Sea Cruise

Over the Bounding Main With Delbert McClinton & Friends

Banging down hard on her keyboards, singing "Sea Cruise,"Marcia Ball whips her wildly dancing audience into a frenzy that all but raises the roof off the place, the Frankie Ford classic working its magic. Problem is, since the Austin entertainer is performing on the pool deck of the cruise ship Norwegian Sea somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico, the only roof to raise is a blanket of stars.

"Ooooo-wheeeeee, oooo-wheeeeee baby," croons the chorus of 200-odd people in unison. They're having the time of their lives. Any why not? They paid the ultimate cover: $1,000. In fact, an equal number of passengers have paid this same fee to see Ball and numerous other musicians play on this seven-day vacation, which is status quo on the sixth annual Delbert McClinton Sandy Beaches Cruise, which will see ports of call in Cancún and Cozumel, Mexico, and Roatán, Honduras. All aboard!

If the phrase "sea cruise" brings to mind Captain Merrill Stuebing or Kathie Lee Gifford's shrill Carnival spots, it's time for a readjustment. The Love Boat this ain't; imagine instead a mini-South by Southwest for blues lovers headed toward Fantasy Island. Despite its corny moniker, "the Texaribbean Cruise," if white-sand beaches by day and R&B by night sound good to you, this is it.

Music is the constant here, with daily poolside performances every afternoon, a piano bar happy hour, and between four and six nightly showcases. Ball, Joe Ely, Stephen Bruton, Monte Montgomery, Patty Griffin, and Nick Connolly head up the Austin acts, joining the Nashville-based McClinton, John Hiatt, Sonny Landreth, Al Anderson, Jimmy Hall, Wayne Toups, Lloyd Jones, Tommy Castro, Anson Funderburgh, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Unannounced guests Bruce Channel, Pam Tillis, Rodney Crowell, Bonnie Raitt bassist Hutch Hutchison – and even a lucky passenger or two – frequently join in.

"Ooooo-wheeeeee, oooo-wheeeeee baby," Ball sings. "Ooooo-eeeeee baby, won't ya let me take you on a sea cruise."

She pounds out the last words, the paean to rockin' on the water trailing off amid applause that rises into the heavens.

Sunday: Houston Cruise Ship Terminal

Sunday afternoon, January 9, the Norwegian Sea waits to depart the Houston Cruise Ship Terminal. The scene is a familiar one to clubgoers: a long line of people waiting to get in. This time, though, they're waiting entrance onto a boat that, for seven days and seven nights, will host a nonstop fiesta. Soon, they'll all be partying like it's 1979.

Ball, a veteran of all six "Blues Cruises," is standing in front of Joe Ely and wife Sharon Thompson, veterans of three. Flamenco guitarist and first-timer Teye carries a small bag as he waits patiently for the line to move forward. Ball murmurs to a silver-haired woman with a strong family resemblance, then turns back to the line.

"I brought my mama," winks Ball, "she's more fun on these than Gordon, my husband. Gordon came on the first cruise with me, but he didn't enjoy it and neither did I. I didn't know how to do a cruise that first time; I was frantic, afraid I was missing one thing if I did another."

That odd bit of anxiety is easy to understand when faced with the legion of on-board options. If you want it, there's 24-hour room service, a casino, bars aft and fore, pools, hot tubs, a hair salon, restaurants, a workout room, shops – even the obligatory shuffleboard court. Additionally, activities run round the clock: bingo, art auctions, destination talks, wine tastings, welcome parties, sports classes, and fan-club meetings. Even AA meetings are aboard.

By 9:30pm that same night, pianist Nick Connolly is playing his second gig. Before the Norwegian Sea even left port, he was tickling the ivories in Oscar's Piano Bar. Now he and Huey Lewis ex Sean Hopper are playing keyboards with Stephen Bruton. Later in the week, Connolly will perform with Ball and sit in with McClinton. He might just be the hardest-working musician on the boat.

"I was playing with Delbert in 1995 when he did the first one, and they needed someone to do the happy hour," Connolly explains. "Just back it up with a little piano music, standards, which I don't really do, but fool people into thinking I do when they ask for Cole Porter. I prefer to do Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Mose Allison, Ray Charles. On this trip, I'll play with Bruton and Marcia, and do some stuff with Delbert. It's like a candy counter for musicians, but I can't imagine going on it more than once a year. I'm full after this week."

Stephen Bruton is happy to return for a sixth year, happier still to share this cruise with wife Mary. Backing him on drums and bass are Brannen Temple and Yoggi Musgrove.

"This reminds me of a workshop almost," says Bruton,"like at the Newport Jazz Festival, because the caliber of players aboard is ridiculously good. The ante is up for everyone, but it's not really competition. We're sympathetic with each other, but we're also tough."

For the musicians, the on-board closeness is an uncontested plus.

"It's not an us-and-them thing," explains the local guitarist. "They are here to see us and us to see them. I have been on package tours and festivals with people I admire, but I don't get the chance to interact with them."

Monday: At Sea

A festive atmosphere permeates the fourth and fifth decks, where most of the clubs, restaurants, casino, shops, and bars are located. The two main clubs, the Stardust Lounge and the Cabaret, sit at opposite ends of the fifth deck. The poolside stage is called Lickety Splits, due to the nearby ice cream dispensary. On the ninth and 10th deck are more bars, the cafeteria, pools, and sun decks. Most passengers spend their time here rather than their tiny cabins. All of them are here to listen to music, often the only thing they have in common.

The blues fans aboard the Norwegian Sea are predominantly 40-plus and don't lack for disposable income. They live in Seattle, Chicago, Cleveland, Atlanta, Boston, Charleston, Baltimore – everywhere but Texas, it seems. Working at advertising firms, radio stations, and schools, they're computer programmers, small-business owners, and on rare occasion, writers.

Beantown's Leigh Montville is a 10-year veteran of Sports Illustrated and The Boston Globe "a thousand years before that." He and wife Debbie are blues fans who weren't necessarily in the market for a cruise until Montville discovered its link on Ely's Web site. Intrigued, he and Debbie booked the cruise last year. As big Ely fans, they relish the opportunity to see him perform so much, an oft-repeated sentiment of the non-Texan passengers. Montville finds the cruise equally relaxing and entertaining, and takes great pleasure in telling of a Hollander he met aboard the previous year's cruise.

"I asked how he heard about it," recounts Montville, going into his best Dutch accent. "'Vell, I vas in San Francisco, and ve vent to see Delpert McClinton and ve drank. And drank and drank and drank. Ze next morning, I voke up and za only thing I could remember vas 1-800-DELBERT. So I am here.'"

Such word of mouth and word-of-site stories make Wendy Goldstein laugh.

"It's true Delbert and Marcia promote this event year round," says Goldstein, the president of Entertainment Travel and McClinton's wife/manager. "We made the number 1-800-DELBERT, because any drunk can remember that number!"

In the mid-Nineties, Goldstein and McClinton enjoyed his playing aboard the Kansas City-based Ultimate Rhythm & Blues Cruises.

"Delbert used to do the URBC and they would always brag about how well he did, how everybody loved him," says Goldstein. "The band got an upgrade because he did so well in filling the ship, so we started thinking about it and said, 'Why don't we do this?'"

Goldstein's business acumen was an asset when she started Entertainment Travel with two partners, but being married to a veteran performer like McClinton didn't hurt either. The two choose the talent while trying to make it eclectic.

"Patty Griffin is so wonderful, that voice of hers is one of the prettiest things I've ever heard," she gushes. "On a normal cruise, you don't have this level of entertainment, of camaraderie. We did a pre-cruise this year, just a regular four-day one, and it was the most boring thing. You'll never be able to go on another cruise after this one."

"I'll never be able to go on any other kind of cruise!" enthuses Janice, a chubby blonde from Memphis. She'd been on cruises before last year's Sandy Beaches run. Originally a Delbert fan, she discovered Stephen Bruton and Marcia Ball via the cruises and considers them blessings from the blues gods. "I wish I could live in Austin. Y'all are so lucky," she says wistfully.

Tuesday: Cancún

Traveling more than 700 nautical miles since Sunday night, the Norwegian Sea is docked in Cancún's harbor by late morning Tuesday. By now, most people have begun to orient themselves. The close quarters also have most passengers jumping at this first chance to head ashore. Floating shuttles called tenders run regular routes between Cancún's little pier and the ship.

On the fifth deck is a large electronic map with the route dotted with tiny lights – green for where we've traveled and red for where we have yet to go. Waiting to board a tender, John from Baltimore examines the narrow strait separating the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean and sings softly to himself, "So be my guest, you got nothin' to lose, won'cha let me take ya on a sea cruise." The night before, he'd been howling at the moon as Ball played long and tall; now, he's sobered by our proximity to Cuba. He taps a tobacco-stained index finger on Havana.

"This is where that kid is from," says John, referring to Elían Gonzales, the six-year-old currently caught in a custody debate between Cuba and the United States. Mere miles away, thousands of Cubans take to the streets demanding the boy's return. The story is all over CNN, playing on the Big Apple Cafeteria's four television screens. It's our only link with the outside world.

A departing tender is nearly full when Yoggi approaches the gangway. He's very tall. He's very big. And on this boat of nearly all-white baby boomers, he's very black. As he crosses the short gangplank yakking on a cell phone, he turns to all aboard and offers a booming, "Hi, everybody!" His humorous greeting elicits a boat-wide response and does what it is supposed to – diffuse the alarm that was almost palpable as his large self boarded the small vessel.

The lineup's general lack of color bothers Ellen, a passenger and harmonica player from Chicago. Having previously jammed with Irma Thomas, Marva Wright, and Buckwheat Zydeco, and as a Chicagoan, she expected a darker shade of blues than this blanched bill. She cites this cruise's predecessor, the Ultimate Rhythm & Blues Cruise, for booking acts like Joe Louis Walker, Etta James, and Taj Mahal. She praises the on-board talent here too, but says, "I just expected a little more diversity."

Ellen has a point. Blues is color-blind, but there's no denying its black heritage. With artists like Patty Griffin aboard, the music is obviously not strictly blues. Still, a Buddy Guy or even a Ben Harper would be a welcome addition. Bruton's drummer, Brannen Temple, is philosophical about the inequity, and points to the cruise itinerary.

"What does this say? 'Delbert and Friends.' It's his thing, his friends. And when it's your thing, you can do it how you want. It's your baby. It was a good idea to do this, but it is a shame there aren't more ethnic artists or more diversity.

"Why am I doing it? In January I don't usually have anything to do, workwise. It's not that I don't have a choice; I like these musicians. I've been playing with Yoggi for years. And I like playing with Stephen Bruton."

Wednesday: Cozumel

At 5am, Joe Ely and wife Sharon are having breakfast in the cafeteria, anticipating an excursion to the ancient Mayan city of Chichén Itzá. Stephen Bruton joins nearby, as he and Hutchinson are making the day trip to Tulúm, another Mayan archeological site. Both tours will take most of the day, but at 111/2 hours, Chichén Itzá is the longest. It requires a 45-minute boat ride to the Playa del Carmen resort and a three-and-a-half hour bus trip each way. We spend about two hours at Chichén Itzá itself.

The guide is Armando, a handsome mestizo whose jade-green eyes belie his otherwise Mayan features: high, flat cheekbones, even-curving nose, copper skin. He was born and raised in a village not far from Chichén Itzá, studied both history and anthropology at the University of Mexico, and takes deep pride in his guidework. He also understands when Ely sideman Teye politely excuses himself from the group and immediately climbs to the top of El Castillo, the pyramid. Sitting on the 91st step and looking over the surrounding jungle, Teye is experiencing the magic of this site. It's that kind of place.

One of our party is wearing a Joe Ely T-shirt, and Ely cheerfully obliges the fan's request for a photo. They pose beside a Mayan carving, and the fan walks away happily. Ely doesn't mind – he understands Chichén's magic.

"I went back in time when I reached the top," says the erstwhile Flatlander pointing at the spot his flamenco sideman has ascended. "All I could see was jungle for miles. Why did it happen to be here? Of all the places it could have been. … When you look at Tulúm, you can see why they built it there, because it's right on the beach, with a temple to the wind, so beautiful.

"But Chichén Itzá – 91 steps on each side, add the one on top and that's 365. A big calculator to the seasons, that's what it is. Like Stonehenge and the pyramids at Giza, Chichén Itzá is just a giant calculator. The Maya are even more of a mystery than Egypt, which had so much longer to develop. That possibility of a land bridge existing between Africa and South America – whew! – a mystery to a mystery.

"Now I want to go to the pyramid in Guatemala," says Ely with a boyish smile. "Or start a cedar tree pyramid in Austin."

That night, after his show, Stephen Bruton stands by the bar talking to a couple. The talk is about Chichén Itzá, the language used: all superlatives. A pretty brunette with lovely blue eyes is visibly excited.

"I want to go there next!" she effuses. "We went to Tulúm today and it was just beautiful!"

Only when I walk away do I realize it was Pam Tillis.

These day excursions are a big draw on cruises. They give balance to the ship's confinement and offer once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to touch the past, tour the area, or just relax on beaches. But not everyone bites.

"I'm not a [day trip] kinda guy," says Temple. "If nothing happens all day, that's fine by me. Some of them were a little pricey for me, and I kinda like to explore on my own. Last year in Cozumel, I rented a Jeep and drove around. At one of the ruins was a vendor with all these wild animals on display, tied up. This orange iguana was on a leash with a muzzle because he was poisonous. Next to that were these two small monkeys on chains. One of the monkeys was young, animated. He wanted your attention, like maybe you had some food for him.

"Then there was the other monkey, older, and you could tell he didn't wanna be bothered," Temple continues. "They say we are close to monkeys, in feelings and emotions. I looked at that monkey and I could tell he felt degraded, it was all over his face. At one point, he rolled his eyes at me and turned his back on me. That wasn't enough, so he climbed the little wall he was standing by and sat on the other side.

"I wondered if he was really doing that – ignoring me. So I peered around the wall, and sure enough, when he saw me looking at him again, he walked to the end of the wall to get away from me."

Temple looks thoughtful.

"I suppose there are no laws against it there, but I guess it's okay by enough people that I can come across it so easily. Kinda bummed me out."

Asked how he spends his "down time" on the cruise, McClinton's response is short and to the point.

"What down time?"

Thursday: Roatán, Honduras

Two hundred and seventy-five nautical miles east of Cozumel, off the Honduran coast, lie the Bay Islands. The Norwegian Sea docks in Roatán, a lush little tropical paradise whose natural beauty doesn't hide its Third World standard of living. It's easy to look at a country like Honduras and see only poverty – something that bothers Temple.

"Last year we were trying to get a cab and a driver made a local lady get out and into another cab," relates Temple. "She looks at us like, 'Dang tourists,' and I thought, 'No, she shouldn't be treated like a second-class citizen for us. Our dollars are helping out this economy, but at what cost?'"

This time, Temple stays on board.

NRBQ's Al Anderson, on the other hand, cuts an imposing figure strolling along the Roatán pier as garifúna dancers perform for tips. The Elys climb aboard a tour boat with some other passengers as the rest meander toward the waiting horde of taxi drivers. Then come the herds of little boys selling shells, spilling out of the tiny mercado just past the pier. They're every shade of brown imaginable, from the dark chocolate of the Afro-Antilles to the café au lait of the Spanish/Caucasian mixes. A young boy of about 10 plants himself before me.

"Shell?" he says, displaying a prize conch.

I keep walking.

"What do you want?" he asks.

Just to look around and take some pictures.

"Well," young Arnold announces with some authority in his Spanish patois. "Then you will need a guide."

He's hired. As we head to the store for something to drink, a little girl in a fluffy pink party dress walks her bicycle down the street. I snap her picture as Arnold explains she's his sister Frida, meaning I needn't have bothered. I want to go to the beach and ask if they can go too. They scramble into the taxi with me.

Arnold makes Frida sit in the middle so his friends can see him ride. We travel to the other side of the island and find a small cove housing a tiny fishing village, grocery store, and an empty beach. There, we swim for an hour, Arnold shucking his tank top and diving into the ocean wearing his red shorts. Frida hesitates before unzipping her dress and leaving it in a pink heap on the sand as she dashes into the water after us clad in her underwear. We swim, splash, dive, and lay on the sand as the gentle waves lap over us.

Frida gets cold. I dry her off and offer her my pareau, the brightly printed piece of material Tahitian women wrap themselves in at the beach. This one is from Hawaii, its deep turquoise wrapped around a candy pink seaweed print. Frida loves it. She stands up and opens the pareau wide like a cape as the sea wind catches it. Dances in the sand, skipping across the white surface with her black feet, Frida and the pareau become one, so I give it to her, along with a bag of little shampoo bottles and soap from the ship. Then I hug them and say goodbye. Later, thinking about Arnold and Frida, I begin to feel homesick for the first time. It's not an unusual sentiment.

"Long about the fourth or fifth day of the cruise, people start to miss the things back at home," Ball announces from the stage that night. "They wanna show you pictures of what they love the most, and nine times out of 10, it's their dogs. So, for all you with your little Chihuahuas at home, this is for you."

She rips into "Let Me Play With Your Poodle," and all I can think about is how much I miss my baby Chihuahuas.

Friday: At Sea

Somewhere on the eastern horizon lies Cuba, but a storm puts a damper on the early-afternoon poolside "Pianorama" organized by Ball and featuring with Connolly, Hopper, and any other ivory-ticklers she could gather. The keymasters gamely attempt a couple of songs, but the wind blows the rain on the musicians and cancels the show.

It's the first time in six days bad weather has waylaid any musical activities. Although many people are disappointed, this is the ocean, and storms are not uncommon. It is, however, causing the ship to pitch more than usual, and a loud bump rattles everyone.

"Must have hit a deer," Ball quips as a couple of passengers who saw Titanic too many times nervously head for their rooms.

It doesn't get much better. Seasickness is rampant, making those free little pink pills at the information desk a very hot item. Anderson has to cancel his gig, and a story circulates about a bassist bailing in mid-song. The rumor that the desk is out of Dramamine is not true. Still, some people hoard them. McClinton refers to "playing Florence Nightingale" for his queasy wife Wendy.

"How's your roommate?" inquires Temple, with several packets in his pocket.

He's all right, I tell him, feeling better [see accompanying story]. It's me feeling queasy now.

"I have a few extra if you need any," he offers. He couldn't have offered anything more valuable. It was better than gold.

"I've been bothered a little by seasickness, but it passed pretty soon," confesses Ball. "I remember the first year Asleep at the Wheel joined, it was so bad we couldn't dock in Nassau, they just sent us on to our next port. Too rough to even stop. Ray [Benson] had been reluctant to do it and even told his band, 'You better enjoy it because it's the last one.' By the end of the cruise, he was at the bar in a Hawaiian shirt and a cigar and big smile."

Saturday: At Sea

During the 1,000-mile trek back to the U.S., one of the last, most popular events is the autograph session. It's a big reason the performers are able to move so freely through their on-board fans.

Bekka Bramlett looks mighty good in her genes. The daughter of Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, Bekka is 100% musician. Seated at the far end of the tables, she's happy to be signing. "It's kinda like Fan Fair in Nashville," she grins.

The signing takes about two-and-a-half hours. I don't buy a poster or want my T-shirt signed, but I've brought a sock monkey named Pepé and a stuffed pig in a devil suit named Heinz. Would Delbert mind posing with them? He grabs them and mugs for the camera. Anderson French-kisses Pepé. Ball and Bramlett hang on to them for a while as they sign postcards and photographs. Landreth and Bruton pose in tandem. Ely and Anson Funderburgh admire them, but Kenny Wayne Shepherd has the best reaction of all.

"Wow," exclaims Shepherd, holding Pepé and Heinz close for a picture. "I had a sock monkey when I was a kid. My grandmother made it. Bet I still have it somewhere."

At midnight, the house – roof or no roof – is a-rockin' with the boat. Delbert opens with "Take Me to the River" and begins bringing up guests. The cruise is advertised as "Delbert and Friends," and that's just what it is for this last-night jam. "Friends" includes not just the advertised headliners, but Tillis and Crowell, two feet away from me and deep in conversation, plus Hutchinson. Shepherd, in braids, talks with Bruton beside me as the headliner lines up his next onstage guest, Marcia Ball.

What's missing here? Security. Guards, ropes, backstage passes, beefy thugs telling you you can't go here or there. You wanna chat up Delbert or Anson Funderburgh or Bekka Bramlett or Stephen Bruton, they're happy to talk to you. After all, you paid for it.

This celebration of music is a fine, fine way to end the cruise. But there's a sight on the horizon even more beautiful after two days at sea – oil platforms out in the Gulf sparkling like nearby stars. The coastline beckons as a twinkling string of lights. It's not hard to imagine what relief a lighthouse must have meant to ships of old: home.

Sunday: Houston Cruise Ship Terminal

At 8am, out of the porthole in our room, I see uniformed customs agents inspecting the ship with their dogs. It looks like a scene from a movie, only without Bruce Willis or Will Smith. The luggage was picked up overnight.

Passengers are asked to vacate their rooms by 8:30am and gather in the common areas as groups disembark from the upper decks down. The final walk down the gangway is oddly nostalgic for those who linger, looking back. Others rush away from the boat, eager to check e-mail and answering machines, see their families, dogs, cars, or just stand on terra firma again. It was good to sail the ocean. It's great to be home.

Back at the luggage dock where it all began, a missing suitcase is readily found. Cell phones sprout between numerous passengers' hands and ears as a bank of pay phones stands empty. Buses whisk airport-bound passengers to their destinations while taxis, limos, and friends pick up others. After days together at sea, the crowd disperses within about 90 minutes, gone much quicker than they arrived.

Outside in the warm Sunday sun, a porter gathers luggage carts and lines them up. He's seen 'em come and go, and it won't be long before another ship prepares to depart. He whistles "Sea Cruise" as he tends to his duties. Ooooo-wheeee, ooooo-wheeee baby !

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