American Queen's musical acts strike a nostalgic chord

I first tuned into just how musically robust the American Queen was when we first boarded our seven-night Tennessee River cruise in Chattanooga and headed to the portion of the deck at the bow called the Front Porch. Here we were greeted with a glass of bubbly and bags of freshly popped popcorn as the boat’s lively six-piece band, the Steamboat Syncopators, played Dixieland tunes to get us all in the mood for the nostalgic week ahead.

My friend and I clinked glasses, grinning in delight. We tapped our toes and rapped our hands on the arms of the classic rocking chairs we occupied as the band played on, jamming with their bass, keyboards, drums, clarinet, trumpet and saxophone.

We’d hear lots of the band over the course of the week, mostly in the frilly Grand Saloon show lounge, a lovely retro space that traces its origins to Ford’s Theatre in Washington and includes several boxes on the mezzanine level.

Each evening’s performances were offered twice to accommodate the two dinner seatings. The week’s repertoire included three excellent themed song and dance revues by the four-member entertainment team, led by the talented singer Alex Bernhardt, who also happened to be our cruise director.

The American Queen's four-member entertainment team, led by cruise director Alex Bernhardt, third from left, perform during a 1970s tribute show in the ship's Grand Saloon.

Accompanied by the band, singers shared solo duties. One evening was a tribute to the South, and Bernhardt summoned his best baritone for a moving rendition of “Ol’ Man River”; though I’ve heard it many times, it sent chills down my spine. 

For the most part, all of the American Queen’s entertainment harkened back to the late-19th-century heyday of the showboats that once traveled through the South as flamboyant floating theaters. 

And we lapped it up. 

Each evening settled into a comfortable rhythm. We’d procure a pair of proseccos from one of the ship’s bars (there are four) and then head for our favorite cozy barrel chairs five or six rows from the Grand Saloon’s stage to watch whatever was on offer. We particularly enjoyed the quirky and adrenaline-fueled “Banjomania” show by the talented strummer Will Kiefer, who enthusiastically moved his fingers across the neck and strings with so much speed, I waited for sparks to fly. 

Another evening, actor Curt Fields impersonated Civil War hero Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, in full uniform, holding court on stage as he talked about the Battle of Shiloh. The audience was rapt, as many were Civil War buffs (though I admit I lost the thread after a while).

We also enjoyed the night Bobby Horton was featured, an interesting old-school performer who plays the guitar and talk-sings folksy Civil War songs with storylike lyrics.

Music flowed in other parts of the riverboat as well. Phil Westbrook tickled the ivories each evening at the Captain’s Bar outside of the restaurant with his popular cabaret-style song-and-chat routine, liberally sprinkled with corny one-liners that elicited many laughs from his devoted fans.

The few passengers who stayed up past dinner — the American Queen does not attract a late-night crowd! — would head to the cozy, dimly lit Engine Room Bar at the stern to listen to live music from a duo on guitar and keyboard starting at 9:30 p.m. (One of the nice features of that venue: Its windows offer partial views of the ship’s big, red paddlewheel.)

During the day, there were also several live sessions of music from a traditional steam-powered, 37-pipe calliope (similar to an organ) on the stern of Deck 6. It was lovely to hear it from the Front Porch or the viewing deck above, an ambient and evocative sound conjuring up the past, while gazing at the riverscape as we cruised, but dare to venture too close and the pipe blasts can be deafening. 

The American Queen docked in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Depending on each day’s port schedule, there was some nonmusical matinee entertainment, too, which we attended a few times when we weren’t sitting on the Front Porch gabbing with some soft-serve ice cream or the daily cocktail.

There were in-character monologues by Mark Twain — actor Lewis Hankins’ likeness to Twain was astonishing — and lectures by “riverlorian” Frank Rivera about fascinating topics like the mysterious fire aboard the Sultana showboat in the 1860s as well as more mundane Encyclopedia Britannica-like talks about water levels or the wildlife along the Mississippi and its tributaries.

Overall, the American Queen’s entertainment offerings went a long way in setting a nostalgic tone onboard. And the live music was a high note for us. 

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