Sharons Big Adventure on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise

Legendary Blues Cruise

by Sharon Lasher

Sharon Lasher along with her band, The Flashers, is a longtime member of the JSJBF. This is the story of her first time on a Blues Cruise, and what a story it is!

Welcome to my first Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise #40, leaving from Fort Lauderdale, stopping in Playa Maya, Mexico, Roatan, Honduras and back to Grand Cayman, Mexico, from January 28 thru February 4, 2024.

Sharon Blues Cruise 1

Through the beauty of the Universe and the harmonies of a Beach Boys song, I met and developed a beautiful friendship with Maestro Taj Mahal about a dozen years ago while ‘workin the room’ at the original City Winery. Fast forward through international phone calls, texted music links, deep chats, singing together, and east and west coast concerts, and Taj invited me as his guest on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise LRBC #40, of which Maestro Mahal has headlined 37. What an incredible gift, giving me the opportunity to rub shoulders with the icons of the modern blues world, and opening the door for me to sing with monster musicians in Mr.SIPP’s Sugar Shack after hours jam in the Crow’s Nest, with some Grammy nominees and winners, headliners and sideman alike, all terrifically talented and welcoming to me.

With the spate of recent storms and airline cancellations, I chose to head to Fort Lauderdale 2 days early to ensure I’d be boarding Holland America’s M.S. Nieuw Statendam, a 3 plus football field sized Boozin’ Blues Cruise Party City on the high seas. I braved Spirit Airlines out of Atlantic City Airport for the first time and was pleasantly surprised with only a one-hour delay, an aisle seat and an easy flight. It was also pretty cool to hear, “LASHER!” shouted as friends Donegal Pearse & Lois saw me bopping thru the airport, too jazzed to sit.

I Ubered from the bustling Fort Lauderdale Airport to the B Ocean Resort on the beach just over the Barrier Island bridge. B is a lovely 3 building, open air hotel, offering all the expected amenities and a friendly atmosphere, with B Kind, B Fabulous and all kinds of happy B’s painted here and there. Luckily, I didn’t B Stuck for too long in the elevator that came to a mid-floor halt with a kerPLUNK just after my arrival. Can’t bring me down.

My dear college friend MaryBeth, a Florida local, joined me for a lovely dinner and catch up before heading over to the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Marina Hotel to enJOY a delicious snapper dinner with Maestro Mahal, followed by festive cocktails in the cool Friday night air under the Wolf Moon. Always a history lesson or two shared, stories, cocktails and laughter, in the midst of a thinly veiled electric anticipation vibrating on the breeze. You could feel something BIG coming.

After a leisurely Saturday morning on a blustery beach, with no swimming due to a formidable northerly wind and the number of man-o-war jellies on the high tide line, I made my way back to the Hilton and checked into a lovely balconied room with a busy waterway view. I wanted back into that electric energy, to be part of the get-ready-to-go festivities I imagined I’d find.

I could feel the buzz of excitement permeating the air as so many of the “Returnees” and my fellow LRBC “Virgins” were quickly filling up tables at the outdoor pre-party hosted by funky Miss Dottie Kelly. The mostly gray-haired Blues lovers were digging it. I and many patrons were confused and disappointed to say the least, that we had to walk to the lobby to order food from a very limited menu in the coffee kiosk, then go back in in 20 or 30 minutes to pick up. Seriously? Shame on the Hilton, which charged $1,400 for Friday night alone. (which is why I was at B!) Can’t bring me down.

While folks clamored about in the lobby, a luxury shuttle arrived early Sunday morning to transport Taj Mahal and The Phantom Blues Band, Larry Fulcher on bass, Johnny Lee Schell on guitar, Tony Braunagel on drums, Joe Sublett on Sax, Darrell Leonard on trumpet, guest Jim Pugh on keys, long time tour manager, Tim Reed, sound MSN @Rich Vink and Lil ole me, to the ship. We arrived to a huge room filled with expectant music lovers and were escorted to the front, with all eyes on us. I must admit I felt like a rockstar myself under their wondering gaze. We moved quickly through customs and were the first to board, entering a completely quiet, uninhabited Wonderland. What an odd, almost disconcerting feeling! 

We parted ways on the elevator, Taj and company getting off on the 7th floor, while I excitedly continued on to room #1012 on the 10th floor! How did I get a better view than The Maestro?! Upon arrival, I found that rooms on the 10th floor had an extra 0 in the room number; my room was on the 1st floor. I met my first friends, Super Chikan & and harmonica Maestro Steve Bell, also wandering, looking for their first-floor room. I found mine, 6 rooms down from the engine with a wide window just above sea level. For a moment, in the wee hours, pulling in to port with engines reversing, or whatever they were doing, metal crashing on metal, I imagined myself on the Titanic, going down with the Irish in steerage… 

Let’s get this Blues party started! After walking the decks to try and get my bearings and identify the 8 stages, Reverend Billy C. Wirtz kicked off the fun at the central piano bar with fancy tinkling on the keys and a bawdy sense of humor that kept us in stitches with blushing cheeks. Tommy Castro had us dancing on the poop deck after a short delay, raising the Sail Away Party Vibe. His easy way of connecting with the audience invites everyone in and the dancing and drinking was underway.

Next, a couple of Tito’s & Tonic with 3 pieces of lemon (T&T&3) under my belt, I power walked down to the central deck stage to have my doors blown off by Legs McGee, I mean Ana Popovic, on guitar. She’s all power in attitude and skills. I knew she was good from videos, but there’s nothing like live and in person. Not only did she deliver on her own shows, but standing shoulder to shoulder with the blues men trading scorching riffs on the PROJAM stages, Ms. Popovic shined like the pro she is. 

Chicago powerhouse frontman, Toronzo Cannon, brought us inside the kaleidoscopically colorful, seated World Stage. Maaaan, it was impossible to sit! Brian Quinn on bass gets my ‘Best In Show’ for his incredibly funky chops and his powerful, JOYful presence on stage. Grabbed some delicious grub on the run to aaaaahhh Shemekia!!

Shemekia Copeland is a petite lady with a Blockbuster gospel tone and powerhouse delivery that literally blows my hair back! At one point, she sat on the edge of the stage accompanied only by a tasteful slide guitar, telling stories of her father, Texas Blues guitarist Johnny Copeland, and singing one of their favorites, ‘Playin’ Dem Ole Blues.’ You could hear a pin drop. We chatted after the show and I let her know I was a guest of Taj Mahal and had seen them together a few times. She was incredibly gracious to me and everyone she encountered. I made sure to see all of her shows. 

There wasn’t a separate Artist’s Lounge, so she and most artists ate amongst us regular folk and were accessible and friendly, and most folks gave them space. It felt kinda like when Bruce is in town. 

Next, power walking from the 2nd floor, forward World Stage to the mid ship 9th floor Lido Pool stage to see 2022 Grammy Winner and 2 time 2024 nominee, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, I stopped by the waaaay too small B.B. King’s Blues Club to hear Reverand Peyton’s BIG Damn Band, who was really a small band with a Big Damn Sound  pickin bass and lead on cigarbox & national steel geetars, like our own P.k. Lavengood. Real good stomper. 

Sharon Blues Cruise 2

Christine “Kingfish” is a soft spoken young man with a mighty talent. Each of these great guitarists have a unique energy and connectedness with the music and the audience. I feel Christone deeply in my chest. His style breathes, leaves space, draws me in with sensuality rather than blowing me back with speed and veracity. This was my first time hearing him live and he more than lived up to the ‘hype.’  Christone accompanied me in 2 of MR. SIPP’s late night jams in the Crows Nest, singing Tedeschi’s ‘Little by Little’ and a call-and-response Blues number with King Solomon Hicks in the mix.

 When you look at the daily schedules, you realize you can’t see every show every day with 8 stages, many floors and ‘city blocks’ away from each other, and overlapping set times. Decisions decisions! I tore myself away from “Kingfish” mid-way to see Mr. Kevin Moore, aka, Keb’ Mo’ on the World Stage. Talk about a gentle way, and words and melodies that at once seem simple and universally heartfelt. If he sang, ‘We Don’t Need It’, like I’d requested earlier, I musta been in transit. He covered so many favorites like ‘The Old Me Better, I Remember You, She Just Wants To Dance, and new beauties like, ‘Good To Be (Home Again) You just can’t help but smile; Keb’ Mo’s songs feel like a hug. 

Now, it’s time to run for the Grand Finale of the first evening, Mr. SIPP’s  PROJAM on the aft deck. I met this vivacious man earlier in the day, and he brought that Hallelujah Spirit right onto the stage and made the stars shine brighter in the sky above! Maaaan, they were COOKIN’ when I got there! And what a band leader! 

Basically, what ever players were not on stage elsewhere took a turn rrrripping it up and lit the place on fire! Notably this night, Mr. SIPP, Kingfish, King Solomon Hicks, Albert Cummings, Mathias Lattin, Monster Mike Welch and many sidemen whose names I can’t recall. This felt very much like Sandy Mack leading the Jamily with a host of fabulous players swapping in and out every couple songs. The JOY and camaraderie they shared while, one after the other, shredding our faces off, washed over us like a tidal wave. Helluva way to end the first night!

Phewww! That’s about three quarters of a single day on a 7 day cruise. Hold on to your HAT! With T&T&3 appearing like magic, morning, noon and night, and a month’s worth of alcohol drunk in 7 days, with little, if any sleep, this was one fantastic start to an inspired and inspiring musical journey.

Now, for the rest of the week in no particular order.

All the big names, Mahal, Mo’, Shepard, Castro, Copeland, Popovic, Gales, gave us exactly what we expected throughout the week; they brought their A game ~ they clearly enJOYed playing for us and playing together ~ and their bands were stellar. 

If you didn’t believe in Jesus before you saw Mr. SIPP’s gospel show, you sure did by the time he was done! The ship was ROCKIN!! 

Mr. SIPP’s “Sugar Shack” is the after-hours jam Taj was hoping I’d find my way into. He invited me and only one harmonica player who wasn’t performing on the ship to join in all 4 nights he hosted the ever-changing pro musicians who came to jam between 1:30 am and 5am. 

The first night, there were horns, so I wow’d em with ‘Moondance’ then ‘Little By Little.’ Yeah man, that felt GOOD!

Mr. SIPP was nominated for 2 Grammy’s and left the ship from Mexico to win a Grammy for Best Large Ensemble Jazz Recording with the Count Basie Orchestra for “Basie Sings The Blues” I got to sing with SIPP 3 nights!

King Solomon Hicks, a gorgeous, talented young old soul from Harlem, whom I got to sing with in a couple of wee hour Sugar Shacks, coaxes such tasteful, soulful guitar flavors. He heard me singing Gospel in the wee hours and invited me to sing with him in NYC. Stay tuned.

My favorite find, my “Best In Show” was Dawn Tyler Watson. A consummate singer and performer, she commanded the stage, she OWNED the stage, no matter what guitar monster was accompanying her. Dawn’s voice is rich and powerful, and she “plays” the trumpet with her voice like the real thing. She’s my new hero! Quite inspiring. We didn’t sing together in the jam, but we chatted a few times and she told me she loved my voice.  

Danielle Nicole, left-handed bass and bad ass band leader, had a ball on stage leading a fantastic PROJAM of Allstars. She writes fun stuff, holds down the rhythm section effortlessly while moving from gritty to playful vocals. Clearly, she has friendship and respect from the ax slingers.

Taj Mahal accompanied by the Phantom Blues Band washes over me like a warm snifter of Courvoisier, like hugging old friends. Their long-time collaborations and friendships are evident like family harmonies. The Phantom Blues Band’s own sets were tight and jazzy, horns funkin and Johnny Lee smiling. Keb’ Mo’ sat in on each set, sitting on a stool in the back. Such a humble man. 

Bette Smith made me feel every JOY and every hurt she sang about with pure emotion and a heart as big as her fro. 

Eric Gales has a Divine connection to the universe that he channels through his guitar and his whole being as he plays. Such a JOYful experience! He’s married, he got clean, and he humbly shared his story and his grateful heart. His searing playing almost scorches the skin. Eric stepped off the Sugar Shack stage in the Crow’s Nest just as SIPP invited me up to sing. I implored him to stay, “I need you!” I pleaded, but Mathias Lattin had already stepped up to play. That close!! DANG! Gales hung out, we chatted and he complimented my singing. ( Chris Chaplinski and I ventured to Jersey City to see Eric again. What a show!!)

Mitch Woods was very entertaining on boogie woogie piano. 

Australian Frank Sultana, IBC 2023 winner, made me feel like an alligator might come up and drag me into the swamps of Georgia while his bluetick howled. Go figure. Wish I had more time listening to him, but he was on the runway between big shows. 

Acclaimed Blues photographer, Joseph A. Rosen, held a seminar and question and answer chat. Very cool. I had him dedicate a copy of his book, ‘Blues Hands’ to Tom Baldino. 

In between sizzling solos, Monster Mike Welsh shared stories of playing with Hubert Sumlin, James Cotton and many Blues giants. His songwriting style is that of a great storyteller, drawing you in. He didn’t join in the evening Sugar Shack jam while I was there, but I did get to sing with his sweet wife, Jeanette ‘Jo’ Welsh. Don’t be surprised if they show up at a JSJBF jam sometime, as we talked about visiting.

Friday night, Maestro Mahal invited me to dinner in his favorite spot, the Tamarind Pan-Asian Cuisine restaurant on deck 10. Aaahhh, just the 2 of us for 2 hours! (The longest I sat) We had several courses coupled with fine wine and a relaxed yet vibrant conversation about the cruise and beyond.

Maybe the single most electric moment of the cruise was Eric Gales calling Shemekia Copeland out of the audience on the last night to sing with him. The Heavens could hear this powerful combo and the stars were momentarily blotted out from the blazing star power on stage.  HALLELUJAH!!

Sharon Blues Cruise 3

So, the bonus was finding so many new-to-me artists and styles that stopped me in my tracks on the run to the ‘big shows.’ And, of course, the icing on the cake was not only singing with many of these respected musicians, but feeling the respect and new friendships these musicians offered me. Thanks to my friend and mentor, Maestro Mahal for believing in me.