(Editor’s note: The 2016 review of the Sandy Beaches Cruise can be found here.)

By Ken Paulson

We’ve just stepped off Delbert McClinton’s Sandy Beaches Cruise, a floating music festival in its 21st year. Though the ship stopped in Antigua and St. Croix, that really didn’t matter. On Sandy Beaches, you come for the music.

The cruise features an amazing array of artists, with blues, rhythm and blues and New Orleans influences among the most common denominators. Headliners included McClinton, Paul Thorn, the Mavericks, Lyle Lovett, Marcia Ball, Wayne Toups, Band of Heathens, the McCrary Sisters, Teresa James, Elizabeth Cook, Lari White and Mingo Fishtrap. Rough seas moved some of the deck shows inside, but the performances didn’t suffer. It was one rich performance after another.

McClinton’s partner on the 2015  cruise was Sixthman, the industry leaders in music cruises. Their cruises (they call them festivals) include ventures with Kiss, Florida Georgia Line, Train and Kid Rock, as well as the popular Americana-folk-rock Cayamo cruise.

We’ve written extensively about the always amazing Cayamo cruise over the years and we’ll have a report on the 2015 cruise shortly. It’s the cruise that most closely matches the vibe and music of Sandy Beaches. While both are impressive festivals, Cayamo tends to have bigger names and a wide range of singer-songwriters (John Prine, Lucinda Williams, Richard Thompson and Lovett are headliners this year), while Sandy Beaches books bands and artists whose primary mission is to get you dancing in the aisles.

Among the week’s highlights on Sandy Beaches:

Red Young and Delbert McClinton

Red Young and Delbert McClinton

Collaborations – some planned, many impromptu – were a big part of the cruise, and Delbert McClinton was everywhere. In addition to three sets with his band, he sat in on a songwriters session featuring Gary Nicholson, Spooner Oldham, Danny Flowers, Glen Clark (of Delbert and Glen) and Bruce Channel. It was Delbert who played harmonica on Channel’s big hit “Hey! Baby,” a #1 record in 1962, and the duo revisited that classic.

The most striking team-up came when Delbert sat down on the piano bench with

veteran keyboardist Red Young for a stirring version of “Georgia,” while members of the audience attempted to slow dance despite high waves and a rocking boat. Young was a revelation throughout the cruise.

He’s played piano for Clyde McCoy, Lloyd Price, Eric Burdon, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and even Sonny and Cher, and he showed up as a sideman on stages throughout the cruise, while also leading a band that played Frank Sinatra and jazzy pop in the Spinnaker Lounge.

Delbert also joined Lari White for a song from her Green Eyed Soul album, to her obvious delight. She had opened her set by telling the audience that she would understand if they filtered out to see the Mavericks, whose set overlapped with hers. She then went on to make

Lari White and Delbert McClinton

Lari White and Delbert McClinton

sure they didn’t, Opening with “Amazing Grace” (her usual encore, she explained), a sizzling take on Steve Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” and guest spots with Young and others.

White’s concern about competition from the Mavericks was understandable. They played two robust sets, including songs from their upcoming album Mono, set for release on Valory Music on Feb. 17.

Bass player and longtime Maverick Robert Reynolds is no longer in the band, and the Mavericks used Sandy Beaches to introduce his successor James Intveld. Raul Malo claimed they were throwing Intveld into the mix without much rehearsal time, but it didn’t show. He’s an accomplished solo artist and a great addition to the band.

As hard as Delbert worked, Marcia Ball matched him, headlining her own three sets, hosting an all-star “Pianorama” that featured the most talented keyboardists on the cruise complementing and competing with each other, and doing guest spots in other shows, including a memorable turn with Teresa James.

Marcia Ball and Teresa James

Marcia Ball and Teresa James

Lyle Lovett was probably the biggest draw on the cruise, and packed the largest theater on the boat with acoustic sets that had fans raving.

Paul Thorn’s fans were also out in force, though he surprised many by announcing that after more than a decade on this cruise, this would be his last. He told fans to watch his website for developments, and then delivered an outstanding set that included a guest spot by his daughter on tambourine.

It’s been a few years since we’ve seen Thorn perform, and it’s clear that as his fan base has grown, so has his sound. He’s playing much bigger rooms now and his band is more powerful  and his songs more anthemic. He played a number of songs from his latest album Too Blessed to Be Stressed, including “Everybody Needs Somebody” and a wonderful version of the title song with guest vocals from the McCrary Sisters.

Another highlight from the new album was “Mediocrity is King,” the best protest song we’ve heard in years, taking to task everything and everyone who waters down our culture, and expressing special disdain for both Republicans and Democrats.

A bonus was the Paul Thorn Band’s take on Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes,” from the recent tribute album Looking Into You.

Thorn also showed up on Jason Wilber’s “In Search of A Song” radio show taping and as a flamboyantly dressed guest on Fred Eaglesmith’s mock talk show. The Sandy Beaches audience will miss him.

Elizabeth Cook battled an illness early in the week, and only made it through four songs before her voice gave out.

To our surprise, she battled back on Friday to deliver a solid set that drew heavily from her recent Gospel Plow album and her 201o release Welder, including “El Camino” and “Heroin Addict Sister” from the latter.

Whether it was the bug or the mix, her vocals were sometimes overwhelmed by her new band, but she played for almost 90 minutes.

Jill Sobule’s time on the boat was limited, but she delivered one of the most entertaining sets of the week, backed by members of Paul Thorn’s band. she opened with “If I Had a Jetpack,” followed by the defiant “I’ve Got Nothing to Prove,” immediately winning over the audience.

Jill Sobule and her instant chorus

Jill Sobule and her instant chorus

“Where is Bobbie Gentry?,” from her California Years album, was next, and Sobule said she had been told that Gentry thought the song was very funny. It was a  sweet tribute to Gentry and the sound of “Ode to Billie Joe.”

Sobule explained that she had been hired to write a song about the history of immigration in America, and enlisted more than a dozen audience members to serve as a chorus on a powerful and profane song that makes the point that virtually all of us are in the U.S. because of immigration.

Sobule closed with a sampling of fan favorites, including “Supermodel” from the Clueless soundtrack, “Bitter,” “When My Ship Comes In, “Underdog Victorious”  and “Lucy in the Gym,” with an atrium-wide sing-along on the encore of Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes.”

Of course, all of this just scratches the surface. There were more than 60 shows, with outstanding sets by Wayne Toups, the Band of Heathens, the McCrary Sisters, Jimmy Hall, Teresa James and many more.

Spooner Oldham and Glen Clark

Spooner Oldham and Glen Clark

As musically memorable as the week was, some of the smaller moments were the most memorable. When Muscle Shoals great Spooner Oldham performed his “I’m Your Puppet,” a hit for James and Bobby Purify in 1966, Glen Clark couldn’t contain himself, rushing all the way across the stage to harmonize with Oldham. We know the feeling.

(The 2016 Sandy Beaches Cruise is scheduled for January 9 through 16 on the Holland America Line. More information is available on Delbert McClinton’s site.)