Cruise To The Edge
Where The Prog Meets The Sea
February 7-11, 2017 ~ Tampa to Cozumel
Story by Shawn Perry
Progressive rock has often looked to the ocean for inspiration. Procol Harum, one of the genre’s early purveyors, took to the high seas with a nautical theme that tied “A Salty Dog” together. There are countless others, of course. Gentle Giant called one of their albums Octopus, Emerson, Lake & Palmer scoured Davy Jones’ Locker for “Pirates,” and “Home By The Sea” was a big hit for Genesis. OK, that one isn’t all that proggy, but you get the general idea.
Perhaps, no one took things quite as far beyond Poseidon’s realm than Yes did in 1974 with their sprawling double LP Tales Of Topographic Oceans. These days they’ve lightened the load with their very own cruise. Since its maiden voyage in 2013, Cruise to the Edge has managed to capture the music theme cruise market with a yarn only Yes could spin — essentially bringing in a co-headliner or two, along with legacy prog rock groups, plus a few newer ones, many from exotic locales like Japan, Sweden, Italy.
For this fourth expedition, parts of Tales Of Topographic Oceans were resurrected during the two Yes shows before an audience of sea cruisers with a swing in their step and a heartbeat that skips at 7/4. We were there for a second time to join them.
The 2017 Cruise to the Edge (CTTE) was a four-night excursion out of Tampa, Florida, aboard Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance Of The Seas, bound for Cozumel, Mexico. Performances from Yes, Kansas, Steve Hackett, Mike Portnoy, Neal Morse, Patrick Moraz, John Lodge of the Moody Blues and many more kept the cruisers entertained and happy. Throw in a comfortable cabin and all the food you can eat, and you have, as Yes singer Jon Davison calls it, "a prog city at sea."
On the previous Cruise to the Edge in 2015, the passing of Chris Squire five months prior cast a shadow on the usual joy and abandonment. This time cruisers hung their heads in reverence to the passing of another progressive rock legend: John Wetton. The King Crimson/Asia singer and bassist was supposed to be here.
In early January, a statement was issued that said, on the advice of his medical team, Wetton had to withdraw from CTTE and the first leg of the Journey tour that featured Asia on the bill. He died on January 31, just days before we shipped out.
As the saying goes, the show must go on, so here we were. We checked in, walked up the ramp, and were greeted with a glass of champagne and a blast of cool sea air. Welcome to the good ship lolly prog. Let the games begin!
Drummer Mike Portnoy is highly revered in the prog community. On the 2015 Cruise to the Edge, the former Dream Theater stickman and songwriter worked through a debilitating sickness and paid tribute to Chris Squire with a set of Yes songs that he and his friends played that no one expected to hear (certainly not from Yes). This year, it was his 50th birthday, and he was given full reign to celebrate.
Before we watched Portnoy and friends launch the cruise, we made our way through a labyrinth of staircases, elevators and narrow hallways to our cabin on the third level of the ship. We were in what they call a Large Ocean View Stateroom, all 164 square feet, with a comfortable Royal King bed, a small yet workable bathroom, plenty of storage, even a TV with ESPN, CNN, obscure old movies, Big Bang Theory in five different languages, ship schedules, infomercials for shore excursions, concert programs and a long-running documentary about Yes. Never a dull moment.
Last time, we had a balcony. This time, it was a porthole, about four feet in diameter, at sea level. We missed the balcony, but the room was adequate enough for what little time, aside from sleeping, we were there, so it didn’t really matter. Once the wind kicked in and the sea started to churn, the view’s perspective proved to be a real splash. Sound leakage from the Pacifica Theatre, just two floors up, provided more bottom end than we anticipated. When you’re on a music cruise, you have to let minor annoyances like these fly.
So up to the pool deck we went, securing a stool at the pool bar, stage right. Fans were packed in on the actual deck, maybe 75 feet wide and 40 feet deep. Portnoy came out and the place roared as the ship edged out of Tampa Bay toward the Gulf of Mexico.
After a moment of silence for John Wetton, Portnoy announced he would be celebrating his birthday with special performances tonight and Friday night. He brought out multi-instrumentalist and singer Neal Morse, with whom Portnoy shares four bands and 18 albums. Then some other friends showed up — singer Casey MacPherson, bassist Dave LaRue and guitarist Steve Morse. Before anyone had time to comprehend what was about to unfold, a mini set by Flying Colors was underway.
Spitfire run-throughs of “Infinite Fire,” “A Place In Your World,” “Kayla” and “Mask Machine” from the group’s two albums offered the captive audience a glimpse into what Flying Colors are all about — tight arrangements, crisp and buttery harmonies, fluid chemistry and prog-worthy musicianship. “Blue Ocean” might have been an appropriate one to include given the setting, but maybe a little too spot-on. Because of other commitments, this band doesn’t operate on a full-time basis, so we’d have to happily accept whatever they played. In 2014, I was lucky enough to catch a full Flying Colors set during a rare stateside appearance in Torrance, California (they’ve toured Europe more extensively). To see them up close and informally on the ship, however briefly, was a real treat and perfect way to advance the cruise closer to the edge.
Portnoy and Morse then moved on to their other band, Transatlantic, and were joined by bassist Pete Trewavas, Spock’s Beard guitarist Ted Leonard (filling in for Roine Stolt) and Neal Morse Band keyboardist Bill Hubauer for a magnificent three-song set. Everyone was in prog heaven, and we were barely out of Tampa’s view. There was a lot more music ahead. We finished our piña coladas and headed back to our cabin to freshen up for the first Yes show in the ship’s Pacifica Theatre, exclusively for the blue show badge holders.
When you check in for the cruise, they give you two important items: a SeaPass, which is essentially an ID and credit card rolled into one, and a blue or red show badge for admission into select shows. You really don’t want to lose either one of these, but for some strange reason, they gave us loose credit-card-sized SeaPasses — fairly vital if you want to drink, purchase things on the boat with price tags, and get on and off when you pull into port — while our blue show badges came with lanyards. I didn’t feel like carrying my wallet on the ship, opting to lock it up in the safe in my room, so carrying a loose SeaPass was out of the question. We ended buying $10 lanyards in the ship’s gift shop to house and safeguard our SeaPasses.
The artists you needed either a blue or red show pass to see were Yes, Kansas and Steve Hackett. All the other performances were free-for-alls anyone could attend. Fortunately, there were multiple shows, events and things to do, so no one place or area ever seemed to get too congested. If crowds aren’t your thing, you’re probably on the wrong ship. Even so, you can escape to the library, climb a rock wall, shoot hoops or miniature golf, get a massage, work out in the fitness center, surf the Internet for a premium charge, or take up a poolside chaise lounge with a book and a cocktail inside the tranquil setting of the Solarium. There’s even an arcade for the kids.
Speaking of kids, there was a young lady sitting in front of us at Yes who took the time to get in a few z’s while her dad anxiously videotaped the show. He had a stealth setup with a tripod and center seat. Mom eventually joined her daughter in blissful slumber. We were standing behind them without assigned seats (one of the perks of the press) as Yes came on stage and played their 10th studio album Drama in its entirety.
It was nice to see Alan White on the drum throne after missing him last summer. “I had a herniated disc, which takes a long time to get over,” he told me the day before. Still recovering, White was good for a couple songs before his understudy Jay Schellen came up to fill in for much of the night. Both Schellen and bassist Billy Sherwood brought their A-game to pump a little fire into the Yes repertoire, especially during the extended sections of Tales Of Topographic Oceans.
The 800-seat theater provided the perfect setting for Steve Howe and his pedal steel to enrapture the faithful during “And You & I.” The guitarist later told the audience it was a privilege to play this music for them. He paid tribute to both Chris Squire and the band’s original guitarist Peter Banks, who passed away in 2013 (John Wetton was honored at the second Yes CTTE show with a rendition of Asia's "Heat of the Moment"). Howe then took up an acoustic and was joined by singer Jon Davison for the ‘Leaves Of Green” portion of “The Ancient,” before the band put Tales to bed.
During the encore, White returned to the drummer chair and Schellen switched over to percussion and tambourine. A few folks started to make their way for the door as the final notes of “Roundabout” fluttered out, but then “Starship Trooper” bolted out of the gate, and everyone scrambled back to their seats for one last taste. This would be the one and only Yes show for us blue show badge holders, so it was important to savor every note. In prog, every note counts.
Afterwards, we ducked into the Minstrel Dining Room for a generous cut of filet mignon, steamed veggies and a dab of mashed potatoes. Friendly cruisers from Australia, New Jersey and Lake Tahoe joined us at our table. We’d be back for two more meals here before opting for the buffet at the Windjammer Café. By the end of the trip, we realized our favorite place to eat was the Park Café in the Solarium. You could enjoy a hearty bowl of oatmeal with a breakfast sandwich in the morning, and a small, tasty roast beef sandwich in the afternoon. Best of all, there was always a table with a view. Staying well fed and taking in the scenery are key to a pleasurable cruise.
We caught a little of the Patrick Moraz Q&A in the Centrum where he regaled a small audience with stories about joining Yes and making Relayer (the only Yes record he appeared on), among other career highlights. Before turning in, it was back to the Pacifica to check out Haken. We had seen them on the previous CTTE and were attracted by their sleek, abrasive sound. I love Rush as much as the next progster, but a lot of what’s called “progressive metal” doesn’t wear so well. Haken has the drive, musicianship and ingenuity to transcend the label, even when singer Ross Jennings unleashes the occasional death growl.
Most of the songs in their set were from their 2016 release, Affinity. The whole band was tight and disciplined; I was particularly impressed with the guitar interplay between Richard Henshall and Charles Griffiths, anchored down with style and finesse courtesy of drummer Raymond Hearne and bassist Conner Green. Keyboardist Diego Tejeida kept the flow harmonious. It wouldn’t be the last we’d see of Haken on the cruise.
For our first full day at sea, we headed up to the pool deck for a little sunshine and orientation. Everyone is encouraged to let their inner fan scream out. In other words, it’s a golden opportunity to talk with other like-minded individuals about favorite bands, favorite albums, and favorite lineups, all while wearing your favorite band’s T-shirt. The right T-shirt is an unspoken bond, a way of expressing your tastes, hopefully as refined and rarefied as the guy sitting next to you.
Obviously, there were loads of Yes shirts, but I ended buying a Cruise to the Edge shirt. There were plenty of those from previous cruises paraded about as a code of honor, a way of saying you were a CTTE vet plugged into the prog world like no other or some such nonsense. Whatever. I was on the lookout for something no one else had.
There was a good cross-section of King Crimson shirts. I have one, but left it at home. I opted instead for a David Gilmour shirt I picked up for $10 in the parking lot of the Hollywood Bowl. In passing, I got a couple thumbs up and approving nods, and I only saw one other Gilmour shirt from the same tour, with a different design. I felt so special. Rush, Genesis and Spock’s Beard shirts were everywhere. The Rush shirts reminded of a funny one I have that says “Rash.” If only it still fit.
There was a bunch of merchandise for sale, so if you wanted to add to your pile of rock tees — perhaps one from every band aboard — they had your size. Or you could get a poster (I did), or buy a CD or DVD, some even autographed. As I walked away, passing on the Steve Hackett DVD I should have bought, I bumped into Thijs Van Leer, the leader of Focus and a first-timer aboard Cruise to the Edge. We got to talking.
“Oh man, we had a concert yesterday,” he smiled. “It was unbelievable. The fans were crazily happy with us. We had a ball.”
I asked him why he thinks cruises like this have become so popular. “It’s a very concentrated form of showing better music,” he replied. “And I’m happy to be part of that.”
Was he planning to go scuba diving once we got to Cozumel?
“No scuba, I had an accident with that,” Van Leer mused, seemingly thrown off by my query. “When we get ashore, we will have a good time.”
And indeed, he did. The word was that the main focus of Focus, a man who seemingly carries a flute tucked under his arm everywhere he goes, took over Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, playing the piano and serenading the senoritas with a smooth rendition of “Stairway To Heaven.” Where’s the video of that?
We saw Focus when they played the pool deck the next day, and their performance was enlightening, to say the least. Next to Van Leer, drummer Pierre van der Linden is the longest standing member, and he didn’t miss a beat. Guitarist Jan Dumée and bassist Udo Pannekeet round out the quartet that originally formed in Amsterdam in 1969. The focal point is, of course, Thijs van Leer who plays flute, keyboards, and sings, often at the same time.
Despite a strong repertoire, with nuggets like “Eruption” and ‘Sylvia” from 1972’s Focus III album, everyone was waiting to hear the signature hit, “Hocus Pocus.” Van Leer told me the quirky instrumental was written in a matter of minutes; each player jumped in with a part that stuck, and he topped it off with an ear-splitting yodel. When the song was finally rolled out, some of those seated suddenly stood up and surged forward. Everyone else yodeled along. I came away believing there’s a lot more to Focus than “Hocus Pocus.”
Also appearing on the pool deck was Curved Air, another one of those progressive pastoral types that eluded me in my younger days. In the summer of 2016, I received a copy of Tapestry Of Propositions, a collection of Curved Air rarities. The quality is rough, but the playing is stellar. Back in the 70s, singer Sonja Kristina, like Kate Bush and Annie Haslam, broke barriers about women in progressive rock, adding a feminine spark to a male-dominated field.
On the cruise, it was difficult to hear Kristina’s vocals at first, but they finally broke through on a track called “Stay Human” from the group’s 2014 album, North Star. Paul Sax’s violin work stuck out; in retrospect, the whole band probably sounded better two nights later in the Pacifica Theatre (it was a late show and we could feel the bass in our room).
After Curved Air, we made a beeline to the Solarium for a late lunch before resting up for the afternoon’s main event: Steve Hackett.
Steve Hackett is a big reason I was excited to be on the cruise. Seeing him at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles a couple years earlier, my mind was blown away by how powerful and fearless he and his band were. They not only provided the proper blend of precision and harmony on Hackett’s wide ranging solo material, they also breathed life back into Genesis songs long absent from the concert stage (Peter Gabriel hasn’t played a Genesis song in ages).
I listened to a bit of Hackett’s new album, The Night Siren, and was immediately drawn to its cultural diversity and the commanding allure of Hackett’s guitar. “El Nino” and “Into The Skeleton Gallery” were introduced to the blue show badge holders, along with the obligatory Genesis songs that brought singer Nad Sylvan out from the shadows and in front of the microphone. I was expecting to hear more from the Peter Gabriel years, but the setlist revealed a more bountiful haul of material from 1978’s Wind And Wuthering — “One For The Vine,” “…In That Quiet Earth,” “Afterglow” — plus “Inside And Out” from the companion Spot The Pigeon EP (I bought a vinyl copy before we shipped out).
No one was complaining when “Dancing With The Moonlight Knight” was trotted out. Bassist Nick Beggs sat on the floor, wearing a kilt and playing Taurus bass pedals; keyboardist Roger King, drummer Gary O’Toole and horn man Rob Townsend fell into their respective roles. Even as Hackett announced they were running over, they snuck in “Anyway,” from The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, before dedicating “Afterglow” to John Wetton and calling it a day for us blue show badge holders.
The night before we landed in Cozumel, there was one band I had to see: Stick Men. Watching King Crimson bassist Tony Levin and drummer Pat Mastelotto, along with touch guitarist Markus Reuter, form and shape the music was something to behold on the pool deck.
Just as I walked up, they were in full-attack mode on Crimson’s “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic.” It was time to batten down the hatches because this power trio’s rumble was rocking the boat. They painted a colorful canvas during “A Crack In The Sky,” as Levin calmly recited the lyrics amidst the delicate sting of Reuter’s nimble fingers.
Holding his Chapman Stick, Levin told the audience about the new Stick Men record, Prog Noir, and introduced one of its songs, “Plutonium,” stating: “I got to be frank with you, there’s some stuff going on in the world that’s really bothering me. I’m referring, of course, to the planet Pluto being downsized. I mean, we love Pluto. What’s with that?”
Finishing up with “Level 5” from Crimson’s The Power To Believe release, Stick Men successfully maneuvered the piece’s weaving, intricate riff, covering sections typically played by larger ensembles. For anyone who likes their notes sharp and in the gut, Stick Men doesn’t clutter it up. I wandered back to my cabin in a daze, mesmerized by an astonishing day of music and merriment. There was still a lot more to do, see and hear.
It’s not every day you get to go to a place like Cozumel, so I signed up for a shore excursion to maximize the experience. Excursions allow you to indulge in practically anything the destination has to offer — from hiking among Mayan ruins, to scuba diving, to shopping, to eating and drinking, to whatever you heart desires, provided your willingness to spend the dinero.
We opted for the dolphin encounter at the Dolphinaris. It was just up the street from the cruise terminal, so we didn’t get to see much of Cozumel, aside from the numerous dive shops, bars, the beach and Carl’s Jr. Our encounter included all-you-can-eat lunch, an open bar, a small area to snorkel, and a larger area to kayak. Our host, Octavio, was gracious, charismatic and helpful, so that made it easy.
We got about 30 minutes with a dolphin, which means you get to give it high-fives, slide your hands across its back, and receive wet kisses. Looking back, I’m glad I did it. Naturally, they don’t let you take photos, so they can. After the encounter, we were lead into a room where you can purchase three photos of you and the dolphin for $75. You want more, it goes up. You get a CD with extra stock photos of the facility. I’ve included one here as a way of getting some good use out of it. Plus, everyone loves dolphins, so it’s a win-win.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t try to make up for the expense of the photos by ordering up doubles at the full bar. There was only so much time to snorkel (which I squeezed in) AND drink, so I downed three piña coladas quickly. They gave me one more for the road.
When we got back to the port, we found a beachside drinking establishment, ordered more piña coladas and tapped in to the free WiFi for email and Facebook. There was a place to swim, so I pulled out my mask and snorkel and waddled in. There wasn’t as much to see as there was in the enclosed area at Dophinaris, which was stocked with rays, schools of fish and other assorted creatures. The trade-off was a bigger area where I saw some colorful sea life with visibility that seemed to stretch forever.
One other thing about Cozumel we did take advantage of, however limited, was the shopping. You can get deals on alcohol, jewelry and Cuban cigars, duty-free and tax-free. I bought a shot glass for a buck. A Cozumel T-shirt was only $5, a lot cheaper than a $45 Yes Drama shirt, which I was very tempted to purchase. There were shops everywhere for everything, from simple curios to boots to diamond bracelets. I was happy with my shot glass.
When we returned to the boat, it was back to the pool deck for the Neal Morse Band and the second half of The Similitude Of A Dream, Morse’s conceptual piece based on the book, Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. We missed the first part on Wednesday because of Steve Hackett. This is what happens when there are multiple shows to see. As it was, the second installment was a combination of showmanship and musical brilliance. And beneath it all, a moving story unfolds.
Morse has a way of weaving his spiritual ideas within a progressive rock framework to somehow elevate the meaning. That and a hood and a sloth delivered the message of a man’s journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. Between donning various guises and singing, Morse went back and forth between his keyboards and guitar. Portnoy aptly filled in every gap and bassist Randy George punched in the floorboards. Keyboardist Bill Hubauer and guitarist Eric Gillette were equally engaged.
From the opening “Slave To The Mind,” onto the heavy thrust of “The Man In The Iron Cage,” through “Sloth” and “Battle,” to the ascending piano of “the Mask,” the drive of “Confrontation,” the inexplicable musicality of “The Battle” leading into the hopeful, inspiring finale of “Broken Sky/Long Day” — The Similitude of A Dream may have been the most majestic piece of progressive rock I heard during the whole cruise. A simply astounding performance and a testament to both the power of faith and progressive rock. Morse’s Worship service the next morning was just as inspiring.
On Friday morning, our last full day at sea, we decided to get another dose of Yes during their Q&A at the Pacifica. Jay Schellen talked about listening to Tales Of Topographic Oceans as a teenager. Steve Howe didn’t really have an answer to the question about making new music. “We never rush a record,” he said. “We have incredibly high standards.”
When it came to the group’s upcoming induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and if any sort of reunion would occur, Howe said, “It’s going to be a surprise. And that’s the end of it.”
When I asked Alan White the same question earlier in the week, he was a little less specific. “How will we approach who plays together on stage? I have no idea yet. And neither does anybody, I don’t think.”
“Bill Bruford said he didn’t really want to play,” White added. “He said, ‘I’ll just let you do all the work.’ And I said, ‘Thank you Bill.’”
Meanwhile, back at the Q&A, more questions came up: Will there be a Chris Squire tribute? What do you think of the Tormato album? Will you perform Relayer in its entirety? They shared their thoughts on playing Tales Of Topographic Oceans and Drama, plans for other live box sets on the scale of Progeny, and the Steven Wilson 5.1 remixes of the catalog.
Another subject on everyone’s mind was the state of Asia, the band Steve Howe and Geoff Downes formed in the early 80s with John Wetton and Carl Palmer. They reunited in 2006, but as he explained, Howe dropped out because the pressure of being in Yes and Asia at the same time was too much to bear. Geoff Downes, the only member who never left Asia, remains. With the passing of John Wetton and a commitment to tour with Journey in the summer of 2017, Downes turned to Billy Sherwood.
"My mind had already been blown since Chris called me,” he told me the day before. “And now, here we go again. Unfortunately, it’s been a bad couple of years where we lost Chris, Greg (Lake), and John — like the trifecta of prog bass players. In the same spirit that Chris wanted Yes to go on, there’s John Wetton. We were friends. There was no way I was going to say, ‘No.’ Just like when Chris called, there was no way I could say, ‘No.’ After I put the phone down, I thought, ‘What the hell did I just get into.’ But we’ll figure it out as we go.”
One question no one asked the members of Yes was what they thought of the whole Cruise to the Edge concept. Fortunately, I was able to talk to Alan White, Billy Sherwood, and Jon Davison about that.
White said he was excited about this fourth cruise and that, like Thijs Van Leer, he had no plans to go scuba diving once we got to Cozumel. “You got to remember, I’m supposed to be working,” he laughed.
Sherwood was a little more candid, this being his second cruise as the bass player for Yes. “I’m feeling a little more relax now with some time passing. I still miss Chris, but it just feels more comfortable for me to play.”
For Sherwood, the cruise offers an opportunity to interact with fans on a personal level. “If you’re social and you like people like I do, I just think it’s cool to make the connection. I’m very active on Facebook, and I know a lot of these people from Facebook who contacted me, and you get to meet in person and hang out.”
Beyond meeting fans, Sherwood believes the connection and his commitment go even deeper. “We’re all sharing in this musical experience. I mean, just look at the T-shirts,” he said. “Obviously, you’re on this boat and you’re not going anywhere for four days, so you mix and mingle.”
Davison offered a more philosophical slant of what makes Cruise to the Edge so special. “It’s completely integrated, a prog city at sea,” he explained as fans snapped photos and asked for autographs. “I think it’s wonderful to be integrated. Prog is a really tight community. This is a worldwide gathering in the sense that people come from all over the globe. So it’s exciting.”
I caught up with Alan White after the second Yes show for red show badge holders. He was holding court in the King & Country Pub. I gave him a copy of my book, Conversations With The Masters: The VintageRock.com Interviews because he’s in it. Holding the book, he posed for a photo and thanked me, and off I went. An hour later, I circled back by the pub and Geoff Downes had joined the party. What a shame they had such a paltry selection of taps. Sculpin in a can just doesn’t cut it for me.
One other member of the Yes family tree I made a point of talking to was Roger Dean. As he has done in the past, the man responsible for creating the lion’s share of the band’s album covers was given a space to display and sell his art, as well as meet up with fans and answer questions like the one I asked: “How did you come up with the famous Yes logo?”
“I just wanted to make a logo of the times, and I thought of something with constant movement,” he said. “It was during a train journey, from the beginning to the end of the train journey, about an hour. I did six sketches, and it was finished.”
For the Close To The Edge album, he submitted paintings for the cover, but the band’s reaction to the logo was so positive, they put it on the cover instead. Since then, it’s become a major part of the band’s identity and image. Dean agreed, telling me it’s in two museums in the UK. He added that he’s done at least 50 versions of the Yes logo.
The pool deck and Pacifica Theatre weren’t the only venues where you could experience the music. The Colony Club, on deck 6 at the rear end of the ship, hosted a variety of bands we never got around to seeing like Bad Dreams, Frost, The Fringe, IO Earth, District 97 and Alex Machacek. They also held Late Night Live there each night. This is where pre-screened passengers jam with other pre-screened passengers and occasional special guests. For some of the more dedicated musicians, this one activity and everything it involves occupies their whole time on the boat.
Smaller combos played the Schooner Bar, the Centrum and the Viking Crown Lounge (where they also had karaoke nightly). We never saw anyone in the Schooner Bar, and I only visited the Viking Crown Lounge for a photo op. We passed by the Centrum where Q&A’s and Eddie Trunk’s radio show occurred. On more than one occasion, we caught Electric Asturias, a Japanese prog rock quintet led by Yoh Ohyama, on the Centrum stage. Each member was dressed in formal black attire with a red rose on their lapel. Together, they cultivated an edgy, Mahavishnu-like sound. If only we’d taken the time to listen more.
With so much to do and see on a cruise like this, time can easily slip away. I heard about acts we missed like Spock’s Beard, Pain of Salvation, John Wesley and Dave Kerzer, who played a few ELP songs in tribute to Greg Lake and covered Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig In The Sky” with the McBroom sisters. Sometimes, it’s tough deciding on who you want to see the most. We had Kansas and Portnoy’s cruise-ending birthday bash on our list. Änglagård was another one we made a point to see.
We saw a minute or two of Änglagård on the previous CTTE, and felt compelled to see more. They’re a Swedish group that’s been around since the early 90s, and if you look at Amazon, you’ll notice their music isn’t widely available, unless you’re willing to shell out top dollar for imports. You can get a pretty idea what they’re about from the few clips on YouTube.
The six musicians of Änglagård were sound-checking when we found our seats on the pool deck. They slowly slipped into a song called “Jordrök” led by Anna Holmgren’s flute and saxophone. At one point, she played a baritone sax and keyboardist Linus Käse countered with a soprano sax. Then, during another song, she let the air out of a balloon for effect and it actually worked. This is a neo-classical band, heavily influenced by King Crimson, early Genesis and Gentle Giant, subservient to texturization, weaving melodies, and ethereal dynamics. I’m going to keep my eye out for them.
Änglagård raised the stakes high for the next band we went to see: Kansas. This would be the last show we’d need a blue show badge for, so we found seats on the upper level of the Pacifica Theatre and braced for impact. Kansas went on at precisely 8:30 (most every show started on time) and eased into “Belexes” from their 1974 self-titled debut album.
For those uninformed about the current status of Kansas, they have three new members — singer and keyboardist Ronnie Platt, keyboardist David Manion and guitarist Zak Rizvi. They are, along with drummer Phil Ehart, guitarist Rich Williams, bassist Billy Greer and violinist David Ragsdale, featured on 2016’s The Prelude Implicit, the first new Kansas album in 16 years.
Before launching into “Point of Know Return,” Greer said he couldn’t believe the cruise was almost over. Platt managed to hit all the right notes, and the band meshed like they’ve been together for years. Ehart and Williams, the two last original members, were playing especially well. It was everything the Wheatheads in the audience could hope for.
Treasures like “Icarus – Borne of Wings of Steel,” from 1975’s Masque followed “Icarus II” from 2000’s Somewhere To Elsewhere, the group’s previous album that included all the original members. These are the songs that give Kansas their progressive rock credentials, no matter how many notes or changes in tempo there are. Acknowledging the 40th anniversary of Leftoverture, both “The Wall” and “Miracles Out Of Nowhere” made the cut with a seemingly subtle “Dust In The Wind” sandwiched in between.
Platt held his own on the classics, and seamlessly moved onto the newer songs, “Rhythm In the Spirit” and “The Voyage of Eight Eighteen,” without losing momentum. The 88-minute set ended with the one-two punch of "Portrait (He Knew)” and “Carry On My Wayward Son.” After the cruise, Kansas will hit the road to play Leftoverture in its entirety. Hopefully they’ll keep a few new songs on the list just to show everyone they can still make a decent record in this day and age. Kansas was definitely a highlight on this year's Cruise to the Edge.
Mike Portnoy reclaimed the pool deck for what he called “my birthday gift to myself.” Eddie Trunk, a holdover from the previous week’s Monsters of Rock cruise and fairly naïve within the prog community, introduced the drummer who, in turn, introduced the first round of players — Stick Men bassist Tony Levin, Neal Morse Band guitarist Eric Gillete, and Haken keyboardist Diego Tejeida — to perform three numbers from Liquid Tension Experiment, a late 90s instrumental project Portnoy, Levin and members of Dream Theater put together.
It would only get heavier. Portnoy talked about some “unfinished business” he needed to tend to, and mentioned he’d given up drinking 15 years ago. “I dropped the drink and picked up a pen,” he said. The result was “Twelve-Step Suite,” a set of five songs written by Portnoy and spread out over five Dream Theater albums. To help him piece the opus together, guitarists Richard Henshall and Charles Griffiths, along with bassist Conner Green, joined their Haken band mate Tejeida and Gillete. Mike Portnoy’s Shattered Fortress, as it was dubbed, spent the next 45 minutes or so cranking through “The Glass Prison,” The Dying Soul, “The Root of All Evil,” “Repentance” and – you guessed it — “The Shattered Fortress.”
Three different singers — Haken’s Ross Jennings, Pain of Salvation’s Daniel Gildenlow and Spock’s Beard’s Ted Leonard — came up to add their voices. Portnoy himself took the vocals on “Repentance.” The pool deck shook as the band plowed through the verses. Fists flew through the air and certain, likely light individuals were hoisted up and over for a little crowd surfing. I felt like I was at an Iron Maiden concert. By the end of the performance, both the audience and the band were exhausted, thrashed and grinning ear to ear.
“This was a dream come true,” Portnoy called out as the ensemble took their bows and exited down the steps and out of sight.
From where I’m standing, the 2017 Cruise to the Edge was a raging success. There were no incidents, no problems, no drama (except the $45 T-shirt). Dates, destinations and artist lineups have already been announced for the next one. I was still curious about what others had to say.
As a special guest aboard CTTE, Moody Blues bassist John Lodge was readily accessible and willing to pitch in. After all, the Moody Blues have a cruise of their own that’s been equally successful, so he knows his way around the cruise circuit.
“I’ve had a great time,” he said. “The people have been fantastic to me and to my band.”
Lodge and his band only made on appearance on the ship, but we were lucky enough to see them at the pre-cruise party at Ferg’s Live in Tampa. There, they mixed it up with songs from Lodge’s 2015 solo release, 10,000 Light Years Ago, and classic Moody Blues tracks like “I’m Just A Singer” and “Isn’t Life Strange.”
The bassist offered a logical reason on why he thinks music cruises work. “You know, in the beginning, we played all the festivals. These are like floating festivals. We’re all together in one place. We’re all one. It’s just some people play music and others are listening. It’s like-minded people coming together.”
Jon Kirkman, the host and MC for Cruise to the Edge and the Moody Blues Cruise, said it goes beyond festivals. “The main thing is that the bands are here and mingling with the fans, which doesn’t happen, not even at festivals on dry land.”
One major part of that interaction, Kirkman stressed, is respect. “Pretty much all the fans are very respectful, of the guys in the band and their space,” he said. “They realize that sometimes, when they’re having a meal, it’s not the best thing to interrupt them. Most of the bands really like that interaction. It’s a really good two-way thing.”
Because of this, the host believes Cruise to the Edge will carry on. “There’s a definite audience who want this. As long as people want it, it will continue.”
Once we got back to Tampa, I asked a few of the musicians if they’d had a good time on Cruise to the Edge. Here’s what they had to say.
Neal Morse: “Cruise to the Edge really blew my mind! All of the music was great, but our closing set was so over-the-top blessed. I am left speechless by the experience!”
Randy George (Neal Morse Band): “It’s such a great experience. All the bands were fantastic and the people were amazing!”
Steve Hackett: “This was my third Cruise to the Edge. It was as enjoyable as ever, getting together with lots of pals and meeting many fans; a great opportunity for us all to connect and party together on the waves. The only sadness was the incomparable loss of both Chris Squire and John Wetton. I had been looking forward to John joining us all on the boat and I missed him a great deal.”
Rich Williams (Kansas): “It was awesome. Bands get to see each and talk. A lot of us have never met before. And you’re intermingling on the ship more on a friendly basis instead of a stage perspective. So it works out really well.”
Billy Greer (Kansas): “I had a blast, it was fun. It gives the fans a chance to get closer to the artists they like to see and ask questions like this.”
And that’s how it ended. My wife and I caught a cab to the airport. Other cruisers and the members of Kansas waited in adjoining terminals. We were all going home. In my wildest dreams, I could never have imagined that my favorite rock and roll bands, many I discovered and worshipped in my youth, would assemble together on a ship bound for paradise. I was supposed to be over all this — we all were. But every year, the ship fills up, the music comes on, you sip your libation, and drift out to the high seas to disconnect and forget about the real world for a while. No matter where you are in life, an adventure like this is simply too good to resist.