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LIVE REVIEW -- Third European Blues Cruise 2016
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Third ever European Blues Cruise 2016

Lets the good times roll on the high seas

August 27-September 1, 2016

Billy Branch & Sons of the Blues, Carlos Johnson, Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry w/ Shy Perry, Hat Man Session, Mitch Woods, Stacy Brooks

European Blues Cruise group shot

By Glenn Noble

Photos: Jennifer Noble

To see more photos, visit the FB page

Even though only three years old, the European Blues Cruise has each year been reinventing itself and trying out new approaches and format changes.  This year, the Blues Society of Marseille and director Lisa Panoyan, felt able to really push the boat out and extended the cruise to a whopping six days over the end of August to the beginning of September, an addition to the previous 3 night/4 day setup.  Would the intrepid cruisers and our new ship Zenith (sister to Horizon, our home afloat for the two previous cruises) survive this long?  

A cool feature brought over from last year was the opening party, held the night before departure.  This year, the venue was the newly opened Les Docks in the Joliette district (a name that has a familiar ring to Chicago readers!), renovated historic warehouses belonging to the old port of Marseille which provided an attractive backdrop for the brief taster sets performed by the artistes we would be seeing on board.

The morning after brought bright Mediterranean sunshine and gentle breezes, a perfect combination as we took ship.  As we lazed by the pool enjoying the afternoon sun, the Zenith slipped out of the harbour, signal for the proceedings to be kicked off by our MC, Chicago’s own Jennifer Noble who introduced singer Stacy Brooks. DC-based Stacy has an engaging, danceable style -- just the thing to get the show under way, and had the pool deck hopping straight away, with a string of classic tunes inspired by Koko Taylor and Etta James. Just to be sure they knew who they were dealing with, a fun number “My Name is Stacy” spelled it out.  

Stacy Brooks
Stacy Brooks

Time to enjoy a splendid dinner before heading to the Salon Rendezvous, a glittering, mirrored lounge which tonight hosted Mitch Woods. Although the first time a piano player has been featured on the European blues cruise, Mitch is no stranger to the cruise scene, being a regular on the Legendary Blues Cruises in the US.  Mitch really got into his “stride” with the late night dancing crowd who really enjoyed the mix of boogie-woogie, cajun and good old rock’n’roll tunes.  A surprise treat was a 4-handed boogie duet with Sons of Blues keyboard maestro Sumito Ariyoshi aka Ariyo.   That really drew a crowd as the keys got a major pounding.  What a way to end a night!

Ariyo & Mitch Woods
Ariyo & Mitch Woods

Because of the length of the cruise this year, we had a full day at sea with nothing to do but soak up sun and good blues.  Our first full day at sea opened up with the Hat Man Session band led by Nasser “Hat Man” Ben Dadoo playing by the poolside..  An award-winning blues band based in Marseille,  they produced some fine Chicago-style blues and excellent harmonica from Marko Balland.  Indoors then, to get a break from the heat of the noonday sun, and check out the next performance, which was an acoustic set from Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry and Shy Perry. Originally hailing from the North Mississippi hill country, Bill spent a number of years in the Chicago blues scene in the 60s and 70s, recording and producing for Chess Records, before returning to his native state. Bill projects a gritty, grizzled persona, hunched over his guitar - presenting quite a contrast to his animated, smiling accompanist, daughter Shy Perry, on keyboard.

Bill Howl N Madd Perry & Shy Perry
Bill "Howl-N-Madd" Perry & daughter Shy

Up next, the Pro-Am Jam, something that was introduced for the first time last year, giving the musically-inclined cruisers a chance to take the stage with the professionals. Kicked off by Hat Man Session, we were treated to not one but two fans armed with washboards (or “frottoirs”) providing a bit of Cajun flavour to the proceedings.  In keeping with the spirit of the jam, each artist came up and took their turn to trade licks before letting the next performer take their turn and mix it up. We were treated to Billy Branch and the SOBs, Mitch Woods,  Giles Corey of the SOBs taking a turn on vocals, Stacy Brooks getting the ladies on to the dance floor, and Bill and Shy Perry coming back to the stage they’d just left.  

Billy Branch, Stacy Brooks, Shy Perry
Billy Branch, Giles Corey, Stacy Brooks & Shy Perry

There was just enough time to peek in on Mitch once more in the Rendezvous lounge before heading over to the Grand Theatre, the ship’s imposing 2-level, plushly-upholstered main auditorium for the main attraction of the day, one of Chicago’s favourite guitarists, the very talented Carlos Johnson.  In order to accommodate the ship’s dining arrangements, Carlos performed two sets. “Every day is a blessing” he announced as he took the stage, and a day with great guitar blues like this is doubly blessed.  Carlos’ mastery of the dynamic range was used to superb effect, drawing the audience’s attention deep into quiet passages in solos, then stunning us with musically, solid riffs.  Ably backed up by the Sons of Blues - this year’s house band - Carlos was able to flick across genres, deftly segueing “I’ll Play the Blues for You” into the mellow reggae of “I Shot the Sheriff”, for example.  Plenty of showmanship on and off-stage too, as Carlos took the show right into the heart of the crowd. Finishing up with a rousing “Every Day I Have the Blues”, Carlos received a well-deserved ovation, clearly sending the audience off happy.

Carlos Johnson
Carlos Johnson

The dawning of day three brought up the first port of call on this year’s cruise, as we woke to the magnificent sight of the Bay of Naples, with Mount Vesuvius looming over the ruins of Pompeii and the island of Capri shimmering through the heat haze.  After a day’s sightseeing, it was relaxing to get back on board and chill by the pool to Hat Man Session, this time with a little help from Carlos Johnson and Stacy Brooks.  As the sun went down, the evening programme began in the Rendezvous Lounge with Bill and Shy Perry, this time with the backing of the SOBs and Marko Balland. If you like your blues down and dirty, then you were going to be in hog heaven, and the combination of Bill Perry’s gruff, gravelly vocals, some excellent driving harp from Marko, and a notable slide work from the SOBs Giles Corey helped deliver all of that.

The crowd certainly appreciated it, keeping the dance floor busy all through and demanding an encore at the end.  Thus the crowd was really warmed up for Stacy Brooks as she took on the late spot in the evening.  Again backed by the SOBs, Stacy punched out some rocking numbers, sometimes with a little jazzy flavour, sometimes a little bit funky, but always with a  genuine feeling for the blues.  Stacy is clearly inspired by two of the great ladies of blues, Etta James and Koko Taylor, and a riveting cover of “At Last,” with a superb accompaniment by SOB’s Ariyo, left barely a dry eye in the house. “Let the Good Times Roll” closed out the show, and judging by the numbers of people dancing, that was exactly what was going on!

Billy Branch
Billy Branch

A short sea passage up the Italian coast took us next morning to the port of Civitavecchia, the historical gateway to Rome. The Eternal City was full of amazing sights and amazing heat too, so it was quite a relief to make it back to the Zenith and the air-conditioned comfort of the Grand Theatre for the big show of the night: Billy Branch and the Sons of Blues.  Always creative, while the SOBs assembled on stage, Billy chose to enter from the back of the auditorium, playing a jaunty improvisation on the traditional French nursery rhyme “Frere Jacques” as tribute to our host nation.  Warming up the stage with an opening instrumental, Billy tore into the self-titled “Sons Of Blues” and then it was “time to boogie” to Little Walter’s “Crazy Mixed Up World”, with lots of flourishes and embellishments. Continuing the up-tempo mood, the irresistible beat of John Lee Hooker’s classic “Boom Boom” pulled the audience out of their seats and up on their feet as the SOB Masterpiece Blues Theatre worked their magic.  A pause then, after this exciting start, a change of tempo as Billy dedicated a slow blues workout to the people of France, calling it “the premier blues loving nation in Europe” and as the SOBs kept the groove going on stage (particularly sweet, rolling keyboards from Ariyo), Billy took the music down into the auditorium, playing almost individually to everyone on the crowd.  After the lengthy sashay round the room, it was back up on stage to be joined by Carlos Johnson for a rampant set closer in “Blues Shock” from the SOBs recent album of the same name.

After a short break to let the second house take their seats, it was back on with a further demonstration of the repertoire, taking in classics from Junior Wells, Jimmy Rogers and James Cotton, along with examples of his own fine material. As if the technical brilliance of the harp playing was not enough in its own right, the mastery of the stage and theatrics as Billy worked the room - now sitting conversationally on the steps of the stage, now twisting and rolling on the floor - lifted the event into the realms of pure, joyous entertainment.  

Billy Branch on floor
Billy Branch gets down

A big finale, set to that old workhorse “Got My Mojo Working”, had Stacy Brooks, and Shy Perry joining in the fun, and with Marko Balland competing in a harp battle with Billy, all combined to make a cracking end to a top-class show.  The good spirits continued late over in the Salon Rendezvous, as Mitch Woods led the piano-bar vibe, with a little help from Carlos Johnson, Hatman Session, and fellow keyboard guru, Ariyo.

All good things come to an end, even blues cruises, and so the final day rolled around. Our last  stopping point was the port of Bastia in Corsica, a picture-perfect French island territory, despite lying just off the west coast of Italy, and most famously the birthplace of the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.  Our blues emperors Billy Branch and Carlos Johnson held court during the afternoon, sharing memories and experiences of two lifetimes spent in the Chicago blues scene, interwoven with intimate renditions of some of the music that had accompanied them along the way. It was truly fascinating to hear some of the stories of two outstanding performers.  

Switching seats, there was one more chance to sample the delights of Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry and Shy Perry’s Mississippi-flavoured music.  Inevitably, after our last dinner on board, the action moved for the last time to the Salon Rendezvous, where Giles Corey of the SOBs fronted up the jam, and it’s fair to say that all the performers got their fair share of the action, as the party went on way into the small hours. Quite a few die-hards hung out to chat even after the music ended, because as the fans and performers both are “shipmates”, it’s a specially close, intimate environment.

Giles Corey
Giles Corey

As we left the Zenith the next morning, some were fortunate to be staying in beautiful Marseille, others had trains and planes to catch to destinations further afield.  Wherever they were bound, it was certain that the blues fans would be taking some wonderful memories of another superb cruise with them.  Having talked to the representative of the cruise line, Croisieres de France, and the Blues Society of Marseille, it seems pretty certain that this event can look forward to continued support and development in future -- it will certainly be exciting to see what new features the team can devise for next year.  Congratulations and good luck to Lisa and the team!


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