*The 2018 Soul Train Cruise (January 27 to February 3) took the hippest trip in America out to sea featuring a lineup that, this year, focused primarily on singers and singing groups…with only a couple of bands. So, while there were some splashes of Funk from Rose Royce and GAP Band front man Charlie Wilson on the solo tip, plus a particularly electrifying up-tempo set from international reggae pop star Maxi Priest, this year’s cruise was mostly smooth sailing in a nostalgic and romantic Classic Soul vein.
It is my honor to share, in no particular order, my reflections on each of the concerts I witnessed on the 2018 Soul Train Cruise, on board Holland America’s Nieuw Amsterdam ship. All of the major acts performed two concerts usually on back to back days. Guests were split into factions with blue or orange badges – blue attending 6:30pm shows in the tri-level auditorium of the Main Stage followed by 8:30pm dinners. Orange enjoyed the reverse. I was in the blue group.
Additional shows took place outdoors on the deck of the Lido Pool.
Jeffrey Osborne (Main Stage) – Leave it to Jeffrey to wear all black to the Soul Train Cruise “White Party!” Not one person was mad, though, as Jeffrey looked terrific and sounded even better, glibly relating to the audience on topics of the day early in the set while serving up a fair cross section of songs from his days in the band L.T.D. (“Love Ballad,” “We Party Hearty” and “Back in Love Again”) and his solo years [“You Should Be Mine (The ‘Woo Woo’ Song),” “On the Wings of Love”). And he did it on the early nights of the cruise when the boat was sho’ `nuff rockin’…from turbulence, waylaying several guests and artists alike with seasickness. Jeffrey shined on…digging into his departed brother George Duke’s Funk anthem, “Reach For it,” and returning several times to the hook, “Y’all must quit the sit / Cuz when the ship / Hits your hip / Bet not try to fight it / Cuz the grip is strong and mighty / When the motion hits your ocean / And it starts that roooooller motion!” His band was super tight on all of this as well as a spin thorough The JB’s “Doing it to Death” (“We’re Gonna Have a Funky Good Time”). All in attendance most righteously did (though this writer would have loved to have also heard “I Really Don’t Need No Light” and “Plane Love”).
Maxi Priest (Lido Pool – Late Night) – Hands down, Maxi had the most relentlessly rhythmic and upbeat set of the cruise. He and his band worked so hard in the 11:30pm-1am slot that you felt they were on a mission to make sure you slept good…really good! There were absolutely no ballads in his set. And even when he did his Reggae-fied renditions of soft rock gems such as Rod Stewart’s “Some Guys Have All the Luck,” Cat Stevens’ “Wild World,” “Best of Me,” “Close to You” and Stephen Bishop’s “On and On,” the arrangements kept waistlines winding and heads nodding. Maxi kept his shades on the entire time so we never saw his eyes, but he was dreaded down to his backside, singing and inciting the crowd into ocean air bliss, and dressed casually to work the crowd hard. Exhausting but excellent!
The Miracles (Main Stage) – This was the wild card of the entire lineup because not one of the four members onstage was in The Miracles in its classic 60s nor `70s lineups. With last year’s passing of original Miracle William “Pete” Moore, the only original members still alive today are Smokey Robinson and his first wife Claudette, neither of whom have been members for decades. The present-day foursome, led by Sidney Justin (who has been leading the Miracles now for 22 years and previously known for replacing Howard Hewett when he left Shalamar), gamely sang the big hits from “Shop Around,” “Mickey’s Monkey” and “Ooo Baby Baby” to “Love Machine,” loosely in chronological order, sharing historical tidbits about Smokey, the Miracles and Motown along the way. They looked great in all black with beautiful burgundy wine jackets and sounded serviceable but it felt more like watching a matinee jukebox musical than a primetime concert.
The Spinners (Main Stage) – This legendary group that went from Motown in the `60s to Atlantic Records in the `70s/`80s, is blessed with an enviable string of hits produced and often penned by Philly Soul Maestro Thom Bell (most often with the late Linda Creed). Today’s group, with only Henry Fambrough left of the original quintet, suffered terribly from pitch problems in their harmonies, rendering some of the most beautiful songs in all of soul music too often too painful to endure. The current singers have a hard row to hoe as it is delivering the lead performances of late greats Bobbie Smith and Phillippe Wynne, plus G.C. Cameron on classics like “It’s a Shame,” “Sadie” and “Love Don’t Love Nobody” …not to mention the crossover classics “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love,” “I’ll Be Around” and “Mighty Love.” Also, inexplicably, Fambrough, the original vocalist of the Spinners’ gem “I Don’t Want to Lose You” (later made famous by Phyllis Hyman) doesn’t even have his song in the set list. This group would do well to honor the Spinners’ legacy with more harmony rehearsal and to coax Mr. Fambrough into his rightful turn in the spotlight for at least that one lovely gem.
The Whispers (Main Stage) – What was once a quintet is now a trio…but L.A. singers supreme the Whispers have expertly adapted their sound and kept the legacy movin’, strong as ever. Their 7-piece band was on the money as lead singing twins Walter and Scotty Scott and longtime anchor Leavell Degree – all dressed in signature white – socked it to the crowd on the fast side (“In the Raw,” “Keep On Lovin’ Me” and “And the Beat Goes On”) and the slow side (“Olivia- Lost and Turned Out,” “All the Way,” “Are You Going My Way” and “Say Yes”). They paid loving tribute to their most recently departed member Nicholas Caldwell, composer of their spiciest boudoir material. And at the conclusion of their hit “Lady,” passed the mic to a fan in the audience named Marcus who proposed to his “lady” right there in the front row. Naturally…she said “yes.” A very special show from a special set of survivors on a very special night.
The Pointer Sisters (Main Stage) – The Oakland darling group currently consists of one original sister (Ruth Pointer), the daughter Ruth had with former Temptations member Dennis Edwards (belter Issa Pointer), and Ruth’s granddaughter from another daughter (singer/dancer Sadako Pointer) – THREE GENERATIONS OF POINTERS GENERATING STEAM HEAT!!! Though Ruth was suffering mildly from motion sickness, she kept a tight grip on her microphone stand and led her charges through a bouncy set of material exclusively drawn from the group’s late `70s into the `80s crossover years. Though that, sadly, meant no jazz or early funk classics like “Yes We Can Can” or “Betcha Got a Chick on the Side,” they made up for it with electrifying runs through “I’m So Excited, “Jump,” “Automatic,” “Slow Hand” and more. Bonuses were two highly RESPECT-full nods to Aretha Franklin with “Chain of Fools” (also featuring their road guitarist Fred Clark) and the timely women’s anthem “Sisters are Doing it for Themselves” (which Aretha recorded in the `80s with Annie Lennox of Eurythmics). By the time they fanned themselves on off the stage to their exhilarating “Neutron Dance” (from “Beverly Hill Cop”), the boat had most diva-liciously been rocked.
Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis, Jr. (Main Stage) – This was, hands down, the most poignant set of the cruise as the original 5th Dimension members ushered us through their 5 decades-plus career, 48-year marriage and many signposts along the way. They took the stage rocking Sly & The Family Stone’s “Everyday People” (Billy fumbling a few of the lyrics) but were solid gold from that point on with a beautifully paced show that went from their hits as a duo (“Your Love” and the monster “You Don’t Have To Be A Star To Be In My Show”) and 5th Dimension classics like “Up-Up And Away,” an abbreviated “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” and the Ashford & Simpson-penned “California Soul.” Many heart-stopping moments ensued such as when Billy heavyweight-handled Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” the women in the audience singing lines back to Marilyn on “One Less Bell to Answer” that caused her to sincerely choke up at the memory of performing it many moons ago in a women’s prison to tragically empathetic proportions, and both of them sharing how ecstatic (and relieved) they were when their clean cut lil’ pop group the 5th Dimension finally got a smash on the R&B (Black) charts with the Laura Nyro-penned “Stoned Soul Picnic.” And yet…there was still more. They sang “You Are So Beautiful” to each other (beautifully staged and lit), and had band members Derrick Murdock (bass) and Darryl Austin (MD/keyboards) join them for a knockout 4-part vocal harmony float through Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo.” Billy kicked in some “Down Home Blues” and, last but not least for the encore, they served us “How Do You Keep the Music Playing,” exiting stage right hand in hand – a tender move that had little to do with theatricality and everything to do with love and talent that has lasted through hard core poetry, soul and inspiration, dedication and The Lord. 5 stars.
Rose Royce (Lido Pool – Late Night) – L.A.’s own Rose Royce is, first and foremost, a “show band” that ironically enjoyed a string of hits with ballads sung by original lead singer Gwen Dickey (and later Ricci Benson). Now rolling with 3 original members (trumpeter/singer/leader Kenny Copeland, drummer Henry Garner and keyboardist Michael Nash), the 8-piece band plus a new female lead super-serve audiences with their hand-clapping `70s drive-in movie classic “Car Wash,” the slow jams “I’m Goin’’ Down,” “Wishing on a Star,” “Ooh Boy” and “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore,” and club jams “Do Your Dance” and “It Makes You Feel Like Dancing.” However, to get to some of those, you have to go through overlong covers of Outkast’s “I Like the Way You Move” and Montell Jordan’s “This is How We Do It.” While their show is hella funky, instead of marinating on those remakes and club jams for such long stretches of time, Rose Royce should shorten them enough to add more of their own fan favorites such as “Daddy Rich,” “Born to Love You” or “Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is” (all from “Car Wash”) or “Golden Touch” and “Lonely Road” into the set. Pacing is everything… and old heads remember that double LP soundtrack better than they think.
The Trammps (Lido Pool – Late Night) – Maybe I saw something I wasn’t supposed to see when I snapped a picture of this dance group’s set list because by the time their show was over…they’d only performed a little over half of it. Led by legendary and prolific Philly Soul drumming legend Earl Young (who, as a session musician, played on hit after hit for the Delfonics, Stylistics, O’Jays, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, MFSB, Salsoul Orchestra and many more), The Trammps are best known outside of diehard clubland for their crossover smash “Disco Inferno” that closed out the “Saturday Night Fever” double album soundtrack on Fire Island! Unfortunately, their set suffered from sins of bad pacing like too much attempted audience participation, songs going on too long and too much talking. They did sing their earliest hit “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart,” “Disco Party” and “Dark Side of the Moon” as well as Philly Soul standards “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” (McFadden & Whitehead) and “Love Won’t Let Me Wait” (Major Harris)…but at the expense of Trammps classics “Where the Happy People Go” and “The Night The Light Went Out In New York.” A pity. Before they cut out quick with “Disco Inferno,” the highlight for this writer was seeing Mr. Young man the drums for the opening tune only: “T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia)”, better known as the “Theme from ‘Soul Train.’” Otherwise, it was cool to see fit and trim Young (77) get up to step and sing with his group. You just wish it was on more of their own classic 12” wax.
Men of Soul: Eddie Levert, Russell Thompkins Jr. & Gerald Alston (Main Stage) – Of all the sets that faltered, this was the saddest…because the potential was so promising. First of all, they did not sing together. Falsetto master Mr. Thompkins came out first with his New Stylistics, touching upon gems such as “You Are Everything,” “Stone in Love with You” and a piece of “Hurry Up This Way Again,” several of which were undercut by an under-rehearsed band and horns that were not cutting it. Gerald Alston was next (and strongest of the three) belting out hits he’d enjoyed with the Manhattans such as “There’s No Me Without You,” “Kiss and Say Goodbye,” and “We Never Danced to a Love Song.” Then Eddie Levert of the mighty O’Jays came out to “Love Train” and tried another tune before pausing the show to apologize for being sick and in bad voice. He was fine before he boarded the ship but took a downward turn. Though disappointed, the crowd forgave him as he mustered on through songs such as “Family Reunion” “I’m Already Missing You” and the hit his deceased sons Gerald and Sean had in the group Levert: “Casanova.” Overall, this Men of Soul concept needs to be upgraded with fuller orchestration, preparation and definitely a finale where all three men come together and sing something magical and once in a lifetime.
Howard Hewett (Lido Pool- Afternoon) – By the final day at sea singing his love songs and soul jams, Howard Hewett was 100% on-point, walking around the pool and jacuzzi areas making many, many women very, very happy. Utilizing several members of his own band, Howard was relaxed enough to share solo classics like “I’m For Real” and “Once, Twice, Three Times,” the thoughtful George Duke production “Enough” (about relationships vs. relationTRIPS), some Shalamar hits (including, of course, “This is For the Lover in You”) and his latest single “Better Guy” (composed by Howard with TROOP’s Steve Russell Hart who also produced it). His transitions between songs were seamless, his stage patter natural and succinct, and his vibration sunny and warm. Looking and sounding great, Akron-native Hewett revealed himself as a seasoned Soul Man at the top of his game.
Charlie Wilson (Main Stage) – Was there any question that Uncle Charlie would turn out the whole Soul Train Cruise? Not really. Not only is Charlie’s Oklahoma six-shooter loaded up with hits from his years leading The GAP Band and his solo years, he is the only artist with a new album out and has been touring major venues for the last several years as that one R&B ambassador that has three generations of record buying fan bases. Charlie’s band is whip smart, he’s got four seriously sexy female dancers, costume changes, showmanship, a still powerful voice and, again, all those hits! Jams like “Party Train,” “Outstanding,” “Humpin’,” “Yearning For Your Love,” “Burn Rubber On Me,” “There Goes My Baby,” “Charlie Last Name Wilson” plus a gospel song, “I’m Blessed.” He was also boss enough to snatch up TWO songs from the Roger & Zapp catalog and do them well: “I Wanna Be Your Man” and “Doo Wah Ditty!!” Charlie was everything you could want for an evening of Soul Train entertainment and had the whole boat buzzing about his show at dinner afterward. Respect.