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LIVE REVIEW -- European Blues Cruise 2018
GLT blues radio

The Return of the European Blues Cruise

September 11-15, 2018

New cruise line, new ship, same great blues!

European Blues Cruise port of Genoa
View of port of Genoa

Toronzo Cannon & The Chicago Way, Carl Weathersby, Nora Jean Bruso, Liz Mandeville, Wayne Baker Brooks, Rip Lee Pryor, Fabrizio Poggi, Enrico Polverani

Toronzo Cannon
Toronzo Cannon

By Glenn Noble

Photos: Jennifer Noble

With a year’s break since the last cruise, some big changes have been made to the fourth ever European Blues Cruise. A new option was made available to choose departure/arrival port, with departures from either Genoa, Italy or the French cities of Nice and Marseille and vice versa on return.   This year also saw a major transition to a new cruise line operator in the shape of Italian-based cruise giant MSC Cruises, and consequently the experience of a whole new, bigger, ship to play on!  Aptly named for a musical voyage, our ship MSC Orchestra can luxuriously accommodate up to some 3,200 passengers on its 13 decks, each named after a musical instrument.


After boarding during the baking heat of a Provence afternoon, by 5 p.m. the Orchestra slipped away from the Marseille quayside and nosed into the inviting blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea.  The pool deck was already filled with loungers and swimmers when the opening performance of the Blues Cruise hit the poolside stage with a bang.  Big voiced chanteuse Nora Jean Bruso stepped up and took us on a blues voyage of her own, from Mississippi to Chicago. From the very start of Nora Jean’s set, the basking crowd were lured out of their loungers and swimmers climbed from the pool, and filled the dance floor, swinging to the hot vibe Nora Jean was putting out.

Nora Jean Bruso
Nora Jean Bruso kicks off the cruise on deck

 In an unusual supporting role, man of the moment Toronzo Cannon, acting this trip as musical director, briefly stepped forward to wield his signature “Chicago Way” guitar and add a few cutting licks. Handing over to the legendary Carl Weathersby to turn up the heat even higher, things got so hot in fact that Toronzo had to fan Carl with his trademark hat! Between Nora Jean’s big, operatic voice and her heartfelt delivery, plus Carl’s sizzling guitar, this was an outstanding opening show that really set the party off with style.

Wayne Baker Brooks
Wayne Baker Brooks, Luca Chiellini (on keys)

From a Mississippi girl turned Chicago blues singer, we now turned to a member of one of Chicago’s favourite blues dynasties, Wayne Baker Brooks, son of the late, great Lonnie Brooks.  In the glitzy, sparkling surroundings of the R32 Bar, which was more reminiscent of a reborn Studio 54 in its disco heyday than a blues joint, Wayne and the band did their very best to give us the real Chicago club feel - and they succeeded!  Among some of the more familiar Chicago standards, Wayne paid a rocking tribute to his father, a slice of real old school R’n’B from his Guitar Junior days, “The Crawl”. In Wayne’s words, it was a way of explaining “Where I’m from and where I’m at” introducing some of his own more contemporary take on the blues. In any event, whether old songs or new, it was more than enough to persuade the audience to hit the dance floor and show their appreciation.  What a great opening day!

Carl Weathersby
Carl Weathersby

Day two and the featured attraction was Carl Weathersby, occupying the grand space of the “Covent Garden Theatre”, an imposing two story theatre style room.  Guitarist and singer, Carl has been a fixture on the Chicago scene through his many years as guitarist for Billy Branch’s Sons of Blues and subsequently his long running solo spots at the world famous Kingston Mines. Carl’s style is easy, unhurried and fluid - he has a way of creating space in a song to let the full expression of the soul of the music grow.  An example; during “I’ll Play the Blues for You”, a string broke. What might cramp another player’s style gave Carl freedom to let his mellow vocal take over and dropping low and gentle, he drew and teased the audience into focusing all their attention on each note and phrase - -it  really felt like he was playing for each individual listener. So when, with guitar string replaced, he dialed the intensity and volume back up, it hit hard, letting loose a torrent of blues from the low and middle range rather than screaming from the top frets.  Wonderful, awe-inspiring stuff - and it wasn’t only the audience appreciating the artistry; I could see drummer Pooky Styx exchanging grins and headshakes of enjoyment with keyboard player Luca Chiellini. Another intense moment in Carl’s reading of “I’d Rather Go Blind” - epic, funny and moving all at once - I’m sure there were few dry eyes in the house as the crowd rose to their feet to acknowledge a wonderful performer.

Liz Mandeville
Liz Mandeville

A nightcap in yet another venue (this ship was certainly blessed with choices) - “The Shaker Lounge” - with the sounds of one of Chi-town’s most glamorous performers, the charming Liz Mandeville. Looking (and sounding) sassy and sparkly Liz kicked off a lively, engaging set of rock’n’roll-tinged blues with Toronzo Cannon providing some additional muscle in the guitar department.  Liz is a great storyteller in between numbers, and when she shared her story about staying at the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, and sleeping in Muddy Water’s bed...well, I won’t spoil the punchline but you had to be there! As well as guitar and vocals, Liz also plays a mean frottoir and used it to good effect in a promenade around the crowd, setting the room clapping to an infectious Cajun beat. And not to leave out the only member of the house band not mentioned so far, Liz pulled out a cover of “All About That Bass” for the rock steady bassman Dave Forte. An uplifting end to day two. 

One of the fun features of holding a festival on a cruise ship is the closeness of the fans and the artists, literally we are all in the same boat! The Pro-Am jam is another way to share a bit of love for playing the blues and the fans really appreciate the chance to show off some licks on stage with the professionals.  Thanks to Joe Harp, Dave the Drummer from Barcelona and even your humble reporter for stepping up with Toronzo, Fabrizio Poggi and the band. 

Nora Jean Bruso
Nora Jean Bruso

There was an additional treat after the jam. Nora Jean Bruso had not been scheduled to perform again until Friday, but by popular demand from the people disembarking on Friday in Genoa, her set was brought forward so that they could hear her again - they were so knocked out by her short appearance earlier they wanted more!  Nora Jean did not disappoint, easily overcoming unavoidable announcements over the PA as the ship left Palma de Mallorca.  Where the large dance floor in front of the stage might have been something of a barrier earlier, Nora Jean claimed the space as her own, getting up close and personal with the crowd occupying the low, comfortable booths scattered around and equally getting down with those moved to dance. Nora Jean produced the highlight of the day - a show-stopping, indeed heart-stopping, extended rendering of John Mayer’s “Gravity” pulling in Gospel influences - shades of Mahalia Jackson - and for 12 golden minutes Nora Jean held the room in a spell. What a remarkable performance - once again there could not have been a dry eye in the house.


Well, there was nothing if not variety on offer from the Blues Cruise lineup.  Moving out of the softly lit Shaker lounge into the brightly sunlit R32 lounge, its position perched upon the stern of the ship providing 270 degree views of the wide-open Mediterranean was like waking from a dream. Fortunately the music was no dream, with recently Grammy-nominated harpist Fabrizio Poggi in the chair, accompanied by fellow Italian guitarist Enrico Polverani. Fabrizio’s 2017 nomination was for the album Sonny and Brownie’s Last Train, recorded with Guy Davis and the love for Sonny Terry was evident. It was easy to imagine sitting on a front porch in the summertime in Carolina as Fabrizio rolled out a pure, sweet harp tone. It was also a great background for the guitar playing talents of Carl, Toronzo and Wayne to jam along to. A very mellow, pleasant afternoon indeed.  As afternoon and evening melted into night, the search for the Piano Bar was on, rewarded by the sight and sound of the remaining European contributor to the bill, Italian maestro Luca Chiellini.  Now resident in Chicago, Luca treated us to an hour of grand piano-mashing, audience-clapping, rug-cutting blues and boogie-woogie, pretty much single-handedly (not counting a rare tambourine turn by Wayne Baker-Brooks!). And so to bed…

Rip Lee Pryor
Rip Lee Pryor

Our port of call at the beginning of day four was the busy Italian seaport city of Genoa, historically known as the home of Christopher Columbus. It was interesting to ponder what kind of blues might have been if he hadn’t made those voyages 500 years ago. Coming back to the present, the Ligurian coastline provided a stunning backdrop through those wide angle glass walls of the R32 Lounge as we once more headed out to sea to the sound of Rip Lee Pryor, son of Maxwell Street School harp master, Snooky Pryor. Rip brought some of the feel of that legendary Chicago location to the boat, accompanying himself on guitar, harp and stompbox just as earlier generations of sidewalk performers would have done.


As all things must pass so the last day of the 2018 cruise came along, but not before one more big blowout - the now traditional Big Jam, featuring all the artists, in turn and all together.  Marshalled by the untiring Toronzo Cannon, a procession of artists took their turn.  The ladies went first, Nora Jean Bruso and (Liz Mandeville backing up on frottoir) sharing the dance floor with happy dancing couples, then Rip Lee Pryor arrived turning up the harmonica heat, he in turn giving way to Wayne Baker Brooks rocking round the dance floor and eventually Liz Mandeville working the mojo, until the entire cast took the stage all together in a glorious cascade of music.

European Blues Cruise finale

Once more the European Blues Cruise team, under the leadership of Lisa Panoyan, director of the Marseille Blues Society had created an exciting, varied program featuring some of the best blues talent from Chicago and beyond, presented in an enjoyable, friendly atmosphere. The festival is still young and things are evolving every time, but the fundamentals of good music, great performers and a supportive audience are all there.  Roll on 2019!


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