Taking a cruise with the blues

Music-themed trips draw loyal fans

June 15, 2008|By Jim Harrington | Jim Harrington,McClatchy-Tribune

A light breeze blows across the pool deck, as the Oosterdam heads south along the Mexican Riviera. People sun themselves in lounge chairs, sipping fruity daiquiris and munching appetizers served from the seemingly never-ending buffets.

Sounds like a typical cruise, except this one is decidedly different. This vacation at sea has a live soundtrack featuring Tommy Castro, Elvin Bishop, Curtis Salgado, Ron Thompson, Taj Mahal, Eric Lindell and more than 70 other blues music greats.

It's the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise - one of the first, and best known, of the increasingly popular music-themed cruises now on the market - and it's nothing less than pure nirvana for a vacationing blues traveler.

Imagine being in a place where the music seemingly never stops, where a fan can select from an absolute smorgasbord of concerts taking place at the same time on multiple stages. There are no wrong choices, because the musicians have all been hand-picked to meet your distinct musical taste. Now add in all the regular luxuries associated with a cruise, from the fine dining to fun poolside activities, and sprinkle with shore excursions at various exotic stops.

That's just a small glimpse of a Blues Cruise experience. Yet as lovely as those details may be, they don't quite get to the essence of what has made this type of cruise so popular with vacationers.

Talk with passengers and you get a better idea. They'll rave about friendships made aboard the ship, as well as the amazing access that fans have to the musicians. Those are the things that really turn the newcomers - dubbed "virgins" - into repeat customers, many of whom have more than a half-dozen Blues Cruise notches on their belts.

"If you were to ask 50 people if this is the best vacation they ever had," says cruise founder Roger Naber, "I think you'd get 40 of them who'd say, `Yes, it is.'"

Naber had been booking blues acts in Kansas City since 1979, and by the early '90s, he was ready for a new challenge. He found a major one when he decided to mount his own blues festival at sea. The timing, he thought, was right.

"Blues was really peaking," he says. "A lot of blues festivals were popping up. [Blues] nightclubs were really happening."

Yet he knew that he needed more than a traditional festival to get fans to pay the comparatively high cruise rates. Thus, when he launched the first Rhythm & Blues Cruise in 1992, it was with the idea that the event would boast a communal vibe that simply couldn't be found at regular, land-based festivals.

That concept has grown into the cruise's single biggest selling point. On Blues Cruise, fans don't just watch the headliners perform - they lunch next to them, pass by them in the halls, talk with them after performances and, most impressively, strum alongside them during pro-amateur jam sessions.

Nearly all of my best memories of this cruise can be filed under the "could never happen at a regular festival" heading: Ron Thompson picking out the sweetest blues for a handful of swimsuit-clad fans poolside; Earl Thomas lounging in a deck chair and talking of his childhood; Eric Lindell swimming under the midday sun. Those are the kind of memories that make Blues Cruise feel less like a concert and more like a community.

"It's like a little village; [bluesman] Otis Clay says that it's like living in the same house," Naber says. "You can't get that at a festival."

That factor distinguishes the cruise from other blues festivals, as indicative of its marketing slogan: "Blues Cruise - where simply sailing gets you a backstage pass."

"I like to say it's a fantasy camp for musicians, both amateurs and pros. It's a dream for a fan - to have a backstage pass and just hang with these [blues greats]," says T.J. Hall, an amateur drummer who was taking his third Blues Cruise. "There's just something about this cruise. It's almost like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that happens twice a year."

For most of its history, however, the Blues Cruise happened only once a year. It set sail each winter, usually in January from Florida, for a week's worth of bluesin' around such Caribbean spots as St. Croix and St. Kitts. That annual voyage proved to be so popular that organizers finally decided to try their luck with a West Coast-based sea trek. Thus, in October 2006, they launched the inaugural Pacific cruise, a four-night outing that departed from San Diego and sailed down the Mexican Riviera.

Response to that maiden Mexican voyage was strong enough that Naber decided to expand the offering in 2007 to a full week at sea. Fourteen thousand people - including roughly 800 Blues Cruise "virgins" - took him up on the offer.

One of those virgins happened to be me.

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