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L.A. Beat

Go west young man and check out cow-punk legends on Outlaw Cruise West

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It’s hard to believe it’s been a month since my much needed vacation on Outlaw Cruise West, Nov. 3-7.


“ I’m going to take you back to your childhood, and mine,” chuckled Stray Cats drummer Slim Jim Phantom on the last night of the cruise as he lead his trio plus Social Distortion guitarist Josh into rousing renditions of  Stray Cats ’80s hits “Stray Cat Strut,” and followed by “Rock this Town, which Slim Jim introduced by saying “Let‘s rock this boat.”


That pretty much summed up the first Outlaw Cruise West, which left Los Angeles. Nov. 2 , stopped by Cabo San Lucas and Ensenada and back in time to catch a plane to Great Falls in time for the last of the snowstorm I missed while away.


Mike Ness of Social Distortion playing Outlaw Cruise west. Photo by Richard Amery

The annual Outlaw Cruise is my annual treat to myself, to spend five or six days as part of a floating music festival, mostly featuring acts who rarely or seldom make it up to Alberta. I wouldn’t cruise any other way. I spent a lot of time communing with a cadre of transplanted Canadians also on the cruise, and it got pretty drunk out. So while my memory is a little hazy, I remember having a really good time.


 It was to be expected, but I missed a lot of great shows while I was away including Barney Bentall’s  Cariboo Express returning to the Geomatic Attic at Southminster United Church and Bryan Adams, and jumped right into a busy November, almost immediately after returning home.


It was fun to just escape from the world for five days, running all over the Norwegian Jewel trying to catch as many shows, live interviews, autograph sessions  on six different stages and even a little bit of sunshine. The cruise’s sponsor, Outlaw Country on Sirius XM is just starting to play some of the interviews and live sessions during Steve Earle and Elizabeth Cook’s shows.

 This time Outlaw Country on Sirius XM, which sponsors the Outlaw Cruise, decided to branch out and have a west coast cruise, featuring headliners Los Lobos and some of California’s more popular alt country, cow-punk and country acts, with of course, the usual cast of Outlaw Country characters like Mojo Nixon and Elizabeth Cook and Steve Earle and usual performers like Lucinda Williams.


Elizabeth Cook playing Outlaw Cruise west. Photo by Richard Amery

 I loved the idea of having a cruise “closer” to me as the  Outlaw Cruise usually leaves from Florida and I could not pass up a chance to see punk legends Social Distortion again. I haven’t seen them since they played one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen at MacEwan Hall at the University of Calgary back in 1990 something. Plus three of four members of L.A’s punk icons X.


I also couldn’t pass up the chance to take part in Steve Earle’s Club Copperwood, an  abbreviated version of the course he teaches in New York. A small group of us got to spend a couple hours talking about songs as literature and songwriting in general with Steve Earle. He mostly talked about himself and his love for Bob Dylan, but offered some different ideas. He assigned us homework of writing a haiku to get us thinking in syllables and rhythm (five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables and reflecting a season in  without naming it), which he promised to critique in the next session. He also offered up  an interesting tip of putting a capo on the second fret of the guitar, and all strings except the low E, noting  that forms an A chord. He also noted a lot of his melodies come from just finger-picking.  he even  critiqued ab couple of the  participants homes— those with the foresight to bring a computer with a recording of their song on it.


Los Lobos opened the cruise on the pool deck and closed it in the Stardust Theatre on the last night. 


 All of the acts I wanted to see played the first of several shows  throughout the trip, on the first night. Dave Alvin stole the show from an impressive lineup. Alvin, who came to prominence in the early ’80s with original cow punk roots rocker the Blasters, lead his band through a few  Blasters songs, solo tracks and classic country delivered  with his soothing baritone while tearing out scorching, swampy blues fuelled solos.

 Los Lobos  played a lot of traditional  Mexican songs and a lot of their own material. They didn’t play their hit cover of Richie Valens’  “La Bamba,” but that was all right, though they may have played it during the encore on the last night There has always been a lot more to Los Lobos than “La Bamba” and they showed it. Saxophonist Steve Berlin, was everywhere on the boat, guesting with a lot of different acts.


Billy Zoom puts the sax in X on Outlaw Cruise west. Photo by Richard Amery

It was a surreal experience to see Social Distortion in a theatre on a cruise ship and frontman and lone original member Mike Ness seemed to agree.

“ I could get used to this,” he quipped after roaring onto stage in a black bandanna, which he quickly removed. They had David Hidalgo Jr, son of Los Lobos guitarist/vocalist Dave Hidalgo, playing drums with him and had a different guitarist as he noted the usual guitarist Johnny Two Bags  Wickersham had thrown out his shoulder and couldn't’ play. They played a lot of my favourites during their two shows.  He seemed to be in a heartbreak mood, playing a lot of broken heart themed songs including “ Dear Lover.”


 With everything happening today, “Don’t Drag me Down,” is even more true than when he wrote it in the early ’90s.

 And my absolute favourites as always were “Don’t Drag Me Down” and “ Ball and Chain.” They ended their second show on the pool deck with their awesome cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring Of Fire.” He was excited to have been able to see some of his own favourites on the boat. He observed  back in the ’70s and ’80s punk bands all had their own unique, looks and sounds and that was embraced instead of everything punk music being so formulaic. He noted  Social Distortion’s cover of “Ring of Fire” got a lot of young people into  Johnny Cash and Co

untry music because of it though they caught some flack for covering Cash.

 They also added a couple new songs including “ Born To Kill.”


Mojo Nixon with the Beat Farmers playing Outlaw Cruise west. Photo by Richard Amery

X was exceptional with three original members, bassist/ vocalist John Doe, vocalist Exene Cervenka and the inimitable Billy Zoom doing double duty on guitar and even saxophone.  John Doe and Exene Cervenka  blended their haunting voices together to relate dark, yet upbeat, rockabilly tinged tales of life in Los Angeles in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Billy Zoom sat comfortably on a stool on stage, standing for the older favourites like “Los Angeles,” Johnny Hit and Run Pauline,” and to play sax on a the amazing “ I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts,” which also featured a utility played adding marimba. They played that during both their sets in the Stardust Theatre and on the pool deck. “Soul Kitchen,” had me  running back to my X records as soon as I got home. “Devil Doll” from their fourth album “  More Fun In the New World,” was one of many rockabilly influenced  cuts. They mostly focussed on their first four groundbreaking albums.


 This cruise had a lot of rockabilly, with Slim Jim Phantom, though I only caught his last show, plus Big Sandy and the Fly  Rite Boys, who added  quirky humour to the cruise. Big Sandy was one of several performers who was playing with everybody else.


That is the the most fun thing about floating music festivals is other artists showing up to play with other  artists.


 Outlaw country personalist  Mojo Nixon bellowed “outlaaaawwwww Countryyy”  during his late night set and also guested with a lot of different acts including the Beat Farmers on the pool deck. Deke Dickerson, who released a cool song in the middle of the pandemic called the “Pandemic Anthem” mostly played rockabilly for his sets. He also joined the Beat Farmers for a song on the pool deck.


 The Beat Farmers were on the Last Outlaw Cruise in February and played a lot of  songs, from their three albums, including their west cover of Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s  “Powderfinger,” and a lot from their “Pursuit of Happiness” album. 


 For a complete surprise, punk legend MC 5 guitarist Wayne Kramer showed up to unleash a couple scorching guitar solos during the Long Ryders’ Nov. 6 pool deck set, which also featured Steve Berlin adding saxophone. 


In addition to a who’s who of the California cow-punk/ alt country scene on the boat, there are always new artists to discover.


Jade Jackson singing with Charlie Overbey  on Outlaw Cruise west. Photo by Richard Amery

 One of my favourite new discoveries this trip was Jade Jackson, playing appealing vintage honky tonk and heartfelt folk style music. She is on CKXU’s playlist as one half of the Jackson Sellers band who are getting noticed for “The Devil is an Angel”.


 She had her own pool deck show on a chilly night, Sunday, Nov. 6 but it was competing with a Merle Haggard  tribute, which featured most of the performers and most of the audience, which I couldn’t get into, so me and a few hardy souls put on sweaters and jackets for an intimate set with Jackson.


Charlie Overbey has been around the L.A. scene for a while and was only scheduled to play one show, but ended up playing several sets of gritty outlaw country music. He welcomed Jade Jackson to the stage to sing background vocals on a few of his songs during his first set.


Social Distortion playing the pool deck on Outlaw Cruise west. Photo by Richard Amery

 Chuck Prophet, who has produced a lot of alt country musicians including Alejandro Escovedo had his band the Mission Express who played a variety of oddball, ’60s inspired  songs  including “ Bobby Fuller Died for your Sins.” I only caught one of his shows, but enjoyed it enough to get a couple CDs.


As always it was a good time, though the new boat took some getting used to. Usually Outlaw Cruise is on the Norwegian Pearl, and after five trips there is a sense of familiarity. This boat had a slightly different layout with the Bliss Lounge mid ship on the sixth floor which was closed while setting up acts. That meant there was a lot more lining up than usual to catch shows in the Stardust Theatre also on the sixth and seventh  floors.

 But the music was excellent as always and there is always something to do, see and people to meet who like the same music you do. 


I’ll be back on the Outlaw Cruise 7 in February and can’t wait.

 — by Richard Amery, l.A. beat Editor

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