y Lee Zimmerman
Time seems to stand still when you're on a cruise ship out at sea. And yet, when it comes to time spent strictly having fun - encouraged all the more by a cruise that puts the focus entirely on music - the time seems to pass way too fast. And when that special sojourn is the Sandy Beaches Cruise on board the Norwegian Pearl and hosted by Atlanta's Sixthman music cruise team, suffice it to say it's easy to get caught up in a forward motion of an entirely different sort, a time lapse that's somewhere in-between.
Or perhaps, somewhere far beyond. The music ploughs ahead at full steam, but sensory perception is often difficult to surmise, being that the players on this particular cruise tend to leave their audiences spellbound, the result of sheer adulation and performances that are high velocity and vertically motivating to say the very least.
It began as the brainchild of barrelhouse blues veteran Delbert McClinton, who initiated the cruise some 21 years ago as a means of gathering friends and fans for a celebration out at sea. Since then, the Sandy Beaches Cruise - or SBC for short - has attracted a group of steadfast devotees who make the trek year after to bask in the music, merriment, friendship and fellowship the cruise has come to represent.
Not surprisingly then, the musical line-up is every bit as impressive as any other seaborne festival has to offer. McClinton, who's never bowed to any fleeting fashion or trend throughout his 50-plus year career, continues in the role of the gracious host and the man responsible for booking the talent.
However, the flash and frenzy seems the domain of the support acts, as personified by the sweat and swing of The Mavericks, Paul Thorn, Lyle Lovett, Marcia Ball, Band of Heathens, Fred Eaglesmith, Jimmy Hall, Wayne Toups, the McCrary Sisters, Mingo Fishtrap and several solo artists whose singular names alone could boost the marquee value into stellar realms.
Then there are the songwriters whose presence provides the veritable icing on the cake, the proverbial wealth of riches who sometimes seem to get short thrift due to being confined to the songwriter showcases - renowned writers, producers, sidemen and solo stars like the legendary Spooner Oldham, Gary Nicholson, Danny Flowers, Al Anderson, Jill Sobule, Kimmie Rhodes, Etta Britt, Kevin Welch, Shelley King and Lari White.
Their presence often seems fleeting, given that there's relatively little chance to catch them in the solo spotlight, but it's to McClinton's credit that he appears intent on including his friends in his show, whether it's his old singing partner Glen Clark or former employer Bruce "Hey Baby" Channel. Judging by the game of musical chairs that seems to rotate around each of McClinton's sets, his generosity is never in doubt.
That said, there never seems to be enough time to soak up the powerful performances that compete for attention throughout the day and night. (As McClinton himself confessed in a rare moment of downtime, the ports of call are almost incidental. "Nobody seems to give a damn about them anyway.")
Lyle Lovett and His Acoustic Band are, as always, extraordinary, due in no small way to its ringleader's self-effacing humor and aw-shucks humility. "I'm impressed y'all can stand up," the big-haired bandleader suggested during a day of especially high surf. "That's not a drinking joke, that's a wave joke. Up here, we're actually nailed to the stage."
Humor aside, his band is a serious bunch, thanks to the inclusion of the legendary Russ Kunkel on the traps, bassist extraordinaire Viktor Krauss, Jim Cox on keys and main foil Luke Bulla on violin and harmonies.
In terms of sheer dynamics and propulsive appeal, The Mavericks are the undeniable showstoppers. Singer Raul Malo's vibrant vocals - often eerily reminiscent of his idol Roy Orbison even while seeped in country heartbreak, a la Hank Williams - clearly shine at the fore, but its guitarist Eddie Perez's impressive command of quintessential rock star posturing, Paul Deakin's steadfast drumming and propulsive beat, and keyboard player Jerry Dale McFadden's unbounded enthusiasm and Peewee Herman-like dance moves that force divided focus amongst all the players. Founding member Robert Reynolds, recently ejected for indulging his personal demons, wasn't really missed due to his absence.
Band of Heathens seemed more intent on purging their personal demons, at least when it came to their sonic output. A ruggedly assertive take on John Fogerty's "Wrote a Song for Everyone" and the stirring title track from their acclaimed LP "One Foot in the Ether" proved to be the showstoppers, but for a band built around songwriters, their entire performance proved remarkably resilient.
Likewise, Marcia Ball - who, by the way, deserves kudos for employing the most tireless drummer in a vessel filed with remarkable rhythm makers - found the ideal balance in a performance that veered between songs that were either playful or passionate, an astute mix of boogie, blues and bluster that was clearly borne from many a roadhouse rendezvous.
Other artists were no less adept, whether manifest by the gospel sheen of the ever present McCrarys, the zydeco sprawl of Wayne Toups and company, the heartfelt country soul of Teresa James (her song "She Has a Way With Men, But She Isn't Getting a Way with Mine" boasts the best country lyric heard in some time) or the sheer funk and frenzy of the Al Ghent Band and Mingo Fishtrap. In fact, there was nary any hint of a racial divide, given the roots appeal of the music and its make-up.
Regardless, every cruiser inevitably has his or her standouts. Sandy Beaches made that determination a challenge, although Fred Eaglesmith's humorous monologues - lengthened to a great degree by a hoarse, disabled vocal - ensured a laugh out loud repast that sounded like an uncanny mix of Johnny Carson and David Letterman. His colorful backing quartet, including a female bassist, a female drummer and his guitar and accordion wielding wife, Tif Ginn - who doubled as his opening act and backing singer - ably held their own, no easy assignment given Eaglesmith's down home homilies and irascible demeanor.
Nevertheless, when he was left to his own devices as the host of a hilarious homespun talk show in the upstairs Spinnaker Lounge, the music wasn't missed at all.
Even so, the arguable star appeared to be Paul Thorn, whose new album, "I'm Too Blessed To Be Stressed" bears the suspicion that he's about to become a star. Like Eaglesmith, Thorn boasts a telling sense of humor, one that is quantified by his monochromatic southern drawl and abundance of hard luck tales. "If you can pay your bills and afford to go on this cruise, then you are blessed," he reminded the assembled legions.
And indeed, being that the highpoint of that aforementioned album is the unabashedly optimistic "Everything's Gonna Be Alright" when given the added oomph of his full electric band, Thorn's upbeat, anthemic tomes still manage to carry the day. Like the effect manifest by the entire shipboard experience overall, it's hard not to be swept up in the emotion and enthusiasm.
Which brings us to the original premise, that being time. The music is timeless it could be argued, but more telling is the fact that the passengers who have spent their hard earned funds to immerse themselves in it are what one might describe as being of senior stature. While a good portion of those on board were likely in their 60s or 70s, the whole notion of age seems meaningless. These particular cruisers danced, boogied and partied as if they were in their 20s and 30s. Anyone who might contemplate the gradual diminishing of enthusiasm for the sounds that amplified their youth would indeed be heartened to find that grey hair, being slower of movement and less than limber is no detriment when it comes to the sheer enjoyment of a communal bond.
"These older folks appreciate the music because it speaks to the experiences they've lived themselves," said a woman sitting next to us one evening, who also happened to be a psychologist. It clearly seemed to make sense.
The issue of age certainly has no restraint on dedication either. One passenger who went by the nickname "Hat," due to her colorfully festooned headgear, allowed that she had attended SBC for 20 of its 21 years. "It doesn't matter how many other cruises you've been on," she dutifully reminded us. "If this is you first Sandy Beaches cruise, you're still a newbie."
Mary Phillips is, for all intents and purposes, still a relative newbie. Like the vast majority of folks on the boat, she hails from Texas. Mary's friends convinced her to take her first Sandy Beaches cruise last year after her husband passed away. "People will tell you that this cruise is a life changing experience," she maintains. "It almost sounds like a cliche. But I will tell you that it did change my life. I didn't realize how depressed I was. It helped me get out of my funk. All of a sudden, I had 1,700 new best friends."
Veteran songwriter Danny Flowers put it another way. "I've given up being lost in the past," he told his audience one evening. "I'm working on being lost in the present."
Then again, Lyle Lovett might have summed it up best. "There are moments when you think it can't get much better than this. But when that euphoria subsides, it can be scary because you realize it's all downhill from here."