Great music and good times at the second ever European Blues Cruise

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European Blues Cruise

By Glenn Noble (Chicago Blues Guide)

After the great success of their inaugural European Blues Cruise in 2014, organisers Blues Society of Marseille and director Lisa Panoyan, were delighted to be able to arrange another event this September, again with the support of cruise line Croisieres de France and the good ship Horizon. As a young festival, new features can be tried out and this time there were plenty of format changes to enjoy.  An exciting new event, before the festival proper, was a get together in the recently opened Hard Rock Cafe in Marseille. This was an opportunity both to get a little taste of the music to come and to meet and mingle with the artists and some of the fellow cruisers who we would be sharing the days ahead with.  The event worked well and seeing what Toronzo Cannon, Nellie “Tiger”Travis, Vasti Jackson and Lady “A” had to offer really got the cruisers in the mood.

After embarkation the next day (which Lisa and the team had clearly worked on to make the process slick and easy) we set sail under perfect blue skies into the darker blues of the Mediterranean sea, and looked forward to the blues talent of the artists selected from around the USA. Similar to the previous year, a “house band” provided the back line for a number of featured artists, and as they did in 2014, Chicago’s own Toronzo Cannon’s Cannonball Express band fulfilled this duty.  Consisting of Dave Forte on bass, Chris Alexander on drums and the inimitable Ronnie Hicks on keys, the guys carved out a rock-solid foundation for the rest of theperformers to depend on. Toronzo also was acting as musical director, keeping the show together as well as performing with the Cannonball Express in their own right.

Ringing the changes from the all-Chicago lineup of the inaugural cruise, the festival was opened by a vocalist from Seattle, Anita “Lady A” White, who took the opportunity to start the party off with an infectious mix of blues, ballads, and even a little Beatles, delivered with verve and passion.

The poolside stage wasn’t big enough to hold this lady back as she tested the limits of the radio mic, getting down with the dancing crowd.

So, having enjoyed the afternoon sunshine, we head indoors to the Salon Rendezvous, a smaller club-style room, complete with mirrored stage and dancefloor – which latter saw plenty of action as young harp player Russ Green teamed up with Toronzo Cannon to dispense a shot of the real Chicago blues sound – hints of a Sugar Blue influence, which is no bad thing!

On to day 2, and kicking off a full day’s programme, it’s Toronzo Cannon and the Cannonball Express taking the poolside slot in the hot afternoon sunshine. Although celebrating his recent signing to Alligator Records, Toronzo powered through a number of tracks from his last Delmark CD, John the Conquer Root while mixing in a few numbers from the likes of Albert King and Muddy Waters for good measure. Toronzo is definitely on the crest of a wave at the moment, and is deservedly getting wider recognition.

The Grand Theatre, a large venue in red velvet and gold, provided an appropriately imposing setting for the hugely talented Vasti Jackson to take over. “Stimulus Man” opened the show and it’s hard to think of a more appropriate way to describe the firecracker energy this Mississippi singer, songwriter and guitarist radiates.  This guy can play it cool, hot, heavy, mellow – you name it. And it doesn’t have to be electric either: at one point Vasti brought out a fold-up acoustic guitar for a little melodic number to the delight the audience. At the other extreme, a monster “Hoochie Coochie Man” had the boat rocking, and feature some great call and response between Vasti and Ronnie Hicks. Nor is he limited to strictly blues – a lovely cover of Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up” had the crowd singing along.  If Vasti is in your town anytime, go see him!

Closing the night, Lady “A” in the Salon served up some funk, a little gospel and plenty of “blues in the key of me” to keep the party crowd on their feet till the wee hours.

On to the third and final full day of the cruise, and another feature new to this edition of the Cruise is a ProAm Jam. The set up is in yet another of our good ship Horizon’s apparently endless set of venues, this time in the generously-sized Club Saphir which benefits from a large dance floor. And good thing too, as there needs to be room for all the pro musicians and a long list of “amateurs”, though in truth many of the amateurs have plenty of experience playing on their home turf.  There were musicians from France, Sweden and Great Britain (Hi to Dave Thomas!); guitarists, drummers, harpists, and singers were all represented, and I think a fair assessment was that the standard was surprisingly high as all managed to trade licks with the likes of Vasti, Toronzo and Russ.  This jam was another fun innovation for the EBC, so well done to the team for including it, and to Toronzo for marshalling it!

The big feature of the day however, awaited. Once more in the lush setting of the Grand Theatre, we were treated to one of Chicago’s finest blues divas, the incomparable Nellie “Tiger” Travis.

Nellie has a big voice and a big stage presence, and she used both to full effect to fill the large space. Switching from down and dirty to soulful and haunting, Nellie demonstrated a great range of technique, yet never let the technique get in the way of the emotional content of the material.  There were a number of standouts for me – an intimate reading of BB King’s “The Thrill is Gone”, sitting on the edge of the stage; followed by a soaring “I’d Rather Go Blind” with Nellie’s voice unmiked, roaming free through the theatre and drawing the audience to their feet in appreciation.

Getting back to the Chicago roots, there was a section dedicated to Koko Taylor demonstrating a worthy succession in the tradition of ladies in the blues.

After all of that emotion, after a short break, it was back to the Rendezvous for a barnstorming All-Star Jam. Lady “A” and Nellie “Tiger” Travis duetted (and danced) beautifully, somehow both Vasti Jackson and Toronzo Cannon managed to fit on the stage, while Russ Green must have blown more notes out of a harp than anyone has ever done before.  The show packed out the dancefloor and the vote of thanks from the artists and audience to the Marseille Blues Society team was warm, sincere, and entirely deserved.
The recipe may have been changed, with some new features, but the main ingredients of a great line-up of talent and a passionate support team made this event a complete success. “Chapeau” (hats off!) to Lisa Panoyan, her team at Marseille Blues Society, Voyages Byblos and Croisieres de France for creating and sustaining such a showcase for blues in Europe. Here’s to next year!


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