Joe Bonamassa teamed up with Beth Hart and several others blues/rock and roll luminaries to conquer the high seas on a star-studded cruise to Cozumel, Mexico and back.

Following up on the success of the inaugural cruise in 2015, Joe Bonamassa returned to set sail again with another all-star lineup of talent that spanned generations with a mix of old and new artists. The four-day cruise offered fans an almost non-stop intimate musical experience across the large and luxurious Norwegian Pearl with a schedule that guaranteed a healthy workout for anyone interested in seeing every single act.

The cruise set sail on Monday, February 14, from Miami, Florida with the warm tropical winds greeting the thousands of fans boarding the ship to the welcoming sounds of Jarekus Singleton. Soothing and upbeat, they welcomed the crowd with a festive set that set the pace for the rest of the day.

With drinks in hand, anchors away, the revelers made their way to the pool deck, which was the main stage for this expedition. Blues Traveler greeted the exuberant crowd as the boat left port. Frontman John Popper led the band through a raucous and lively set. Popper had suffered a broken foot just before the cruise, but that showed no signs of slowing down his energetic performance as he led the crowd in a toast with a shot of Cabo Wabo.

Other artists performed throughout the early part of the day across the decks of the ship, including Jim Schuler in the cozy Spinnaker Lounge. Triple Grammy nominee, Shemekia Copeland, belted out a soulful performance in the Atrium area while Marc Broussard filled the Stardust Theatre with Southern blues rock charm.

All of this was just the precursor to the first major performance of the tour from the leading virtuoso of the blues world today, Joe Bonamassa. The warm winds of the Atlantic rose to meet him as the sun sank across the blue horizon. The pool deck sprang to life as the crowds gathered to immerse themselves in the wizardry of his mind-bending guitar chops.

Though his playing transcends the boundaries of guitar as we know it, out at sea, the performance took on an, even more, magnificent timbre, the music in harmony with the sea and wind. It is a memorizing start to a fantastic voyage that has just begun.

He concludes his set with a heartfelt welcome to the festival, leaving the fans awash in a glow as they melt away to enjoy the other artists playing throughout the decks of the ship.

Day two dawned with the sun shining on the decks as the Norwegian Pearl awoke to another day of music. Eric Gibb and Michael Jerome Brown eased the emerging seafarers back to the pool deck with a carefree performance.

The itinerary for this day was full of activities that offered more than just live performances, but also a litany of workshops, beverage tastings, and even the renewal of matrimonial vows.

Blues legend Bruce Iglauer held court in the Stardust Theatre answering questions from the crowd while Johnny A. doled out questions to the fans in a trivia session.

One of the highlights of the cruise was the opportunity for fans to bring instruments on board for an impromptu open mic blues jam. The improv session proved to be one of the more interesting elements of the cruise as some incredible talent came together from all over to present a unique, on-the-fly jam session.

The day came into full swing with Marc Broussard taking over the festivities on the pool deck. Those who chose not to brave the daylight found solace below deck with a variety of hosted activities. Eric Gales and Davy Knowles kept the day party going down below while Robert Randolph offered up an insightful and introspective workshop on slide guitar.

Music filled the ship emanating from bow to stern with Brother Hawk, Gary Nicholson and Blues Traveler taking on the swing shift to prime the party engines for the second evening’s highlight performance.

The pairing of Beth Hart and Joe Bonamassa had been a topic of wishful discussion over the years. The shimmering rays of heat from the waning sun creates a striking visual for the growing excitement of the crowd packing the decks from every angle. The undercurrent of anticipation burst into a roar of exhilaration as the two stars took the stage to give a powerful, commanding set.

Bonamassa was content to stay in the background and provide the foundation upon which Hart poured every ounce into her heartfelt vocals. Her performance was pure evoking the legends of sirens which sang beautiful songs luring the most grizzled mariners to their deaths upon the rocks.

The powerhouse of talent didn’t end with that magnificent duo, however. Several other acts were waiting in the wings to continue the party into the night. One of the biggest draws to close out the night certainly had to go to the blues rock quartet known as Vintage Trouble. Formed in Los Angeles, California just over six years ago, they have lived a real life fairy tale of success since being discovered by Doc McGhee in a coffee shop. The band has opened for rock juggernauts such as The Who and AC/DC on world tours.

To witness a Vintage Trouble performance is to experience something akin to a spiritual awakening. Frontman Ty Taylor is without a doubt the most engaging, charismatic frontman in the music business today.

You cannot escape the outpouring of energy that pours forth from his band mates, Nalle Colt, Rick Barrio Dill, and Richard Danielson. The rely on no gimmicks, no fancy effects; just pure rock and roll blues stripped down to its most raw, basic and pure elements.

Taylor was not content to remain on the stage during his sets, always on the move, smashing the barrier between performer and fan to make every single person in the audience a part of the show. The belief in the message of their music is undeniable and infectious. You cannot come away from a Vintage Trouble show without a renewed sense of purpose in life, a message and a calling to be a better person each day.

The rest of the acts rounding out the second day included a set from the larger than life two-man band, Black Pistol Fire, on the pool deck.

The Austin, Texas-based duo pack more sound in their show than most larger acts. Guitarist Kevin McKewon seems to have found a way to defy gravity while drummer Eric Owens pounds a tribal rhythmic beat that has fans in a sweaty trance under the night sky.

With all the energy spent in the past 36 hours, it was an almost welcome respite to have the majority of the next day in port in Cozumel for some day excursions.

The day off in port offered a chance to refresh oneself in a variety of shore activities from snorkeling, exploring the ancient ruins, or just relaxing on the white sandy beaches of the Caribbean Sea.

As the shadows crept long upon the island, the crowds found themselves welcomed back on board to the dazzling slide guitar of Robert Randolf and The Family Band on the pool deck. Those seeking relief from a day of fun in the sun cooled off below decks with Simo, Eric Gales and Selwyn Birchwood, each playing different venues and offering a diversity of music to fit any mood.

With the ship homeward bound to Miami, Bonamassa played his second headline performance of the voyage. He took the time to address the crowd humbly explaining that he’s not used to talking much and prefers to let his guitar speak for him.

He thanked the fans for coming with him and celebrating the blues and stated that the benefit of the Keeping The Blues Alive foundation had raised $50,000 on this cruise. He closed by inviting everyone to return yet again in 2017 for yet another floating cruise festival.

With his short and to the point speech behind him, he launched into a nearly two-hour long musical journey. Bonamassa displays a mastery of string and steel, as he melds with his roster of guitars one after another.

Playing with an almost unnatural ability, his songs flowed across the night air, melting into the fine mist that sprays across the faces of the fans who are lost in the moment. It seemed an eternity for which he played, the notes echoed into the skies above and rolled into the wake of the boat.

Capping off the third night of the cruise found Vintage Trouble on the pool deck continuing their prior night’s stellar performance with a pool party.

Blues Traveller took up residence in the Stardust Theatre while Larkin Poe and Johnny A doled out sets in the Spinnaker Lounge and Atrium respectively. Those who still had fuel left in their tanks continued to dance the night away with the Monophonics and James Hunter Six who kept the blues alive at sea and well in to the wee hours of the morning.

The fourth and final full day of the floating festival came to life with a lackadaisical attitude; passengers seemed almost reluctant to give thought to the fact the party was nearing an end.

The faithful foursome of Vintage Trouble led off the day with Bloody Mary’s and rounds of Bingo. They had the crowd in stitches with their running comedic banter and slightly obvious after effects of perhaps too much enthusiasm from the prior nights show.

Back top side, the sun lovers sprawled out on deck chairs to soak up the warm morning rays to the soothing solace of Kirk Fletcher and Josh Smith coaxing the day to life. This day had a much more laid back feel to it, which also led to one of the most intimate and poignant moments of the cruise.

This was the Q&A session with Beth Hart taking place in the Stardust Theatre. Nearly packed full, the fans sat in rapt attention as the sultry-voiced singer answered questions.

Several in attendance shared some genuinely emotional tales of struggle and fear, and how they overcame their turmoil through the music of Hart. Some came forth bearing gifts and mementos of prior shows, eager to share their moment with the singer who is so obviously loved by her fans. The openness of some fans questions or stories had a marked effect on Hart, who was at times herself moved to tears as she lovingly embraced her supporters in solidarity.

Her long time road manager and husband Scott offered expert stage manager support in the form of Kleenex that did little to stem the flow of tears, not of sorrow, but of love that poured forth throughout the session. It was a touching and insightful moment of the entire trip, one that would certainly resonate for a long time to come for both Hart and her adoring fans.

Another seminar took place later in the day in the Stardust Theatre with vintage guitar collector, Norm Harris, and Bonamassa. Harris is a famous guitar collector who is well-known around the world, with musicians and movie studios calling upon him to purchase or lease his rare guitars. He and Bonamassa entertained the crowd with tales of famous artists who had visited his residence over the years including a story about a guitar stolen and returned to George Harrison of Beatles fame.

The screen behind them featured various photos taken over the years with Harris and notable guitarists, along with clips from movie scenes where he had rented out instruments to studios. It was an entertaining and fascinating insight into the history of several guitar manufacturers and their models.

The main attraction to close out the last night of the cruise was, of course, Beth Hart in a solo performance with her band. The main pool deck was packed to the gills long before her scheduled set as the entire ship seemed to turn out for this last hurrah.

Hart was truly in her finest form this night. Empowered by the emotional outpouring from the Q&A session, she presented a performance that was riveting to the end. Her set encompassed many fan favorites including Mama, which she dedicated to a couple of fans in the crowd who had asked her about the song earlier in the day.

The crowd was mesmerized by her music as words were mouthed in unison with the singer, voiced together as one. The impact her music has on her fans is evident; tear streaked eyes of the adoring faces and smiles stretched for ages. It was a touching and beautiful climatic end to the night and bring to a close this amazing week of music.

In conclusion, this music cruise was truly something incredible for music lovers of all kinds. There was more than enough variety to keep one entertained and intrigued, as well as discover new music. The pacing of the shows was enough to give fans time to relax in between sets to take in a meal or just relax in the sun.

The staff of Sixthman, who organize this event, were some of the most energetic and delightful people. Everything ran smoothly. If there were any major issues, they were handled so quickly that no one never noticed.

Fans of blues looking to book a music-themed vacation would do well to investigate Keeping The Blues Alive At Sea when it returns in 2017.

Keeping The Blues Alive At Sea
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Joe Bonamassa
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