If the Mississippi River has a musical signature, it's the blues. People travel far and wide to this flowing destination that journeys from the top of the USA in Minnesota, down to the Gulf of Mexico -- and one of the best ways to take it all in is with a Mississippi River cruise.
The long, rippling river is a calling card for music lovers who want to embrace one of America’s oldest and most cherished genres of music. The river is also lovingly called “the Mississippi blues trail” and hosts blues cruises for fans of the genre.
To help blues lovers get their fix, we asked resident experts in St. Louis, Memphis, New Orleans and Minneapolis/St. Paul -- all stops on Mississippi River cruises -- to describe the blues scene in their hometowns, along with a shout-out for clubs on their shortlist. Here's what they said and what you need to know.
In St. Louis, the blues is a gray area. "We're a mix of genres. It's blues, R&B, soul music and funk," says music blogger and radio DJ Joseph Hess, who organizes the city's largest music festival. "It's essential to the city's DNA and its musical identity that these lines are blurred."
When visiting clubs, bars or music venues in the city, you’ll likely get to experience the genre-blending firsthand. With blues musicians followed up with funk, folk, or some of that sweet, silky R&B soul.
The Broadway Oyster Bar and BB's Jazz, Blues & Soups. Both clubs are located downtown on the 700 block of S. Broadway in St. Louis, and they all have live music nightly, both local and national acts.
If you want some dinner with your blues, Broadway Oyster Bar, or BOB as it is affectionately called, is your best bet. In addition to freshly shucked Gulf oysters, the Cajun and Creole menu features standards, like gumbo and shrimp and grits, along with standouts like fried alligator, alligator sausage and shrimp cheesecake.
When the blues migrated from its birthplace in the Mississippi Delta, it traveled up to Memphis, where artists ranging from bandleader W.C. Handy to B.B. King introduced it to a broader audience from clubs on Beale Street. This coined the Memphis moniker "Home of the Blues."
Historic Beale Street, which is just a few blocks from where cruise ships dock, remains the epicenter of the city's blues scene. Beale Street hosts most of the city's top blues venues and is an excellent place to find a delicious meal. Barbeque and burgers are easy to find, but be aware that most music venues also have their own restaurant menus.
As Sally Walker Davies, Memphis editor of lifestyle website StyleBlueprint, puts it: "The clubs and restaurants on Beale still move to the beat of the blues."
B.B. King's Blues Club, The Band Box at Blues City Cafe and The Rum Boogie Cafe: all Beale Street fixtures. B.B. King's, according to Walker Davies, has the best house band on Beale (it attracts national headliners as well). Live music starts midday on Friday and plays through Monday.
The Band Box is a small venue with solid acts like Blind Mississippi Morris, who has been called "The Real Deal on Beale." Rum Boogie Cafe features Vince Johnson and the Boogie Blues Band as the house band, and has a terrific blues hall with 200 autographed guitars from, among others, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Ike Turner.
All of the Memphis clubs serve traditional Southern fare. As The Blues City Cafe frames it, "Put some South in your mouth."
There's no one club in New Orleans that specializes in the blues, not even The House of Blues. "Nobody does blues all the time. We're not a town where you can hear the blues every single night," says Jan Ramsey, publisher of OffBeat magazine, a guide to the city's music scene. "We've got everything from hip hop to pop to funk to brass bands to jazz and fusion jazz. Fusion jazz is kind of bluesy."
Although you can’t pop into a venue and hear the blues all night long, there is one street music lovers recommend. Frenchman Street is known to be the place for blues music in New Orleans.
Simply skip Bourbon Street. Locals get their music fix in the Marigny neighborhood on the 500 and 600 blocks of Frenchmen Street, which hosts a high concentration of musical venues. Any search for the blues should start there.
If you’d rather explore Frenchman Street and skip the schedule, bars like Bamboula’s, The Spotted Cat Music Club, Blue Nile and Apple Barrel Bar are the most likely to host blues musicians.
There's also a terrific mix of restaurants -- Creole, Italian, Thai, Japanese and beyond. If you have an appetite for N'Awlins po'boys, you will find them here as well.
The blues scene in Minneapolis and St. Paul is thriving, both in terms of clubs and fans. "We have more than our fair share of talented musicians and some have gone on to reach national and international stature," says Minnesota Blues Society president Richard Schaefer. "There's a tradition here of supporting blues musicians and bringing up that next generation of blues players."
Wilebski's Blues Saloon and Minnesota Music Cafe in St. Paul are the places to be. Schaefer describes Wilebski's, which dates back to the '60s, as a classic dive bar decorated in blues relics. For the most part, it hosts local acts on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
You can find music every night of the week at Minnesota Music Cafe, home to the blues, R&B, soul and rock. Like most clubs, they offer meals to keep you satisfied while you’re soaking in the sweet funky tunes.
Minneapolis, Minnesota is home to Dakota and Bunker’s Music Bar & Grill. Both host live music every night of the week. Travelers on blues cruises can enjoy the blues, R&B, rock, jazz, and reggae at these venues.