Day 1 - Monday, Feb 15, 2016: For the second year running, the undisputed blues ringleader of the United States, Joe Bonamassa, has set sail with a couple of thousand of his closest friends and fans to take the music that they all love to the high seas (and on Wednesday, Mexico). What we’re expecting is a week of live blues jams from artists including Bonamassa, Beth Hart, Shemekia Copeland and Selwyn Birchwood, a little bit of sun and some preposterously enormous margaritas, all in a setting where flip-flops are actually an acceptable option for your feet, rather than the sartorial monstrosity they’d be on dry land.
As the crowds troop onto the Norwegian Pearl cruise ship, they’re met by Jarekus Singleton in the atrium, starting the trip in style with the first live show of the cruise. It’s a magnificent, soulful, high energy set, fans stopping in their tracks on the way to their cabins to howl their appreciation, particularly for Singleton’s incredible drummer who makes her complex but fluid, jazzy style look as easy and relaxed as a dip in the pool.
By the time the anchor has been raised and we set sail, Blues Traveller have taken to the main pool deck, frontman John Popper only coming up from his harmonica for air to ask, “Is it the tequila, or is this boat rockin’?!” We suspect, given the shots being handed out by the boat’s staff, it may be a bit of both.
Shemekia Copeland, back in the main atrium bar, is celebrating. This weekend she was nominated for three awards at this year’s Grammys - and as the number one artist in our poll of the albums of 2015, we have to say we saw it coming, and it couldn’t be more deserved. It seems the holidaymakers here agree too, shouts of “we love you Shemekia!” honking across the room from the moment she hits the stage. What a voice this woman has, Married To The Blues and The Devil’s Hand showcasing her incredible range and power and sending shivers down the spine. She’s funny too, her between-song banter - paying tribute to her famous father Johnny Copeland, reliving a hilarious conversation on the blues with a skeptical eight-year-old girl, and raucously recounting her steps into country music on a trip to Nashville (as her lyrics in the following song says, ‘country isnt’ nothin’ but blues with a twang’) - crammed with a warm wit that makes her the life and soul of the party.
By the time Joe Bonamassa’s show outside on the pool deck is ready to ignite, the boat really is rocking - the wind has worked itself up into a rage, and as we lurch from side to side like a drunk just trying to make it to a bus stop at the end of the night, the cymbals on stage threaten to take off and throw themselves into the Atlantic in protest. But the show must go on, and, with a backwards baseball cap crammed on his head to stop his hair whipping into his eyes, Bonamassa gives the ecstatic crowd exactly what they’ve been waiting for, embarking on a high energy performance with licks so technically perfectly executed they’re almost a mathematical equation.
The other bands on the bill are out in force to enjoy it too - at one point we spot Beth Hart dancing wildly in the crowd, while sharp suited Vintage Trouble frontman Ty Taylor busts some insanely cool moves by the bar, charming the socks off the many fans who approach him as he makes new friends and snaps selfies and generally acts like a thoroughly excellent human being. Bonamassa’s set is a triumph over weather, and as he peels out a flawless Little Red Rooster, everyone goes reliably bananas, particularly the crowd in the hot tub who’ve jumped in fully clothed to demonstrate their appreciation. And as he ties up his first show of the week and welcomes us to his floating festival and temporary home, his fellow mariners head off into the depths of the ship to discover more bands tucked away in all corners of the Norwegian Pearl, ready to keep the good times rolling all night.