Ten Lessons Learned on the Sandy Beaches Cruise

Lee (left) with homeboy hero Raul Malo of the Mavericks
Lee (left) with homeboy hero Raul Malo of the Mavericks
Alisa Beth Cherry

Time seems suspended when you're on a cruise, and like it's zoomed by afterwards. Recently on the Sandy Beaches Cruise, hosted by Atlanta's Sixthman music cruise team, a boat full of music lovers got caught up in that complex forward motion.

On the Norwegian Pearl, the music ploughed ahead at full steam, leaving audiences spellbound. The result was sheer adulation with high velocity performances, to say the very least.

Sandy Beaches 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, SBC has attracted a group of steadfast devotees who come annually to bask in music, merriment, friendship and fellowship.

For yours truly, it became a series of teaching moments. Here's what I learned during my recent week at sea.

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10. Too much music is never a bad thing.

The musical line-up was every bit as impressive as any other seaborne festival. While McClinton continues in the role of the gracious host and the man responsible for booking the talent, the flash and frenzy seems the domain of the support acts. This was exemplified by the sweat and swing of the Mavericks, Paul Thorn, Lyle Lovett, Marcia Ball, Band of Heathens, the McCrary Sisters, and so many other solo artists, writers, producers, sidemen and women aboard the ship.

9. On a music cruise, the ports of call are incidental.

As Delbert himself confessed in a rare moment of downtime, "Nobody seems to give a damn about them anyway."

8. Musicians can make good comedians too.

Lyle Lovett and His Acoustic Band were, 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." Likewise, 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. 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.

 

7. South Florida has reason to be proud.

In terms of sheer dynamics and propulsive appeal, former SoFla act the Mavericks are 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 shined at the fore. But 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 forced us to divide focus amongst all the players.

(BTW, can't wait for their upcoming album, Mono.)

6. It doesn't take waves to rock a boat.

Band of Heathens' 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 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.

5. Country music still takes command when it comes to great song lyrics.

Singer Teresa James proved that her song "She Has a Way With the Men" (which continues, "But she isn't getting away with mine") boasts the best play on words I'd heard in quite some time.

4. Music can be philosophical without seeming to be pretentious.

Paul Thorn boasts a telling sense of humor, but it's his monochromatic southern drawl and abundance of hard luck tales that may someday give him the distinction of being this generation's Will Rogers.

"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 his new album, Too Blessed to Be Stressed, is the unabashedly optimistic, "Everything's Gonna Be Alright," Thorn's upbeat, anthemic tomes brought that message home.

 

3. Music may be timeless, but people can be as well.

While a good portion of those on board were likely in their sixties or seventies, the whole notion of age seemed meaningless. These particular cruisers danced, boogied, and partied as if they were in their twenties and thirties. Anyone 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.

2. Compared to the Sandy Beaches veterans, you're always gonna be a rookie.

One passenger who went by the nickname "Hat," due to her colorfully festooned headgear, told us 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 your first Sandy Beaches Cruise, you're still a newbie."

1. Be careful what you wish for.

Veteran songwriter Danny Flowers told his audience, "I've given up being lost in the past. 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."

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