Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise #20
A Week In The Caribbean
January 20-27, 2013
By Robert Putignano
This year’s winter edition of the Legendary R&B Cruise took off from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with stopovers in the Caribbean islands. First at the nearby Half Moon Cay, on to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, and finally (my favorite) to St. Kitts, which is a sovereign country where everything is very inexpensive and the residents are a delight to chat with. This cruise has so much quality music to offer that I found myself constantly busy, totally interested, and wanting to take in as much as much as I could soak up. So much to cover, but my favorite performances included Tommy Castro (especially when he performed with the Legendary R&B Revue), the Phantom Blues Band (with and without Taj Mahal), John Primer, Otis Taylor (with his new and exciting guitarist Shawn Starski), Elvin Bishop, Tab Benoit, Kelley Hunt, Keith Crossan’s Fabulous Horns, Mavis Staples, plus a segment with Bob Porter talking about the great Lightnin’ Hopkins. The late-night jams rolled into early mornings where you could see the musicians eating breakfast at 7 a.m. after they played their hearts out. The ringleader of most of these all-night jams was the relentless, tireless, and fun-loving Tab Benoit. As you can see there’s plenty of blues to imbibe, and the variety of genres wasn’tt limited to a singular genre. Works for me.
Tommy Castro’s core band sizzled with the Legendary R&B Revue, where it was also great to see bassist Randy McDonald back in the band, and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Tommy with a horn section. Castro’s set started deep in the pocket and found everyone locked in a powerful groove. Samantha Fish eventually joined in (a lot of eye candy, but much ear candy, too) as did Kenny Neal and Rod Piazza. Long story short: this was a very hot set! I also enjoyed seeing the Phantom Blues Band perform first without Taj and later with Mr. Mahal. The PBB was perhaps the most accomplished group of highly polished musicians assembled. I thought their set was magnificent as almost all of the band members sing well, and they possess chops many artists would die for. Mike Finnigan’s sparkled on keys and his vocals were delightful, Joe Sublett’s sax is as old school as can be and he has that fat tone that’s readily identifiable, Larry Fulcher’s bass is also solid and he too sings fine, guitarist Johnny Lee Schell also played admirably and added additional polish to the band with his vocals, and Tony Braunagel drums mightily as well. John Primer obviously brought his “A game” with his true-blue Chicago style, and he was also pretty funky. His band was spot-on the money and tight. Elvin Bishop’s unit was also a delight. Bishop’s band was very rehearsed and impressive. Bishop looks and performs youthfully and his set brought a smile to all in attendance. Special guest Mickey Thomas’ voice was in good form, but if I hear “Fooled Around and Fell In Love” one more time I will scream.
Otis Taylor mesmerized. His rhythm guitar playing is fascinating and complex, yet with all of his renderings guitarist Shawn Starski was ready, willing, and able to take the music higher. Starski really impressed; at times his solos were moaning with very effective (human-like) screams, his slide dazzled, and he was probably my favorite guitarist on the entire cruise. Note: Starski has a self-titled solo album that’s very much worth checking out. He also contributes on Taylor’s current release, My World Is Gone. Starski is only thirty-three and if he continues on this path, expect great things to come from this underrated and potential future star. Oh, and how could I forget Otis’s fiddle player Anne Harris, who offers a lot of ear candy (as well as eye candy).
I’d heard Kelley Hunt on record, but never seen her and her very fine band perform live. Suffice it to say that this unit impressed too. Every bandmate was locked in, and knew their parts well, but also provided a spontaneous chemistry that was hard to not like. Hunt was one of the best female vocalists on the cruise. She also plays piano with plenty of energy and creativity. John Rhoades’ guitar was always on ready, David Dupart’s B3 added plenty of color, and the rhythm section of drummer Hamilton Hardin and bassist Kenny Ames not only held it down, they also had the ability to improvise and shift on demand. I especially enjoyed Ames bass lines on “Lone Star Road” (very reminiscent of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues”) from Hunt’s Mercy album that utilized the outstanding services of the historic Motown bassist and recently departed Bob Babbitt. Hunt’s band was so impressive that I am definitely adding them as a must-see the next time they make it from their mid-western home to the Ease Coast. They write good original tunes too, and should consider recording a live performance to release in the not-too-distant future, they were that good.
Tab Benoit’s band remains on fire. Man, this trio fires on all cylinders and seems to have been further sparked here by Dirty Dozen drummer Terence Higgins. Benoit bassist Corey Duplechin is also a dynamo with his inventive bottom notes. I saved and waited all week to see Mavis Staples’ closing performance on the outside back deck. Needless to say, I wasn’t disappointed. In this unit sister Yvonne Staples and Donny Gerrard’s vocals mesh perfectly with the instruments of guitarist Rick Holmstrom, bassist Jeffrey Turmes, and drummer Stephen Hodges. Whoever concocted the thought of assembling this magical band deserves high marks as this band never ever delivers a bad performance. Finally Keith Crossan is always a pleasure to see, especially when he assembles his Fabulous Horns for a fun set of soul-jazz classics and tunes from Keith’s fine solo album Beatnik Jungle. Joe Sublett’s sax impressed yet again with his every solo, which made for a mighty fine afternoon hang with Crossan’s unit. By the way, Crossan told me he might be close to making a follow up album to Beatnik Jungle. Good luck, Keith, I’d love to see that happen! Beatnik Jungle still remains as one of my favorite recordings in recent years.
Kudos to Roger Naber for his excellent choices of offering such a depth of varied and talented musicians that made this (my first and hopefully not last) Legendary R&B Cruise a consistent pleasure that is very appropriately named. Naber’s next (#21) embarkation is scheduled for October 18 through the 25 and travels to Key West, the Crescent City, and Progreso, Mexico, with New Orleans greats such as Irma Thomas, Walter “Wolfman” Washington, The Wild Magnolias, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, and also features Johnny Winter, Popa Chubby, Marcia Ball, Lee Oskar, plus an interesting pairing of Anson Funderburgh with Eric Lindell, and many others. So before #21 sells out, keep checking www.BluesCruise.com and sail on to enjoy plenty of mighty notes and performances this coming fall. You won’t be disappointed. Till the next time, Happy Sailing and Bon Voyage!
Be sure to jump over to this week’s Photo Page to check out some of Joe Rosen’s photographs from the cruise!
Bob Putignano is a senior contributing editor at BluesWax, a contributing writer at Blues Revue, and the heart and soul of Sounds of Blue.
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