Linda and I spent the best vacation of our lives on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruisefrom January 24-31. We sailed from Fort Lauderdale aboard Holland America”s MS Eurodam with stops at Samana, Dominican Republic; Tortola and Dominica.”” I went ashore at Tortola (more about that later) but spent the rest of the time digging music, hanging out with musicians and fans and reading (Rick Coleman”s very fine biography of Fats Domino: Blue Monday).

The Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise has been operating since 2002 -this was cruise number 13.They started with a January Cruise to the Caribbean but have since expanded with an October voyage from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas. We were aboard for the first West Coast Cruise which was four days. It has since has grown to a full seven days. Things tend to wind up late on the LR&BC but you can still view the proceedings from your cabin via two different closed circuit television channels. Another channel was showing Bob Mugge films, including Deep Blues.

There are several unique features of the LR&BC. First and foremost is the loyalty of their clientele: there is an 80% return rate among its customers! This is unheard of in any business. Roger Naber was once a club owner in Kansas City (The Grand Emporium) and he has an instinctive feel for what his Cruisers want. Attention to detail is important and Naber”s staff is fully attuned to the needs of everyone.

The music was glorious! We began on Saturday by renewing acquaintances with Dion. He and his wife Susan are veteran cruisers on the Holland America line however this was their first time aboard the LR&BC. We met them in Memphis at the Blues Music Awards a few years ago. Dion has recorded a couple of blues CDs that are well worth your attention. They are Bronx In Blue and Son of Skip James. When Roger found out that he would be aboard, he invited him to do a solo set which was scheduled for the following afternoon. We sat together, and were joined by Guy Davis, to hear John Hammond, (whom Dion had known since the 1960s). John keeps getting better and now that he is writing songs, his sets are more varied and interesting. On a Jimmy Reed tune, he got as close to the Reed harmonica sound as anyone I”ve ever heard.

Linda and I went to hear Terrance Simien and his band (complete with guest flute player). Terrance has more fun performing than anyone I know and he insists that his audience get into the act. He flung Mardi Gras beads into the crowd (but not, as he did at The Poconos Blues Festival, with his feet) and answered requests for traditional zydeco tunes. When he sang a Bob Dylan song he set himself apart from everyone. What a voice! I was set to emcee three shows on Sunday but prior to that we stopped in to hear the Gospel Brunch hosted by The Holmes Brothers. Wendell Holmes did not make the trip due to health reasons and was replaced by Ray Schinery on guitar. In addition, Catherine Russell was added to the trio playing keyboards and adding a fourth voice. In this first of five shows the band would perform over the week, things were not quite in synch with the blend of the voices, and not exactly what I would have preferred. After lunch, I headed to the Queen”s Lounge where Dion would do his solo set. Although I was about fifteen minutes early, I couldn”t get near the stage! The room had begun to fill up when he started his sound check and quickly was packed to overflowing. Roger Naber handled the introductions in my absence and Dion proceeded to completely enthrall the crowd. He is a natural storyteller and mixed up country blues with versions of his own hits and even hits by other writers (he had the audience singing along with Neil Sedaka”s “Calendar Girl”!). His set was one of the many big hits of the cruise.

I had the pleasure of introducing The Georgia Songbird, E.G. Kight for a solo set in the late afternoon slot. I have followed this lady for more than ten years since she moved into the blues field. She is a gifted songwriter-her tunes are being performed by a growing number of singers these days. The house was about one-third full when she began however people began drifting in and they stayed. E.G. has an easy manner with her songs and was, to me, a surprisingly good guitarist. By the time she finished the room was full. She is a class act. We joined Terrance Simien for dinner and had some wonderful conversation. He is someone who has benefited considerably since becoming the first recipient of the Cajun/Zydeco Grammy. Many of the players in his band have been with him ten years or more so the sound of the group is tight and the repertoire wide.

I have been introducing Guy Davis for many years and have always appreciated his versatility on banjo, guitar and harmonica. He is one who is completely at ease in front of an audience and his own songs blend in perfectly with the songs by other writers (he had the audience singing along with Mississippi John Hurt”s “Candy Man”). We heard a taste of Irma Thomas before turning in. We have heard her on any number of occasions and we know her basic set well. Yet she is so thoroughly consistent in her performances, she is always worth a listen. The audience, many of whom have heard her as often as we have, simply adores her.

While in port, there was no music until late afternoon and while some checked out Samana, I chilled with my book and dug some of the films. By this time, Linda & I would head in different directions but we rendezvoused at the Queen”s Lounge for a mostly acoustic jam which featured Bob Margolin and E.G. There were lots of guests including Ana Popovic and Guy Davis. Margolin is a perfect host for this sort of thing since he tells funny stories (the one about Big Joe Williams and Muddy was a favorite) and is able to bend his own playing to suit anyone else. We were especially impressed with Ms. Popovic, whose playing, in this loose relaxed context, was quite good and very different from what one hears in her own shows. She has an eight month old son Luke, and is thus far managing to balance the demands of motherhood, with those of a professional entertainer. Linda turned in but we hung out with Steve Simon, who runs a Blues Festival on St. John”s in March, ace photographer Joe Rosen and some other kindred spirits until way past late. The piano bar was still jumping and Mitch Woods made the most of his many appearances there. Tomorrow, Tortola.