Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
The First Ever European Blues Cruise
Sunday 31st August - Thursday 4th September 2014
Starring Chicago blues greats: John Primer, Toronzo Cannon, Ronnie Hicks, Mike Wheeler, Peaches Staten, Demetria Taylor, Omar Coleman and more!
By Glenn Noble
Photos: Jennifer Noble
While the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise is a well-established and popular feature of the U.S. blues scene, not so in Europe - at least until the Blues Society of Marseille, France stepped in this Fall. Under the directorship of Lisa Panoyan, the Society engaged nine of the top artists on the Chicago blues scene and negotiated with French cruise company Croisieres de France to host the first ever European Blues Cruise. This would leave from the beautiful and ancient port city of Marseille and take a leisurely course through the Mediterranean Sea, touching the Spanish Balearic Islands of Menorca, Ibiza and Majorca before returning home.
No sooner had the good ship Horizon cleared the breakwater of the port of Marseille, than the Chicago blues hit the stage. Shaded by a white awning from the fiery Mediterranean sun, on a stage overlooking the sunbathers and swimmers, Mike Wheeler kicked the party off. With a set mixing his own material - notably from his latest Delmark CD Self Made Man - with some of the classics, good-natured Mike’s warm grin and infectious humour drew a crowd of dancers up right off the bat. This gave us an early look at the backing band too -- Ronnie Hicks on keys and occasional vocals too, David Forte on bass and drummer Chris Alexander -- all of whom were going to be working pretty hard for the next few days!
Moving in from the sunshine, an invited audience of blues fans arrived to hear the artists get set up for their later shows, in the nightclub ambiance of the “Sapphire Club”. The soundcheck gave us the first taste of what was to come from featured artists John Primer, Toronzo Cannon, Omar Coleman and Demetria Taylor, before all scattered to grab some dinner ahead of the main performance of the night by Demetria.
So on to the “Salon Rendezvous”, a lounge with a low stage surrounded by mirrors and centered around the dance floor, which filled as soon as Demetria Taylor, daughter of Chicago legend Eddie Taylor, roared into “Voodoo Woman” and “Bad Girl”, from her album of the same name. Getting the already excited crowd to sing along to “Hey Bartender” was no problem as Demetria hopped down onto the dance floor to shake it a little and when she growled into “Hoochie Coochie Woman” everybody knew she was there! After providing great support on guitar from the start of the set Toronzo Cannon and Mike Wheeler switched out to let John Primer and Omar Coleman take the set down a more bluesy road, before Demetria took over again, winding up on Koko Taylor’s signature “Wang Dang Doodle” and for an encore, turning the whole audience into Chicagoans, singing along to a rousing “Sweet Home Chicago”. Quite the opening night!
Day Two of the cruise brought a visit to the port of Mahon on the Spanish island of Menorca, where apparently mayonnaise was invented! On departure, Mike Wheeler once more took the open-air stage for the afternoon show, providing a sunny, up-tempo start to the day’s musical entertainment. Later, within the “Grand Theatre” - a plush affair complete with red velvet banquettes and a balcony - Toronzo Cannon emerged dramatically from a cloud of dry ice for the first of his two sets of the night. Opening salvos from Toronzo’s own material (“She Loved Me”) contrasted with a soulful and delicate rendering of Albert King’s “As the Years Go Passing By” and an absolutely classic Chicago sound in Elmore James’ “Talk to Me Baby”. Some excellent showmanship from Toronzo, as he dropped to all fours and started playing his guitar with his teeth and then a bunch of Pete Townsend-style jumps, which earned a standing ovation from the mesmerized crowd!
After a brief interval, the second set opened with a Ronnie Hicks segment, first dedicating “Ain’t No Sunshine” to the lady who organised the whole event, Lisa Panoyan of the Marseille Blues Society. A brace of Ray Charles numbers included, “What I’d Say”—which allowed Ronnie take some exercise by strolling through the theatre during the call and response section -- and “You Don’t Know Me.”
Toronzo came back in front to turn up the heat again, ripping through the old rock’n’roll classics “Tutti Frutti” and “Great Balls of Fire” to close out on a Muddy Waters/Jimi Hendrix mashup of “Got My Mojo Working”. Not that the audience was going to let Toronzo go at that, and so a storming version of “Let Me Love You Baby,” with Mike Wheeler, Demetria Taylor and Peaches Staten joining in, took an energetic, entertaining show to its conclusion.
During the night, our floating home gently brought us to the island of Ibiza, best known for its hectic nightlife and dance music clubs. Our host, Lisa, had arranged an excursion for the artists to explore the island’s more natural attractions, which was refreshing. However, time and tide wait for no man, so as the afternoon came around, it was “All aboard”. Once more the afternoon show accompanied our departure, this time with Peaches Staten fronting the band. The sun was hot, and so was Peaches’ pink outfit! The set covered traditional blues territory (”I’ll Play the Blues for You,” “Big Boss Man”) but Peaches sprinkled in some more contemporary material (“It Must Be Love”, “Bad Case of Loving You”) and also took a trip back to her southern roots as she strapped on the frottoir for some down home Zydeco action joined by Omar Coleman on harp. Peaches is a very versatile artist, and injects energy and verve into whatever style of music she performs.
The big show of the evening was John Primer in the Grand Theatre. Harp player Omar Coleman opened by playing a walking blues number; John then took center stage, riffing effortlessly with the crowd through Muddy Waters’ “You Don’t Have to Go” and “Mule Kicking In My Stall” (a great storytelling song). Warmed up and hitting his stride, John showed off what the real Chicago blues should sound like. Tracks like “Mannish Boy” can get overplayed, but not so when executed by such authentic and talented hands. A big dancing party broke out stage right as John and the band threw out some fast shuffles; Ronnie Hicks put together a wild solo on keys before winding up the show by pulling everyone in the auditorium to their feet to sing together and clap along, as the song said “You Got to Pull Together”. Overall, the show left a sense of having seen a relaxed, effortless performance by a real master of his craft, projecting a warm and engaging personality. It was a real highlight to take us into the last part of the cruise.
After touching shore in Palma de Majorca, we started the homeward leg of the cruise back to Marseille with the now customary poolside show. Mike Wheeler backed Peaches Staten as they “Let It Roll” through some “Down Home Blues”. Once more Peaches spread her net across many genres aside from standard blues fare, hitting classic Louis Jordan and Nina Simone tunes as well as getting the poolside crowd grooving to Louisiana bayou sounds - assisted by the guest artistes on the frottoir, Lisa, Elise and Amal from the Blues Society. A ‘70s classic from the Marshall Tucker Band, “Can’t You See,” segued into “Hey Jude” for a big singalong finish in the afternoon sunshine.
A second invitation-only event for the blues fans aboard, an all-star jam, filled the early evening slot. Lead off by Demetria and Toronzo, it was a tag-team affair as each artist made way for the next. Ronnie Hicks once again filled the floor with his beautiful Ray Charles tributes, while Peaches gave everyone a dance lesson with her “Buck, Bounce, Boogie”. Omar Coleman “did right, even though he wanted to do wrong”. John Primer let us know “My Name is John Primer” and set up a grand finale leading the ensemble on “Hey Hey, the Blues is All Right”. What a storming way to end a fantastic voyage!
As the passengers disembarked on Thursday morning, the feedback from the cruisers, the musicians and the Marseille Blues Society folks was that this was an outstanding success. All credit to Lisa and her team for putting this together - the more so in view of the fact the Society is barely three years old and has only 25 members. Their plan is to do it again as soon as funding allows, and the vision is to grow it to the point where a whole ship can be full of blues cruisers. Good luck on your future mission!
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