CRUISE TO THE EDGE 2022
THIS YEAR’S PROG CRUISE MAKES A LOT OF NOISE. A WHOLE LOT OF NOISE.
In the lobby of Homewood Suites Hotel in Port Canaveral, a life-size model of an astronaut greets us, but it’s not the Space Center that has lured Dorie and me to Central Florida—it’s Mariner of the Seas’ Cruise to the Edge, a five-day progressive rock music festival, sailing with some of the biggest bands and artists of that genre.
And we’re not alone.
Up and down Astronaut Boulevard, a strip of reasonably-priced hotels, it seems every pedestrian we pass is sporting a Cruise to the Edge t-shirt or one that promotes a band who will appear on the cruise: Marillion, Nektar, Alan Parsons, Riverside, Lifesigns and more.
The crowd at Preacher’s Bar, a cozy watering hole with pretty terrific food, suggests we’ve walked into a private prog-themed party. Now and then a squeal erupts within the crowd as a new person enters and sees, for the first time in over two years, a friend they’d met on a previous sailing. This social aspect, with friendships forming on board—some since the inaugural CTTE sailing in 2013—seems nearly as important to cruise “regulars” as the music.
PRE-PARTY: THE KICK-OFF!
We won’t board Mariner of the Seas until tomorrow, yet the party has begun—the pre-party, to be precise—a gathering of those lucky enough to score a free ticket to the kick-off concert event held at The Radisson Resort at the Port.
In no time, it’s obvious that Cruise to the Edge reaches way beyond American shores. I speak with a woman who travelled from Holland specifically for Marillion, proudly displaying a silver chain from which hangs a charm engraved with the cover art of the band’s new album An Hour Before It’s Dark. Germans, Spaniards, Danes, Norwegians, Mexicans and a ton of English are circulating at the hotel’s poolside bar before heading to the ballroom for a show featuring Alan Hewitt’s One Nation and ProgJect with Saga vocalist Michael Sadler.
One Nation is on stage when Dorie and I enter. The sound deafens us, all seats are occupied and we don’t make it beyond the second song, figuring that we can catch both bands on board–maybe without a bass line that makes my teeth rattle. We decide to spend the rest of the night somewhere quiet. Like a bar.
DAY 1: GETTING THERE AIN’T HALF THE FUN
Oh my. This isn’t looking good.
Computer glitches at Port Canaveral’s Terminal 5 bring embarkation to a standstill as 2,500 prog rock fans—many of them rather…mmmm….mature—queue in the shadow of the mPool stage which is an impressive and elaborate structure that allows concerts under the sun or stars when weather conditions permit. But embarkation afternoon is the time for a bit of housekeeping: After a quick pop into our cabin on Deck 6, Dorie and I report to our muster station for a quick safety drill and then line up to receive our official Cruise to the Edge laminate, a concert pass that indicates our group—red or blue—and is used for the handful of assigned-seating gigs at the ship’s 1,362 person capacity Royal Theater, the venue of choice for the most popular shows.
It’s ironic that the first show we catch aboard this prog cruise, isn’t very proggy at all: Al Stewart, the “Year of the Cat” folk/pop singer who has crossed over to CTTE from the organizer’s classic rock sailing, On the Blue. Dorie and I are delighted*.
Despite Al Stewart’s lack of prog cred, Studio B is packed. His band, Empty Pockets, is tight with animated sax and flute player Marc Macisso contributing so much of the signature sound of hits like “Time Passages,” “Year of the Cat” and “On the Border.” Stewart’s songs, with their vivid and historical lyrics, might be what brings the crowd to Studio B tonight but his witty and hilarious stories are equally as engaging. He even pokes fun at his appearance on this prog cruise, attempting to duplicate the sound of “Interstellar Overdrive” on an acoustic guitar.
Tonight Transatlantic is scheduled for the “red” group at the Royal Theater at 7:00 p.m. and since we’re in the “blue” camp, Dorie and I head to the ship’s Dining Room for a formal dinner—an unusual experience on a music cruise where sprinting to the buffet for a quick piece of pizza before the next show is our typical sustenance. But we’ve got time to kill before Nektar’s 9:00 p.m. Studio B performance and Martin Barre’s 10:15 Royal Theater one so we join a table of diners and peruse a menu that is as exciting and creative as a weekday dinner in my apartment. That’s okay. I could stand to lose a few pounds.
What a disappointment. Friends love Nektar but the volume, once again, prevents me from any appreciation of their music which, this evening, has all the otherworldly elegance of a jackhammer outside of my bedroom window.
It’s been a long day, but as a Jethro Tull fan, I’ve been looking forward to Martin Barre and his band at 10:15 p.m.–but it’s now been delayed until 11:00 p.m. Dorie and I are sinking fast so when that 11:00 p.m. time changes to after midnight…oh, Jesus save me—we realize it’s not going to work.
DAY 2: MARILLION AND A MOODY SAVE THE—RATHER CHALLENGING—DAY
I wake early—ridiculously early because our cabin is beneath something that, from 3:00 a.m. on, sounds as though someone is smashing a load of bowling balls on the floor. Our cabin steward comes on duty, first pleading ignorance and then claiming that the sound is the result of activity at The Star Lounge above. The problem is that The Star Lounge isn’t above us. Nowhere near, in fact. Whatever.
We’ve endured enough noise for the night so we head to Jon Kirkman’s Q&A session with Al Stewart at the Viking Crown Lounge high atop the ship. The interview is a delight yet after missing a few comments I wonder why no one has turned off the piped in music that occasionally drowns out the soft-Stewart. I glance out the window and realize it’s not a recording at all but the crashes, thumps and twangs of a band performing on the pool stage one deck below.
Already there are issues on this cruise that I never experienced on any previous music cruise. Sure, with live events, scheduling adjustments are inevitable as are, in these times of COVID, last-minute line-up changes—like the cancellation of Wishbone Ash because the bass player tested positive or the cancellation of Le Orme due to their inability to secure reasonably-priced insurance for their trip from Italy. But things like ear-shattering sound volume, venues with poor sight lines, and scheduling a concert spitting distance from an intimate Q&A session are quickly turning Cruise to the Edge to cruise to the ledge.
My CTTE pre-cruise preparation included viewing youtube videos of bands I am unfamiliar with and The Flower Kings are among those I am most excited to see. I’ll have my chance to do just that at 1:00 p.m….or that’s what I had assumed. I arrive at Studio B, wait in line and discover that after admitting those who booked the VIP category (top-level accommodations that come with preferred seating and a goody bag) and those front-of-the-line general folks, even standing room is at capacity and I’m turned away.
Not so, thank God, for Marillion’s “blue” performance at The Royal Theater! Unlike the general admission scheme for the Flower Kings, Marillion shows have assigned seats and we take ours just as these prog legends take the stage.
Oh, yay! These guys are absolutely electrifying! The lead singer Steve Hogarth with his Edward Scissorhands vibe dazzles and while the volume is pretty intense, I find that if I stick a finger in each ear, I can hear every word and the music is at a decent—even enjoyable—volume. Completely new to Marillion, I find their show one of those exciting discoveries I was hoping for during this sailing and when, after a few opening tunes, they launch into their latest album, The Hour Before It’s Dark, I’m hanging on every word, every note.
Damn. I needed that.
Next on our schedule is another legend: Justin Hayward of The Moody Blues who takes the Studio B stage on time—6:30 p.m.—accompanied by Julie Ragins and the tremendously talented Mike Dawes. Like Al Stewart, Hayward moves from On the Blue (previously the Moody Blues Cruise) to this prog sailing, an addition to the roster made just a few months before, probably in an attempt to attract Moodies fans to the cruise.
Hayward’s performance, one of the best I’ve seen—hell, he even had an engaging personality during this gig—includes Moodies hits and the stunning “Forever Autumn.” This is my kind of music.
DAY 3: HIGH POINTS, LOW POINTS AND A LOT OF LOUD POINTS
Well, this is a nice surprise! Today, we learn Wishbone Ash, previously cancelled due to their bass player’s positive COVID, will appear with Alan Thomson from Martin Barre’s band as a stand in! But that’s not until tonight.
In the meantime, it’s a busy day with Mariner of the Seas arriving at the first of its two ports of call: Labadee, a Royal Caribbean-owned private island with beaches, activities like zip lining and souvenir shops and stalls which overly-pushy locals attempt to drag people into to buy stuff made in China.
Music-wise, a Marbin show is planned on a makeshift stage, but Dorie and I have had our fill of sun, surf and sand so by 11:00 a.m., we head back on board in time to catch Marillion’s Q&A session at The Royal Theater.
I don’t know how I managed to miss these guys during my rock-obsessed life. With the magic of their recent show still vivid in my head, I learn through their Q&A a bit about the Edward Scissorhands guy’s songwriting process, what they were up to during lockdown and the sad reality that a North American tour seems rather unlikely due to the endless forms and touring requirements imposed by the governments.
Al Stewart’s second and final performance of the cruise begins at 3:30 p.m. and while we expect an exact duplication of his last show, we find more than a few new songs and stories.
The proggies in the audience are awed when Stewart reveals that, during his early teen years, he booked 10 guitar lessons from a local boy, Robert Fripp, but was frustrated by the difficult jazz chords and didn’t continue the instruction. Years later, when Fripp is asked if any of his guitar students went on to achieve fame, Fripp cites Stewart and adds “But he did so by ignoring everything I bloody taught him!”
Since boarding, I have seen a surprising number of people sporting Lifesigns t-shirts and today the band, which includes two Strawbs alumni, John Young and Dave Bainbridge (the latter, pretty busy during the cruise, performing with Lifesigns as well as Fernando Perdomo’s Out to Sea band and with Gabriel Agudo, late of Bad Dreams), provide the soundtrack as we sail away from Labadee. The space in front of the stage is packed with the most devoted while other fans watch from the decks above or even while relaxing in the swimming pool beside the stage. This is my first introduction to Lifesigns and while the sound isn’t quite as distorted as it’s been at some shows, it isn’t quite clear enough for me to really appreciate unfamiliar music so off we go. Which, sadly, has been the recurring theme.
The greatest challenge for the devoted prog fan on this sailing is…well…eating. Look at this: Wishbone Ash at the pool stage at 7:30 p.m. and Alan Parsons at The Royal Theater for the “blue” group at 9:30 p.m. Even if you were to scurry to the lackluster buffet (I swear, I’ve had romaine with little cubes of dried chicken at every meal but breakfast thus far), you’ll still get heartburn wolfing it down in the short break between shows. And unless you’ve booked that VIP category with early entry to general admission shows, time waiting on pretty long lines, adds to the problem.
So Dorie and I decide to forgo Wishbone Ash tonight and head to the dining room for a formal dinner with a friend. And, along with our Caesar salad, tomato soup and grilled shrimp, we experience one of those magical CTTE moments: Members of progressive jazz-rock Marbin are at the next table. Lead singer Dani Rabin has brought his guitar and, between courses, he serenades our table with “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” I haven’t caught Marbin’s show yet, but I kind of love these guys’ love for music. On Labadee, Rabin was spotted jamming with the locals and once, when I popped into the café on the Royal Promenade, I found him sitting in a corner, guitar in hand, entertaining a small group of coffee drinkers. I half suspect I’ll open my closet door one morning and find Rabin, guitar in hand, singing “Good Day Sunshine” or something.
After dinner, Dorie and I head to the Royal Theater for Alan Parsons, a rather theatrical performance with the red-scarved singer/musician/producer, guitar in hand, high on a pedestal above his band as they perform both songs and snippets of songs from Parsons vast catalogue. Another deafening performance, I’m sorry to say, but I’ve certainly learned my lesson: Anytime I leave my cabin, a set of earplugs go into my pocket, even before my room key does.
DAY 4: I LOVE THOSE SWEDISH BOYS
Well, this is weird. Here I am lying in the sun beside the ship’s swimming pool just as if I were on a traditional cruise. There’s no blasting music interrupting my solitude though that pool stage is just feet away.
I expect that to change about noon when Moon Safari, yet another band I’m unfamiliar with, takes the stage but I’m wrong. Suddenly, the sound is near perfect, the music clear and undistorted and the voices—terrific harmonies against an electric backdrop—sound like the Beach Boys gone prog. In a good way. I’m loving these young Swedish kids and immediately I’m sure that they’ll be among my favorite acts of the sailing.
The sun is brutal as we sail toward our final port—this one in the Bahamas—so Gabriel Agudo indoors seems the sensible choice to begin our afternoon. I love Gabriel, something that began at the early stages of the COVID pandemic when he’d stream a song every few days over Facebook. I even own his New Life album and love it. So I’m unprepared for the nightmare that greets us at The Star Lounge. This is Gabriel sounding as if he is being mangled in a car wreck, with crashing drums and a sound system that makes even Bainbridge, ranked #3 in Prog Magazine’s Best Guitarists Readers Poll, sound like a high school kid playing with his first electric guitar and amp on Christmas morning. Even earplugs can’t help this one.
With ears still ringing, we consider, briefly, a scoot down to Studio B and Claudio Simonetti’s Goblin, until I remember a friend telling me Goblin’s music is often used as soundtracks in horror films. Ummm….I think I’ll pass.
So, it’s back to the pool stage for Adrian Belew, who’s in the middle of a soundcheck—a LOUD soundcheck—that suddenly makes horror film soundtracks sound sort of appealing. Until I look to my right and find Marillion’s Steve Hogarth, aka “H” standing beside me. We chat—okay, scream—a bit—and I take a selfie, my arms visible in the mirrored lenses of his glasses.
Yup, like the classic rock On the Blue cruises, the CTTE artists may be found all over the ship, most more than happy to socialize, sign CDs and pose for photos with fans. I personally witnessed Al Stewart cornered by a fan armed with a stack of about 25 CDs and Stewart cheerfully signed each one. For those willing to stand in line—often long lines that snake down staircases and around corridors–scheduled “Photo Experiences” with many artists participating, abound as well.
Tonight—like other nights—there is a ton going on: Transatlantic for the “blue” group, Klone, Nektar, Riverside and Wishbone Ash, some shows conflicting with others, so we find ourselves roaming from one gig to another. That crazy noise in our cabin has, thankfully, subsided, we slept well, so for the first time on this sailing we have the stamina to pop into Late Night Live hosted by Rob Rutz at The Star Lounge. A freeform jazz session that finds name artists popping in and inviting fans on stage to jam, tonight’s show begins with a tribute to Robin Trower, the drummer Nick D’Virgilio (ex of Genesis and Spock’s Beard) among those jamming. But fully rested or not, 1:00 a.m. is pretty much the limit for me and, judging by the many empty tables, most of our shipmates as well. We head back to our cabin, wondering who and what we might be missing at Late Night Live.
DAY 5: AT LAST! THE PERFECT DAY!
Perfect Day at Coco Cay. This little Royal Caribbean-owned island in the Bahamas is our final port of call, a hokey little family-friendly spot filled with swimming pools, a kids’ water park, lagoons, towering water slides, a hot air balloon and casual dining spots. Dorie and I head out early—about 8:00 a.m.—and find we have the whole island almost to ourselves. We settle poolside into molded deck chairs half-immersed in the sapphire blue water of the swimming pool and enjoy the solitude. Even the cheesy pop music wafting out of the speakers doesn’t sound too bad.
After a couple of hours at the pool, we head back and find ourselves fighting a human current of thousands—yes, thousands—of people who have sailed into Perfect Day at CoCo Cay aboard Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas, a 228,081 gross ton, 18-deck monster that can accommodate nearly 6,000 people and, from the looks of it, many of those 6,000 are little screaming kids.
We sure timed that right…but it is just the beginning of what would make Coco Cay our perfect day.
Back aboard Mariner of the Seas, it seems something has changed. Chicago’s District 97 led by the provocatively dressed and rocking Leslie Hunt doesn’t sound too bad on the pool stage and Protocol, celebrating their 30th anniversary, shows exactly why they’ve lasted so long.
But the transformation doesn’t reach its pinnacle until Lifesigns’ show at The Royal Theater.
Suddenly, here we are, watching the ultimate performance of the cruise unfold. I know not one song, but I don’t need to. John Young’s voice is flawless, every word distinct, while Dave Bainbridge’s guitar riffs are, without exception, clean and masterful. Cautiously, I remove the earplugs that I’d inserted before the show and discover I don’t need them!
Everyone in the theater is awestruck, demonstrating their elation with a standing ovation after each song as Lifesigns effortlessly delivers the entirety of their latest album, Altitude. This is all we wanted during the cruise: The music of a phenomenally talented band delivered at a powerful level without feedback, distortion or ear-shattering volume. The audience is thrilled, but Lifesigns, too, are visibly overwhelmed with the response. The show ends and after taking their well-deserved bow, they summon a photographer, turn their backs to the audience and capture a photo of the band with the wildly-cheering packed house behind them.
“Is the merch desk still open? I have to get Altitude!” says one prog fan after the gig. “That thing about the gofundme to raise money for a North American tour?? I’m not giving a penny. I want them to stay right in England” says an English woman who is obviously territorial about her new favorite band. “I’m not going to any other gigs tonight,” says another fan. “I don’t want anything to spoil what we’ve just seen!”
While Lifesigns is, justifiably, the highpoint of 2022’s Cruise to the Edge, I soon hear people talking about their sound man—Steve Rispin—praising him for achieving what we were beginning to think was all but impossible.
The Cruise to the Edge organizers have a demonstrated a knack for signing some fantastic acts to their music cruises, but if they really, really want fans to eagerly sign up for the next one, I’d strongly suggest that they consider making Steve Rispin its headliner.