By Jim Sullivan
---- — With summer sailing full steam ahead, the time has come to hit the river and get the blues.
A local tradition for more than 20 years, the Newburyport BluesCruise is about to begin its 2013 season on the Merrimack River with its first New Orleans River Cruise.
“I think there is a pent-up demand for the New Orleans culture here,” BluesCruise producer Joe Laite said. “I think there is a healthy demand for New Orleans vibe happening here.”
Set for tomorrow, the New Orleans River Boat BluesCruise will feature Henri Smith’s “Friends and Flavours,” which includes saxophonist Amadee Castenell along with an all-star band that will play swing, funk, R&B, Latin, Cajun, calypso and, of course, the blues.
“It’s going to be one heck of a riverboat party,” Laite said. “It’s our first New Orleans-themed cruise, and based on the popularity of New Orleans culture, New Orleans food and New Orleans music, I think it’s a great addition to our roster of BluesCruises.”
Laite and company will also be prepared when Yankee Homecoming hits Port in late July, with the Yankee Homecoming Festival BluesCruise on Saturday, July 27. Laite himself will play guitar for Shor’ty Billups and the Foxxx Band. Widely acclaimed as the “Statesman of the Blues,” the 81-year-old Billups was a member of Wilson Pickett’s original band and has enjoyed a musical career spanning more than six decades.
“(Billups) is a consummate showman in the old blues tradition, with bright suits and a matching hat, and he has an amazing energy,” Laite said.
The BluesCruise will wrap up the summer on Saturday, Aug. 31, when Grammy Award nominee James Montgomery hosts the Labor Day Festival BluesCruise with the BluesCruise All Star Band, featuring Laite, Alizon Lissance, Sergio Bellotti and Michael “Mudcat” Ward.
“We’re very fortunate to finally have him on a cruise,” Laite said of Montgomery, who has toured with artists such as Aerosmith, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, The Allman Brothers and Steve Miller. “Undoubtedly, it will be one of the most exciting cruises ever. James Montgomery is a prolific entertainer and has been well-loved in New England for years.”
Finally, the BluesCruise will make one more stop in Newburyport on Saturday, Sept. 21, to honor an old friend.
Known as the “Regal Queen of the Blues,” former Newburyport resident Shirley Lewis died of cancer in May. She was 76.
The Shirley Lewis “Living the Blues” Foundation Memorial BluesCruise will celebrate her life.
“She was a close and dear friend,” Laite said. “Shirley had moved to New England around 1987, and she moved to Newburyport and I ended up being her next-door neighbor. It was simply fate that brought us together, I guess. We became very, very close friends, and we played together through the years. She was an integral part of the greater Newburyport community.”
A Blues Trust Lifetime Achievement Award Winner, Lewis performed with such blues legends as B.B. King, James Cotton, Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson, Weepin’ Willie, K.D. Bell and Pinetop Perkins. The “Living the Blues” Foundation has been set up in Lewis’ name and will benefit shelters for abused women and fund a scholarship for aspiring blues musicians.
The cruise itself will feature Lewis’ daughter, Angela Warner.
Lewis was drawn to Newburyport because of its “more relaxed culture,” Laite said. “She was very warmly welcomed and developed some very, very close relationships with a large number of the community. She touched so many people through her music and her spirituality.
“She was one of the most spiritually aware people that I have ever known,” he said. “It’s a privilege and an honor to be able to carry on her life’s work. She’s smiling on us.”
If you go
What: Newburyport BluesCruise
When: Tomorrow, July 27 and Aug. 31 from 7 to 10 p.m. and Sept. 21 from 4 to 7 p.m.
Where: Boat departs from Plum Island Point
Tickets: $32 in advance, $36 day of event for the cruises tomorrow and July 27. $34 in advance, $38 day of event on Aug. 31 and Sept. 21. Available online at www.newburyportbluescruise.com and at Dyno Records, 1 Middle St., Newburyport, and Captain’s Fishing Parties, Plum Island Point.
More information: 978-463-7878 or www.newburyportbluescruise.com