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Story and Photos by Colleen Friesen

For some reason I keep thinking of two rather disparate things: the band playing on as the Titanic went down and Nero fiddling while Rome burns.

These are not necessarily good thoughts while standing on the back deck of a large cruise ship listening to a band bashing out the blues.

It is early October 2008. According to all media sources, the economic world is about to end. Doom and Gloom are the twins on every headline bearing news of disaster.

My husband Kevin and I are drinking margaritas in the glow of a Pacific Ocean sunset with our friends Sharon and Andy. We are underway from San Diego to Mexico and the band is certainly playing on. Who cares if the world is ending and the ship (metaphorically speaking) is going down?

To back up a little. I hate cruises. Prior experiences found us stuck with people with way too many dress-up clothes and an unhealthy preoccupation about sitting with the captain.

So, when Sharon suggested a cruise, she met with a rather tepid response. Until she mentioned it was merely a novel way to stuff a ship full of blues artists and bands from stem to stern. Suddenly, I didn't care if the boat never left the dock.

Koko Taylor, Tommy Castro, Magic Slim, Dr. John, Elvin Bishop, John Nemeth-the list of players was a list of names I knew, and lots I didn't.

Looking around at all the grinning faces, I noticed not too many outfits went beyond their best jeans and T-shirt. A good start.

We could hang out on the outside pool deck with the warm breezes and hot licks of Kenny Neale, or we could sit in the showy Vermeer Lounge to watch the sad train wreck of Etta James perform. Not sure what her issues were, but I found myself fervently hoping that someone would take her off the stage and tuck her safely into bed.

We drank dry gin martinis in the intimate Ocean bar and listened to a former truck driver do some old-timey slide guitar. Watermelon Slim is a fedora-hat-wearing-white-guy with a face that looks like it's seen a lot of rough road and a harmonica that moans the story to match.

Earl Thomas danced his faux-leopard cowboy boots across the stage in the Crow's Nest, showing off his super-tight-jean-clad booty to loud applause.

We went from one venue to the next, the music playing all around the ship from noonish until hours past midnight. In between, there were shore excursions into Mexico, the library to have some contrasting quiet or the state room to catch a quick nap between sets.

I fully intended to go to the yoga classes and the aerobic fitness classes or at least stride purposefully around the outside deck. But having preferred my later-morning croissants and plenty of wine with my dinner, this made getting up in the morning my biggest effort of the day. But the performers knew how to keep it going.

"We're gonna move it and groove it all night long!" 83-year-old Koko Taylor is my new hero. Koko had several sets and never disappointed her fervent fans. She was also never seen without her daughter Cookie.

Yep. Cookies and Koko. Cookie gives her mother four shots every day to control her diabetes, she also hands out her pills and plugs the Koko Taylor Foundation before every set.

Cookie explains that Koko Taylor and her band had been in a very bad accident. In spite of all the health insurance that Koko has as a successful performer, just her medical bill portion is over one million dollars. Her band members can't begin to afford the coverage she does and are depending on her to literally keep their heat and lights on.

Soon after we returned home, Obama became the president. Seems to me, that though the world didn't quite do a Titanic, he certainly has his work cut out for him, starting with their health care system.

Maybe he should take a blues cruise next year. He can shake it and groove it and forget about things for awhile as the ship steams ahead.

Let the band play on. There are worse solutions.


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PHOTOS: by Colleen Friesen

1. Blues Revue
2. Cruisin'
3. From the Band Stand
4. Jammin' with Koko
5. Kevin the Bartender
6. Watermelon Slim on Deck


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