Not Your Parents’ Caribbean Cruise…Or Maybe It Is?
Classic Rock Royalty Stars Aboard The Moody Blues Cruise IV
January 2-7, 2018
The New Year’s Eve hangovers had barely lifted when The Moody Blues Cruise IV: Sur La Mer set sail from the port of Miami on January 2. What a way to kick off 2018!
Hot, the music may be, but cold, rain and wind accompany us up the gangway of the Celebrity Eclipse for the almost-annual Moody Blues Cruise. That’s right. For the fourth time, the oh-so-stodgy concept of a Caribbean cruise is transformed into a five-day classic rock music festival at sea with a lineup that reads like a Who’s Who of a 1970s hit parade.
We kick off the cruise with the “blue-out,” a mass pool-deck party of about 2800 cruisers clad in blue apparel in tribute to the sailing’s headliners. This cruise has been sold out for months with a waitlist comprised of more than 1000 disappointed fans.
The crap weather cancels what would have been Jefferson Starship’s sail-away performance and most of us find solace in one of the Celebrity Eclipse’s watering holes. I’m at the martini bar with its ice and snow-topped surface, and two bar stools away from me is Mik Kaminski, The Orchestra’s phenomenal fiddler.
At 8:00 p.m. the music begins in earnest with Tom Toomey of The Zombies’ solo acoustics in the Grand Foyer, Jefferson Starship (also at 8:00 p.m.) at the pool stage, Richie Furay, ex of Poco, holding court in the Sky Lounge, and at 8:15 p.m., Shawn Phillips playing the Eclipse Theater. If anything sucks about The Moody Blues Cruise, this is it: the frequent need to sacrifice one show in favor of another. If, for example, a Strawbs show was to conflict with a Zombies one, I’d be royally pissed off, I can tell you that.
Fortunately, Al Stewart’s Year of the Cat, an acoustic set (and, at $70, one of the few gigs not included in cruise fare) stands alone at 10:30 p.m. I attend, get sloshed on the free sparkling wine offered by exceedingly generous roaming waiters (‘Can I have four please?’ I ask and it’s not a problem), and sit back to hear so many of the Al Stewart songs that first made me realize that pop songs can contain intelligent and poetic lyrics that paint vivid pictures of people or bring history to life. I leave having loved the music and wondering where the hell Stewart learned to tell such funny stories.
LOVE THE ORCHESTRA!!! At 12:30 p.m., The Orchestra takes to the pool area on an extravagantly-constructed stage built specifically for this cruise letting fans enjoy music under — thankfully, this afternoon — the sun. Evil Woman, Do Ya, Telephone Line, and Don’t Bring Me Down pepper the performance. Not only is each seat occupied, but the deck above is crowded with fans bopping against the guardrails and dancing around the deck chairs.
That first 12:30 p.m. Orchestra performance is the first live music of the day, but that doesn’t mean everyone’s sitting around playing shuffleboard or bingo.
A signature event of The Moody Blues Cruise is “The Photo Experience” with artists on board, little meet-and-greets with a photographer in attendance to capture the moment. This morning, we can get up close and personal with Ambrosia, Ides of March, Lighthouse, and Mike Dawes, but throughout the cruise all artists will participate.
The big photo op hits at noon with “The Moody Blues Tour Photo.” Nowhere near the intimate set-up used for “The Photo Experience,” each Moody Blues Tour Photo includes a group of about 50 music fans photographed while surrounding the cruise headliners on the theater stage. Instructions are issued to turn off cell phones, not to take personal photos or to attempt to speak with the rock gods. I skip this event since I was never good at following directions.
The afternoon and evening schedule compensates for the dearth of morning music. Little River Band plays the pool stage at 4:00 p.m., doing a helluva lot of songs that I had no idea they’d made famous, and the Young Dubliners, Jefferson Starship, Brook Hanson, and Rare Earth are all making music at various places around the ship.
And it’s tonight that The Moody Blues makes their cruise debut at the ship’s Eclipse Theater, a multi-level venue that’s packed. A standing ovation before even one note is played, and then they launch into a two-set show, familiar hits comprising the first set while Days of Future Passed (or DOFP, as I’ve learned dedicated Moody Blues fans refer to it) comprises the second.
The size of the Eclipse Theater demands that the cruise organizers divide passengers into two groups for the assigned-seating Moody Blues performances. Tonight’s group is the Red Group, while tomorrow the Blue Group will pack the theater to enjoy the same show.
From the Moodies gig, I swing to another signature cruise event: the Q&A, this one starring Strawbs. ‘I’m really not fond of Q&As’ reveals Strawbs frontman Dave Cousins. ‘People tend to ask me questions about my bowel movements. So instead, we’re going to show you exactly how our song Ghosts was created.’ And from there, Cousins launches into a fascinating reconstruction of each musical layer of the song involving each member of the band and supplementing the story with some Strawbs history and a few more songs. A more traditional Q&A follows and, thankfully, it turned out that song inspirations and not bowel movements are on the audience members’ minds.
A super-moon hovers over us later that night when Caravan takes to the pool stage at 10:30 p.m. with a 90-minute set that concludes with me heading back to my cabin and passing out . . . Those of a heartier stock hit the karaoke stage until God knows what time.
Land ho! We anchored this morning at about 7:00 a.m. and will remain here off Bumfuck, Grand Cayman until about 4:00 p.m. The original plan was to anchor off Georgetown but we hit a pickle — rough waters — which required a change of location. That means a 20-minute tender ride and a 30-minute free shuttle bus into Georgetown. The shopping sucks — Bulgari or T-shirts, nothing in between.
No biggie. The music begins today with Ambrosia at 3:30 p.m. and members of the Red Group have their Moody Blues Group Tour Photo — remember: Leave your phone in your cabin!
At 5:00 p.m. Al Stewart hits the theater with his electric show — did I mention how funny he is between songs? ‘Most songs on the hit parade in the ’70s were ‘I want you baby’ ones. My record company wanted me to come up with a hit so I wrote this song about Basque separatists and the genocide in Rhodesia,’ he says before the first notes of “On the Border.” I tell you, the guy kills me!
It’s been said that the extraordinary-yet-underrecognized Strawbs have had a dark cloud over their heads during much of their career, but tonight, it is literally the case. Still, the band takes the stage and the heavens open as they kick off with “Nails from the Hands of Christ,” a powerful cut from their recently-released Ferryman’s Curse, Strawbs’ first all-new album in eight years. Well, Christ Himself must have been listening because the deluge stops part of the way into the song. I can only conclude that JC likes the song and isn’t too ticked about the line that mentions a resemblance between Jesus on the cross and Bruce Springsteen (which isn’t surprising since Bruce is pretty damn hot if you ask me).
Now I’m pissed. The morning began with me joining other early risers for coffee and they wouldn’t shut up about how wonderful Rare Earth’s show was last night . . . and I missed it and they won’t be performing for the remainder of the cruise. Damn.
At 10:00 a.m. we arrived in Cozumel, Mexico. Ole! Well, not so much. For those not making the l-o-n-g journey to the Mayan ruins, a nearby option is an area of lackluster shops. There are very, very few things in life that I really don’t want, but a four-foot-wide elaborately decorated Mexican hat and maracas with Cozumel hand-painted on them would certainly figure prominently on that list.
Tonight’s gonna be a whirlwind! Oh my God . . . back-to-back events that I simply can’t miss: The Zombies, Alan Parsons, Strawbs, Al Stewart. From 5:00 p.m. straight through to midnight with no break between for things like . . . eating.
Which is another huge difference between this cruise and a more traditional one. The typical cruise vacationer returns home with tales of extraordinary dining, lavish restaurants, leisurely meals. Aboard The Moody Blues Cruise, eating is a near-aerobic activity: dash to buffet, pick up pizza slice, chew aggressively, dash to Sky Lounge. My personal plan for this evening consists of hoarding food like a squirrel at about 4:30 p.m. in the hope that it will sustain me through a long evening and prevent me from becoming too tipsy too soon.
As it turns out, I’d have had plenty of time to eat tonight — I actually missed Al Stewart’s 5:00 p.m. Sky Lounge performance because I’m an idiot. Here’s the story: During a casual conversation with Strawbs’ Dave Lambert, he mentioned a one-hour time change with our arrival in Cozumel. The guy’s a genius with the guitar so I figure he must also be an authority on time zones and set my watch back an hour. It’s not until hours later when I run into Lambert again and mention that I was seeing Al Stewart that he said, ‘But it’s probably over!’ Unlike myself, he investigated and discovered that while Cozumel, indeed, is an hour behind, our ship wasn’t following the change.
So next up is a conflict: The Moody Blues Storyteller session at the pool stage or The Zombies in the Eclipse Theater. It’s practically a commute from the fourth deck’s Theater to the 12th deck’s pool stage, so it’s not as if I can easily swing from one to another and back. I choose to listen to Graeme Edge, Justin Hayward, and John Lodge discuss their recent Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction before deciding I’d rather bop a bit and hightail it down to the Eclipse just in time to catch the opening of The Zombies performance of their iconic Odyssey & Oracle album with a line-up that includes current band members as well as originals Hugh Grundy and Chris White. Colin Blunstone’s voice is flawless.
Another commute, this time from the bowels of the theater to the 14th deck’s Sky Lounge for Strawbs. Packed, I tell you, which surprises this long-time fan who had come to expect more manageable audiences (and great seats) with little effort. At least on this cruise, Strawbs have finally been discovered.
While Strawbs are wailing within the shelter of the Sky Lounge, the full watery wrath of the heavens is striking the outside decks, forcing the cancellation of Lighthouse at the pool stage. Time for the pizza dash before one of the most highly-anticipated gigs of the sailing: Alan Parsons.
Making his Moody Blues Cruise debut, Alan Parsons performs against a backdrop of tragedy. Two weeks earlier, the 21-year-old son of his band’s lead singer, P.J. Olsson, suddenly passed away. Tonight Parsons performs with guest vocalists attempting to fill the void. The Zombies’ Colin Blunstone, who has a history with Parsons, joins him on stage for “Old and Wise,” a song Blunstone originally performed with The Alan Parsons Project. Tonight is the song’s very first live performance. The Orchestra’s Parthenon Huxley is also called upon to lend vocals. I guess if you’re a rock legend who’s seeking electrifying vocalists, there are worse places to be than The Moody Blues Cruise.
We’ve reached the final day of our sailing and somehow need to find the time to pack between events so that tomorrow we can leave the warmth of the Caribbean and return to (for many of us) our frigid and snowy homes. Total drag.
But there’s still a full day of music before us and, not surprisingly, The Moody Blues figure prominently. Two events not included in our cruise fare — Justin Hayward’s Spirit of Heaven Party, a solo acoustic show, and Wine and Music with John Lodge — are completely sold out and at midday, Hayward, Lodge, and Edge will hold a Storyteller session.
Out of sheer curiosity, I check out The Ides of March at the theater — another band who got rave reviews on the last sailing but whom I managed to miss entirely. I figure just marveling at Jim Peterik’s purple hair will be enough of a delight, but discover I’m captivated by The Ides of March’s ’60s sound and stage presence, Peterik’s Union Jack Guitar, wardrobe, and, yes, that purple hair. Total fun.
From total fun, we go to total heartbreak: On the pool deck we find lashing rain and high winds, severe enough to cancel The Zombies’ pool stage performance that so many of us were looking forward to! Hell, even The Zombies themselves were looking forward to it! Rumors abound — another venue was being sought or Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent would perform a kind of Storytellers thing. In the end, the theater was booked, it was the final night of the cruise, and there was simply no alternative venue that could safely hold the number of people who would no doubt attend.
At least the theater was occupied by two of the cruise’s most popular artists that evening: Alan Parsons and The Orchestra. That healed us Zombies fans’ wounds a bit. Nah. Who am I kidding? We’re still devastated.
As a veteran of all four Moody Blues Cruises, I’ve witnessed a curious evolution. From a 2013 inaugural sailing that attracted passionate Moody Blues fans almost exclusively, successive sailings have attracted more and more fans of other artists as well, most notably The Zombies, The Orchestra, and, this year, Al Stewart and Alan Parsons. The Moodies have and probably will always be the greatest draw but it’s not unusual now to hear that it was ultimately a peripheral act that was the deciding factor in a person’s booking.
No matter which artist lures you up the gangway, The Moody Blues Cruise brings classic rock fans an ocean of music and magic. And, with the heartbreaking death of ex-Moody Blues flautist, singer and composer Ray Thomas, a death we learned of the morning that we disembarked The Moody Blues Cruise, sadly, the fact that our favorite classic rockers won’t be around forever.
The next Moody Blues Cruise is yet to be scheduled. In the meantime, music fans should check out Monsters of Rock (monstersofrockcruise.com) for hard rock at sea or Cruise to the Edge (cruisetotheedge.com) for a prog rock experience.