From Feb. 25-March 1, making its way from Tampa to Grand Cayman, the Norwegian Pearl set sail on a mission: to prove that blues music is alive and well. In its fifth year, once again, blues-rock superstar and two-time GRAMMY-nominated virtuoso, Joe Bonamassa, teamed up with Sixthman (the premier floating festival curators) to bring together blues fans and artists from all over the world for an unforgettable experience.
This year’s adventure on the high seas, which Bonamassa noted as, “the best one so far,” highlighted some of the greatest acts in the genre and allowed fans to get acquainted with several of its rising stars. For four nights, blues cruisers had the opportunity to navigate their way around six stages, take part in Autograph Sessions, catch intimate performances with special guest stars, and, if their timing was right, run into one of their favorite artists just walking around the ship.
The lineup featured an array of outstanding blues musicians, most of whom played on more than one occasion. While Wednesday was reserved for the stop in Grand Cayman, Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, were jam-packed with shows. The bill boasted artists such as King Solomon Hicks, Eric Gales, Luke Winslow-King, Black River Delta, Larkin Poe, Samantha Fish, Ruthie Foster, the Devon Allman Project with Duane Betts, Walter Trout, Reese Wynans, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and, of course, Joe Bonamassa.
On board, custom cocktails (like the Woke up Dreaming Daiquiri) were readily available, and each night, guests were left with gifts galore; compliments of Bonamassa and Sixthman. There were special events such as Paul Shaffer’s Super Session (a performance which included Shaffer, Bonamassa, Shepherd, Trout, and more), Acoustic Mornings and Sunset Sessions, wine and craft beer tastings, as well as raffle prizes which consisted of two autographed guitars.
Every day, from the casino to the buffet, cruisers would mingle their way across the ship, seeking out their own curated adventure. Each performance you would stumble into seemed to be more incredible than the next. There were so many magical moments at sea that it was hard to anchor down our favorites, but we gave it our best shot.
Here’s our pick for the top 6 moments from Keeping the Blues Alive at Sea V.
6. Ruthie Foster’s Campfire Stories
On Wednesday evening, three-time GRAMMY-nominated powerhouse, Ruthie Foster, welcomed a few collaborators to the Stardust stage, for an intimate performance that was so moving, you could actually feel yourself getting lost in every song. Foster combines blues, folk, soul, rock, and gospel. Matching her style with fellow musicians Larkin Poe, Samantha Fish, and Luke Winslow-King, made for one of the most emotional shows that took place throughout the entire duration of the festival. Each artist sat around the “campfire,” instrument in-hand, telling stories, sharing in some casual conversation, and taking turns leading with their own tracks. Songs included were Larkin Poe’s “Bleach Blonde Bottle Blues,” Samantha Fish’s “American Dream,” Luke Winslow-King’s “The Winds of Aragón,” and Ruthie Foster’s “Mama Said.” With every number, Larkin Poe, Winslow-King, Fish, and Foster beautifully complemented each other’s style, turning each rendition into a breathtaking work of art.
5. The Devon Allman Project and Duane Betts perform “Midnight Rider”
As one of the greatest songs by The Allman Brothers Band, “Midnight Rider” has become the gold standard of classic, blues-inspired rock music. Watching Devon Allman (son of Gregg Allman) take the stage alongside Duane Betts (son of Dickey Betts) to perform it, naturally, conjures up a wave of emotions for fans. The Devon Allman Project with Duane Betts performed many times throughout the cruise, but on the final night, guests were treated to the most intimate of shows, held at the Spinnaker. The small lounge was a dream setting to see these artists take the stage. Samantha Fish also joined the band, lending her savvy guitar skills and sultry vocals to “Midnight Rider,” putting a modern twist on the timeless tune. This occasion marked the final run for The Devon Allman Project, as the group now transitions into The Allman Betts Band. Their new album, Down To The River, is due out in the spring, and their world tour kicks off at the end of March.
4. Walter Trout
Thursday afternoon, when Walter Trout stepped on stage, the entire Pool Deck went wild. The guitar master and his band took command, like a force of energy that swept in like a breeze from the ocean waters. In his five decades as a performer, Trout’s chill-inducing vocals and skillful string artistry have made him a legend among legends. To put things in perspective, playing with greats such as John Lee Hooker and John Mayall is only a fraction of what Trout has accomplished as a world-renowned musician. Since 2015 alone, he has put out two award-winning albums, and his recent release of Survivor Blues gives fans yet another reason to be excited. The record is an ode to Trout’s deep love of the blues. While his final set on the ship was electrifying, the musician also opened up about his personal health battles. Just as the yin and yang of blues music, Trout’s set poetically touched on both hardship and success, making it one of the festival’s greatest highlights.
3. Kenny Wayne Shepherd
As Joe Bonamassa stated during his opening night set, “The first time I saw Kenny, I said, ‘Oh sh*t. I’m fu*ked.’” Of course, the crowd roared as Bonamassa sang Shepherd’s praises and then cheered as he reflected on how wonderful it was to have had everyone come together on this cruise to celebrate their love of music. Each time Shepherd took the Pool Deck stage was exhilarating, but, closing things out on Thursday night the way that he did, illuminated the musician as the dreamy guitar God that he is. The five-time GRAMMY Award nominee dominated the entire cruise ship with his sheer talent and spellbinding charisma. With windblown hair and electric guitar in-hand, Shepherd shredded onstage, shining brighter than any star in the open sky that night. His set list at sea included “Voodoo Child,” and “Come On (Let the Good Times Roll),” making his time on stage feel like the ultimate Hendrix experience.
2. Reese Wynans and friends all-star jam
On March 1, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee and world-renowned Nashville-based keyboardist, Reese Wynans dropped his debut solo album, Sweet Release, via Bonamassa’s label (J&R Adventures). Produced by Bonamassa, Wynans’ album is a reflection of his 50-year career; a career that consists of countless collaborations with legendary artists. Guest appearances on the album include Bonamassa, Vince Gill, Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave), Jack Pearson (Allman Brothers), Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Keb' Mo,' Warren Haynes, Jimmy Hall (Wet Willie), along with Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon of Double Trouble, among others. On Thursday, Feb. 28, the Stardust Theater saw two back to back shows with exclusive performances of select songs, in celebration of the monumental occasion. The album launch spotlighted Wynans and featured performances by friends including Bonamassa, Shepherd, Sinead Burgess, Jimmy Hall, Noah Hunt, Paulie Cerra, Josh Smith, and more. Blues cruisers were lucky enough to receive the CD while on board, just ahead of its release.
1. Joe Bonamassa’s mind-blowing rendition of “Woke Up Dreaming”
You can trace Bonamassa’s incredible music career back to the age of 12 when he first opened for B.B. King. Now in his 40s, the native Upstate New Yorker has come to be known as one of the greatest live performers in existence, having shared the stage with icons such as Eric Clapton, Stephen Stills, and Buddy Guy. This past September, he released his 13th studio album, Redemption, once again, receiving widespread critical acclaim. Part of Bonamassa’s beauty rests in his ability to conjure up different sounds in the studio which rival his live concerts; somehow, both are equally as stunning. During the cruise, Bonamassa made a handful of guest appearances but saved his headlining shows for Monday’s opening night on the Pool Deck, and once again on Wednesday night. Joining him on stage was Reese Wynans (keyboard), Anton Fig (drums), Michael Rhodes (bass guitar), Lee Thornburg (trumpet), Paulie Cerra (sax), along with backup vocalists Juanita Tippins and Bonamassa’s girlfriend, Sinead Burgess.
Bonamassa got the party started on Monday night, but saved Wednesday for a set he dubbed, “The Brits and the hits.” Switching things up gave the guitar paragon a chance to perform some longtime fan favorites, such as “Woke Up Dreaming.” Released in 2003, off of Blues Deluxe, that song is a staple for Bonamassa fans. As a track that seems to evolve with every live performance, it's the one we all hope to hear during a Bonamassa show. This acoustic rendition was everything blues cruisers could have wished for. Incredible shredding, scorching vocals, and a fiery performance made this number a dream that no one wanted to wake up from.
While on stage, Bonamassa also announced plans for the sixth installment of Keeping the Blues Alive at Sea. The Norwegian Pearl will head from Miami to Nassau, Bahamas, from Feb. 18-22, 2020. Already scheduled to appear are Buddy Guy, Tab Benoit, Tommy Emmanuel, and Mike Zito. The annual music festival cruise has sold out every year since its inception, so you’re going to want to grab tickets fast. Additionally, a Mediterranean voyage has been added from Aug. 16-21, 2019, sailing through Barcelona, Monte Carlo, and Valletta. The cruise will feature a special performance by Peter Frampton, among others.
Visit the website for the Keeping the Blues Alive Foundation to find out more about Bonamassa’s non-profit. Their mission is to fund music projects, scholarships, and provide educational resources to schools in need.
In between his busy schedule, you can also catch the “blues-rock titan” hosting his new weekly show on SiriusXM’s Bluesville called, “Different Shades of Blue with Joe Bonamassa.”