By Ken Paulson
While the U.S. was shivering from a wide-ranging cold front, the temperatures on the Holland America Oosterdam were far more pleasant, but accompanied by high winds and waves. That left a number of artists struggling to keep their footing on stage and dancing audience members discovering moves they didn’t know they had.
But this is one cruise where the weather is almost irrelevant. People return to the Sandy Beaches Cruise every year because the musical talent is deep and the vibe is relaxed. When cruisers meet each other, the first question is almost always “How many of these have you been on?” There’s status in numbers.
week kicked off with Marcia Ball and Teresa James, strategic scheduling that got the audience up out of its seats on the very first night. That pattern held throughout the week with highly danceable music from McClinton, Marc Broussard, Jimmy Hall, Clay McClinton, Gary Nicholson, Lee Roy Parnell, Wayne Toups and Mike Zito.
The Mavericks performed three exuberant shows, though one was in the face of powerful winds and a cascade of sea spray. I’m not sure I’ve seen a more challenging performance environment, but the band – and the faithful – stayed the course.
The World Famous Headliners, a band comprised of NRBQ veteran Al Anderson, Shawn Camp, Pat McLaughlin, Michael Rhodes and Greg Morrow, were cruise favorites. There are a few songs on which their three lead vocals mesh and sound strikingly like the Band, but with a sense of humor. The Headliners have recorded two fine albums, but almost never perform, so those on board for the cruise the past two years have probably seen a majority of their shows.
The McCrary Sisters are the spiritual heart of the cruise, offering up a powerful mix of soul and gospel. Their medley of “I Can See Clearly Now/Let the Sun Shine In” was a musical weather forecast, with a bit of wishful thinking thrown in.
The surprise of the week was a salute to Eric Burdon and the Animals, led by Red Young, who played with Burdon for decades. It turns out that Teresa James and members of the Rhythm Tramps also served as latter-day Animals, and they joined Young on this impressive revue of Burdon’s best. James herself took the lead on “Don’t Bring Me Down.”
“Pianorama” is always a highlight of the Sandy Beaches Cruise. This impromptu annual jam session led by Marcia Ball brings together nearly a dozen great keyboard players. Adrenaline flows and the performances are inspired.
Lari White, Etta Britt and Kree Harrison offered up impressive solo showcases, while the Band of Heathens, the Howlin’ Brothers and Mingo Fishtrap delivered well-received sets, tapping into country, rock and traditional music. No one had a more traditional sound than the Quebe Sisters who channel brilliant harmonies (they say the Mills Brothers are their model) and a love of Bob Wills into a vibrant and contemporary take on Western Swing
The Sandy Beaches Cruise songwriters sessions are always entertaining and probably merit a larger venue. One show was dedicated to Lubbock, Texas (in a back-handed sort of way.) It featured a very funny monologue by Jaston Williams of “Greater Tuna” fame, who explored the city’s quirks. “Our homosexuals were not all that gay,” he noted. Gary Nicholson had a great story of his own, recalling a truly crazed friend who rescued him from a biker gang. Delbert shared his own account of seeing UFOs high over Lubbock. Kimmie Rhodes organized the session, which also included stories and music from Sharon Vaughn.
Other songwriting shows featured Bruce “Hey Baby” Channel, Bob DiPiero, Donnie Fritts, Danny Flowers, HalleyAnna, Terry McBride, Tom Hambridge, Spooner Oldham, Kevin Welch, Dustin Welch and Lari White, among others.
Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real was this year’s revelation. Fresh off backing Neil Young, Willie Nelson’s sixth child delivered a high energy show reminiscent of the power trios of the late ‘60s. His own material – highlights included “Four Letter Word” and “Can You Hear Me Love You” – was complemented by nods to the past, from Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” to Roger Miller’s “King of the Road.”
And then there are Doyle and Debbie, aka Bruce Arnston and Jenny Littleton. The duo, along with Matt Carlton, offer up the story of a washed-up country star who latches onto a talented and desperate young woman and launches a comeback tour. The show, which features songs like “When You’re Screwing Other Women (think of me)” and “Fat Women in Trailers,” has been touring – and on the cruise – for a decade, and for good reason. It’s one of the funniest and most irreverent shows you’ll ever see.
The final show of the Sandy Beaches Cruise always features Delbert McClinton and a wide range of guest artists. Gary Nicholson assembled about a dozen friends from Nashville, who joined him in singing “More Days Like This,” a fitting sentiment after 7 days of soulful and satisfying performances.