“Keeping the blues alive at sea!” That was our mantra–our mission–our goal—our obsession for a week or so in February when 9 of us music lovers from Dominical got on a big ole’ ocean liner in Miami and floated away to the sounds of the Blues. I’m not gushing about this cruise because I bought stock in the damn boat or anything, and I am kind of amazed at my own enthusiasm for the whole trip, but it was SERIOUSLY BIG FUN!! Guitarist, singer and songwriter Joe Bonamassa is the driving force behind not only the Blues Cruises, but the Keeping the Blues Alive Foundation, which is a non-profit organization dedicated to the next generation of young, talented musicians.
At a time when school music programs are being cancelled, the NEA is being de-funded by Trump, and people don’t have health insurance, it’s a breath of fresh air to know that there are still people out there raising money to offset the loss of arts funding in America. Mental and physical health is always improved by exposure to music, and there are so many benefits to music education—I harp about this subject all the time. Keeping the Blues Alive Foundation was created in 2011 and since then they have funded over 350 music projects, affecting over 60,000 students, and they have donated over $400,000 to educators, festivals, scholarships and Blues related events.
Frankly Joe Bonamassa was kind of under my radar—I had never seen him perform live before this cruise, and kind of wrote him off as one of those guys who played way too many notes and overwhelmed everything. Well, he can play a lot of freaking notes, but that is certainly not all he’s about and I’m not too proud to admit I was wrong about him. He started playing at age 4, with the encouragement of his father, who particularly liked the British Blues players of the time. Apparently he got some attention from smarter folks than me, ‘cause by age 12 he did a series of concerts opening for B.B. King, was mentored by guitarist Danny Gatton, and was leading his own band. I don’t trust musicians who don’t like to share the stage with other players, and that is certainly not the case with Bonamassa. Gregg Allman did guest appearances with him, he recorded a Grammy nominated album with Beth Hart, he’s played live with Eric Clapton… the list of people he likes and has included in his performances or cruises is long. At the end of one of his sets on the boat he graciously turned over the stage to 81 year old Buddy Guy, who in turn later invited young guitarist Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram to help finish out the set. I love that kind of ego-less passing of the musical torch—a generosity of spirit—and there were many examples of that kind of comradery on the Blues Cruise. Bonamassa is a collector of rare and vintage guitars and amps, and there were 3 great guitars being auctioned off on the cruise—at reasonable prices—to benefit his Foundation. He is apparently quite successful personally (net worth over 20 million bucks), but I appreciate his promotion of other artists and the Blues in general and I’m tellin’ ya—it was BIG FUN! I even got to sit in with the Louisiana based Honey Island Swamp Band, and there were lots of interchanges like that during the cruise.
2020 was the 6th year that these guys have put on this floating festival, and they have got a lot of things right. The challenges of doing sound or lights on outdoor stages and different sized indoor venues seem to have been met. The sound was always good and the visuals did not distract from the most important thing—the music! I heard feedback one time—one time only in 5 days! That’s a major achievement right there. They would schedule the bands to play 3 times, at 3 different venues, so you could hear everyone in large or intimate settings. There were no surly backstage guys—and no real troublemakers for them to chase down, ‘cause where they gonna go? It’s a boat! No lines at the restaurants on board, so more time to listen to music. If you got sick of music you could do regular ship things, like bowl or read or work out or lay in a lounge chair and contemplate the ocean and the meaning of life. There were also no kids on board—it’s not their thing, and the parents wisely left them at home. There were a couple of teen-agers, but even they were polite young long haired kids who were there to learn more about playing the guitar.
But I gotta tell ‘ya, the thing I liked best about the cruise (besides the all-night ice cream machine) was the wonderful fact that there were so many young women playing instruments. Not just singing, although most of them sang as well as played guitars in their bands or to accompany themselves, but they were all good guitarists. I have lived my whole life being in the very small minority of women who just play an instrument, and I truly believe there are many women musicians out there who have been denied notice or opportunities normal for our male counterparts, just because we are female. But I also quit stewing about that crap decades ago and just kept on playing and hopefully getting better at it. To see so many women doing the same thing and being in the spotlight was great.
I counted 19 male performers or all male bands playing on the boat, and 5 female headliners. That might not sound like many, but frankly that is a lot more than usual (yes it is), and I was very impressed by the chops these mostly young female musicians exhibited. Four out of five of the female musicians were playing electric guitar—Bonnie Raitt would have been so proud! I might have missed somebody, but the only female player who wasn’t a singer or guitarist was me when I sat in with the Honey Island Swamp Band from Louisiana. I’d love to see those statistics change to include more of us! The sound and stage crew had quite a few female techs as well—another hard won victory for equality. I was proud of these hard-working rockin’ women, and happy that someone with the stature of Bonamassa was giving them a leg up.
Back here in the jungle life goes on, but I really miss that darn boat. There’s lots of music going down around Dominical and parts south of here, so please get out and listen to some and patronize the places that hire us! Ben Orton and I have been playing Monday nights at TORTILLA FLATS with the young rhythm section from Los Geckos, the Rum Bar has late night music, there is music at Fuego and Kinkajou’s and even more going on south of here.
I met a lady on the elevator who was on her 4th or 5th Blues Cruise, and as I was going early to get a seat she nonchalantly said, “Honey, I don’t rush to get anywhere on this boat. If I make it I make it. If I don’t there is someone else amazing in a different spot that I wouldn’t have seen. My buddy and fellow Blues cruiser Sharon
Music produces profound and lasting changes in the brain. Schools should add classes, not cut them. Scientific American magazine
Listen to the lyrics—we’re singing about everyday life—rich people trying to keep money, poor people trying to get it, and everyone having trouble with their husband or wife. Buddy Guy
I’m gonna play something so funky you can smell it! Buddy Guy
Since I wrote this article the pandemic has taken control of our lives, the political freaks have gone crazy, there are no gigs and the fun I had on the Blues Cruise is a dim memory. No one wants to get on a boat with a bunch of germy people and live streaming is a technical necessity that frankly really sucks. I’ll try to find something about the current musical reality that DOESN’T suck to write about next month.
We also lost drummer Richard Abraham in January of 2021, so as far as I am concerned this year is off to a crappy start. Richard was a long time resident of Costa Rica, a great friend and musician, an unselfish supporter of the Lifeguard program in Dominical, owner of the beautiful Coconut Grove Inn, husband of 40 some years to the lovely Diane and a dog lover who worked tirelessly with the local vet and the DAWG organization to find homes and health and love for our four legged canine pals. He was funny as heck and a great guy—I am proud and lucky to have been his friend and sometimes band buddy. No one could say it or play it quite like him… Thanks for keeping the beat righteous.