Blues cruise

Dawnell Smith

Something about riding the rails conjures up the blues. The rhythm, perhaps, or the way the sway of the train brings out that pleasant kind of melancholy.

People get to talking and thinking on trains -- dancing and drinking too, especially on the Blues Train, an annual autumn overnight trip with the Alaska Railroad. This weekend's journey will put about 250 people onboard with the Rebel Blues band as the train sways through one of the most gorgeous stretches of the Alaska rail system.

"I've been on the first two trains, and this is by far the most fun train that we offer for adults," said Susie Kiger, director of passenger sales and marketing for the Alaska Railroad.

Rob Woolsey of Rebel Blues agrees as only a blues man can: "Every year is quite the blowout, so memories tend to lapse."

The gig can prove difficult because "when you get on the train and get back into those nooks and crannies away from the highway, it's almost like Alaska has a fall season," he said. "As we're playing, it's hard not to gaze out the window."

Distracted fans or not, the band will play all kinds of blues, including driving train songs such as "Folsom Prison Blues" and "Mystery Train," inevitably to the tempo of the train itself, he said.

When asked about what essentials to bring along, Woolsey said, "Camera, camera, camera," though a pillow and something to read might not hurt. Or ibuprofen.

The trip begins with almost four hours of blues on the train, along with two drink tickets and appetizers, before you end up in Seward for the night. Things get rowdy on the trip south, for sure, and good times continue at The Pit in Seward, where the band keeps playing and the coals keep burning in the barbecue.

Bars remain open on the return trip, but the ride home usually turns mellow.

"This is a true test of a musician's endurance," said Woolsey, who plays piano and harmonica for the band. "We wake early and load our gear, play about four hours on the way down, get off, unload gear, go to The Pit, set up and we have maybe an hour before playing again."

Last year he passed out from exhaustion on the return trip.

Clearly, this partnership between Anchorage's Blues Central lounge and the Alaska Railroad taps into all the senses, from the visual and aural to nonsense.

Bob Winn, manager of Blues Central, takes care of the band, food and beverages while the railroad handles ticket sales, transportation and hotel accommodations.

Blues Central typically serves craft beer and upscale liquor rather than low-shelf stuff, Winn said. Just because you've got the blues doesn't mean you can't enjoy them in style.

Veterans of the event know what to expect, but Woolsey offers a few tips for newcomers. First, expect to see people of all kinds kicking up their heels on the tiny dance floor because the blues appeal to everyone from 20 years old to 80.

Other than that, he said, it all comes down to good planning. "Take a long nap right before you leave because it's a long journey into the nether regions of the blues."

Find Daily News reporter Dawnell Smith at or call 257-4587.

Blues Train

When: departs Anchorage for Seward 1 p.m. Saturday; departs Seward for Anchorage 1 p.m. Sunday

Where: Anchorage Depot

How much: $249 per person based on double occupancy (single $309, triple $233, quad $224). Choose one of several hotels.

Phone: 265-2494


Information: The Blues Train will probably sell out, so get tickets now if you can. About 70 spots were available early this week. The price includes two drink vouchers and food. Beverages and snacks will be sold. Travelers must be 21 or older and are prohibited from bringing alcoholic beverages aboard.

By Dawnell Smith