea with Joe Bonamassa and Friends

photos by Alisa B. Cherry


It’s a varied bunch that contribute to a major mission, that which coincides with the namesake of the four day cruise dubbed  “Keeping the Blues Alive at Sea.” There’s Joe Bonamassa, of course, the ringmaster and namesake of this particular seaward excursion which also features a varied bunch of established stars, promising newcomers and those whose status falls somewhere in between. The headliners — Bonamassa, Grace Potter, the Marshall Tucker Band, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, John Oates, and Bonamassa’s other band, Black Country Communion (a super group of sorts that includes bassist Glenn Hughes, late of Deep Purple and Trapeze, and drummer Jason Bonham, whose drumhead features the image of his famous father, John Bonham), are an eclectic bunch, but no less so than the rest of the cast.

The younger and newer outfits maintained the mission for the most part, especially 13 year old wunderkind Jack Barksdale, the delta blues duo Memphisippi Sounds, Fortune Child, Jesse Roper, Ron Artis II and the Truth, Nikki Hill, but the rock steady rhythms of the most eclectic ensembles — the ever-popular Robert Jon and the Wreck, King King, the Jake Walden Band and Daddy Longlegs — took certain liberties with the form and added flash to the finesse in the process.

Although four days at sea seemed hardly enough time to catch everyone there was to see, several bands still managed to leave a formidable impression. Jackie Vinson proved to be a formidable frontwoman, while guitarist Brandon “Taz” Niederauer’s unassuming personality was clearly at odds with his searing fretwork–back in the day, one might have easily imagined a young Jimi Hendrix adapting a similar poise.

The standout performances were equally eclectic. Black Country Communion brought distinct memories of Britain’s late ‘60s prototypical heavy metal mania, hardly a surprise given Hughes and Bonham’s resumes. There was also some irony in Hughes’ recollection of first meeting the younger Bonham while visiting with his dad, when the diaper-clad toddler woke him up the next morning. “His dad would be so proud,” Hughes insisted when referring to the 57 year old drummer.

Grace Potter practically stole the show, given the energy and enthusiasm shared during her initial poolside performance and then, two days later, a captivating concert reprising famous road songs. Naturally, The Fabulous Thunderbirds didn’t disappoint, and while singer and harp player Kim Wilson remains the only original member of the group, which is now celebrating a half century anniversary, they still managed to retain the drive and determination that sparked the original incarnation so early on. The other “classic name” ensemble, Marshall Tucker, seemed a somewhat odd choice for inclusion in this cast, especially since they’re better known as Southern Rock survivors. Nevertheless lead singer and sole remaining holdover from the group’s initial incarnation, Doug Gray, seems determined to carry on and thanks to signature songs such as “Can’t You See,” “Fire on the Mountain,” and “Heard It In a Love Song,” they manage to do that quite well.

Likewise, John Oates may have seemed somewhat out of sync with the blues template, but his acoustic country-ish noir and a spare two piece backing band consisting of cello and percussion added a comforting caress to the proceedings overall. He made only a passing reference to his recent discord with his onetime musical partner, but a soulful take on the old Hall and Oates standard, “She’s Gone” rekindled the connection.

As a recap of sorts, guitarist Jimmy Vivino, a one-time member of the Saturday Night Live house band and a veteran session player in his own right, led a closing night cascade of performers on the pool deck, offering each artist an opportunity for a final moment to shine in the spotlight. Bonamassa, who had led his regular backing band before a capacity crowd the night before, was content to simply stay in the background and offer support. That was fine, given the fact that he had come down with laryngitis several days before the ship set sail, which in turn shed doubts on whether he would be shipshape. 

“The reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated,” he joked.

Mostly, the Keeping the Blues Alive at Sea extravaganza provided a full throttle display of rocking and riffing in equal measure. Ultimately, credit has to go to the veteran Sixthman organization whose expertise at launching some two dozen cruises of varying musical formats, made this particular outing as superbly satisfying as one ought to expect. Likewise, the various gifts delivered to the cabins every afternoon — beach towels, a bobblehead, and a poster suitable for signings — added some commendable extra touches. Keeping the Blues Alive at Sea may have been the mantra, but the only actual barometer of the blues came when it was finally all over.