ON THE BLUE CLASSIC ROCK MUSIC CRUISE 2023
IT’S BACK! ON THE BLUE RETURNS AFTER PANDEMIC PAUSE
JANUARY 28 – FEBRUARY 2, 2023
It was billed as “Reunion,” a nod to the four years that had passed since classic rock fans last boarded a cruise ship for On the Blue, an oceangoing music festival that features a lineup of iconic performers and talented tribute bands.
And a reunion it was, of artists—some of whom had graced stages since the cruise’s 2013 debut as The Moody Blues Cruise—and fans who, against a shipboard backdrop, had cultivated close friendships over the years.
Some were missing though. And those of us who’ve sailed each cruise since 2013 couldn’t help but feel the sobering absence of good friends like Mark and Liz Lacob, popular cruise regulars who passed during the four-year hiatus, and artists like the Moody Blues’ Graeme Edge, the Zombies’ Jim Rodford, Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker and Greg Lake who were among the performers who dazzled us during the cruise’s 10-year existence.
With recent heartbreaking headlines announcing the passing of idols like Jeff Beck, Christine McVie, and David Crosby, and us classic rockers not getting any younger, On The Blue inspired a fierce determination: Dammit. We’re going to rock!
Day 1: Packed With Music, Inside And Out!
With those thoughts in mind, it’s ironic that Randy Hansen, a cruise favorite who brings Jimi Hendrix, gone over 50 years, to electrifying life, is the first act I catch. Beneath cloudless Miami skies, Hansen commands Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Pearl pool stage (constructed specifically for On The Blue), a silk scarf and purple feather adorning the Westerner hat that shades his eyes from the sun as he channels the legend with powerful renditions of “Are You Experienced?”, “Hey Joe,” and other classics.
The pool stage, like many of the concert settings aboard Norwegian Pearl, follows a general admission scheme. Folding chairs are arranged in front of the stage, while standing room and the deck above (which overlooks the stage) provide ample space for dancing. However, with 1,900 rockers aboard this ship which can accommodate 2,390, the most popular gigs, held in the ship’s 1,042-person capacity Stardust Theater, require assigned seating, half of the audience being issued a red lanyard with seat location and the other half a blue version to serve as “tickets” to assigned-seating events.
Tonight is Al Stewart’s Stardust Theater show for the red group. On this sailing, his band, Empty Pockets, is not joined by saxophone master Marc Macisso who accompanied Stewart during previous On The Blue appearances but Macisso’s stand-in handles the iconic “Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages” sax solos effortlessly. And, as usual, Stewart’s songs and stories are extraordinary!
While I’m enjoying Al Stewart, other gigs are under way around the ship tonight. The Bottom Feeders are at The Spinnaker, Julie Ragins’ Pear Duo are in the Atrium and the Lovin’ Spoonful are doing the first of their two Pool Stage performances. This is one of the downsides of an artist roster that includes nearly 30 acts—sometimes overlapping shows require agonizing decisions! Well…at least I can catch The Babys tonight at the Pool Stage. If I have dinner quickly, that is.
Day 2: Music…And More!
At noon, it’s time to taste some wine…with Al Stewart and Alan Parsons! In addition to its concert schedule, On The Blue offers a handful of “special events,” optional experiences that run the gamut from Rock Star Painting classes where participants create their own portraits of rock icons like Janis Joplin and this wine tasting. Priced at $100 per person, the wine tasting sold out in seconds and now, a group of about 100 of us enter the Spinnaker to find tables topped with place settings that each include four glasses of wine, a bottle of water, and a plate of cheeses, crackers, and walnuts. But it’s Stewart’s stories—like the one about his being urged by an Arista Records executive to order an exorbitantly expensive bottle of wine during a dinner with company president, Clive Davis, and Davis’ reaction to the bill—that are worth the price of admission. Both Stewart and Parsons are fans of wine but Stewart holds an accreditation in Bordeaux which means his taste leans decidedly towards the extravagant. When asked when he would sip a particular wine we were tasting, Stewart replies “While watching a hockey game.”
Musically, this is a busy afternoon! The Skatalites, Fernando Perdomo and the Out To Sea Band, the folkie/jazzy Bruce Sudano, and Marbin are all scheduled this afternoon, but I hit the Pool Stage for the Lovin’ Spoonful. Gone are surviving band members John Sebastian and Joe Butler. Only original bass player Steve Boone is in the house, but hardly performs (though he did participate in the Lovin’ Spoonful Q&A). The songs are there—”Rain on the Roof,” “Do You Believe in Magic,” “Daydream,” “Summer in the City”—but I don’t even hear an autoharp. Worst of all, the lead singer screws up a lot of the lyrics.
Justin Hayward’s red show at the Stardust Theater makes up for it with his voice clear and strong and he has the good sense to let keyboardist Julie Ragins contribute some vocals on those songs with a pitch that he might have been able to reach in his 20s but finds a challenge now, in his 70s. During “Nights In White Satin” it hits me: unlike a music cruise I did last year, the sound at each and every show so far has been superb with perfect volume and not a hint of distortion. Even my short clip of “Forever Autumn,” taken from the theater balcony with my iPhone, is clear as a bell.
Tonight, Dave Mason takes the stage at the Stardust Theater for the blue group but being in the red camp, I think I might check out the Young Dubliners at the Pool Stage.
Day 3: Discoveries…And A Disappointment
The Young Dubliners are incredible! Who knew?? Well, I suppose a lot of people did if the reaction to them at the Pool Stage last night is any indication. Rock—explosive rock!—with an Irish brogue and a fierce fiddle lures a huge crowd which, seriously, dances their asses off. Best of all, they’re playing Spinnaker tonight so, no question, I’ll be seeing them again.
In fact, The Young Dubliners is the show I’m most looking forward to today and a perfect example of the discoveries that are made during On The Blue.
During the 2013 cruise, my discovery was The Zombies. The band name conjured memories of my childhood—”She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No” 45s on Parrot Records and watching them perform those songs on Shindig and Hullabaloo. 50 years later, the Zombies—with original members Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone—took to the Pool Stage on a perfect, sunny afternoon and completely shattered any expectation I had that this would be a show of simple novelty and nostalgia. The Zombies, without question, were reborn during that performance.
This evening, however, I won’t be attending their Stardust Theater show thanks to a baffling decision to combine both the red and blue groups for this, among the most anticipated shows of the cruise. Leaving dinner, I see masses of people in the hallways, some having lined up hours in advance. VIPs (those who’ve booked high-end suites aboard the ship) will be admitted first but, based on the crowd of VIPs, I’m not even sure they’ll all get in before the theater reaches its capacity.
I’m not quite as disappointed as I would have been had serendipity not intervened this morning. In a perfect example of right place, right time, early today I passed the Stardust Theater to discover a Zombies Listening Party. The event, which was not included on the daily schedule, gave those lucky enough to just happen by a chance to hear the band’s upcoming album, Different Game (to be released March 31), and listen to the stories behind the songs, as told by the band members themselves. A fabulous exclusive…and a fabulous album!
Oh yeah…we also called at Harvest Caye, Belize today but this is one cruise where port calls aren’t nearly as important as what’s going on aboard. Particularly when it’s raining, as it was today.
DAY 4: Blown Away…Literally!
Music from Little River Band, Pat Travers Band, Lighthouse, and Marbin fills this afternoon’s schedule but I decide to head ashore today in sunny Costa Maya, Mexico because single-digit temperatures are predicted for my return to New York City.
We’re all back on board by 6:00 p.m. and as the ship heads to Miami, the show I’ve been waiting for begins: The Zombies at the pool stage! Now, the Zombies’ live performances always blow us away but tonight I use the term literally. The wind is blowing Colin Blunstone backwards, yet his voice is flawless, hitting every high note that his contemporaries can only dream of; Rod Argent, in the confines of a heavy leather jacket, doesn’t miss a note. Drummer Steve Rodford’s silver hair is whipping around so much that he soon dons a head wrap, and bassist Søren Koch’s scarf might look real nice but not when it’s flapping in his face. Even in the driving wind, the Zombies’ performance is tight and perfect with songs that range from their ‘60s hits to Argent’s “Hold Your Head Up” and a few of the cuts some of us heard during yesterday’s preview of their upcoming album. This is the excellence and professionalism that comes with five decades of experience.
A quick break for dinner and it’s time for the red group’s Alan Parsons show. His performance tonight is magical despite a recent surgery that has left him with a temporary mobility issue. In his trademark red scarf, the legendary Parsons, guitar in hand, hovers over his exceptional band like a presence, sharing vocals with guitarist Jeff Kollman and sax player Todd Cooper on songs like “Don’t Answer Me,” “Sirius/Eye In The Sky”, and “Standing On Higher Ground” “Breakdown/The Raven.” My only disappointment is that The Zombies’ Colin Blunstone doesn’t join him on stage for “Old And Wise” as he did on the last On The Blue Cruise.
DAY 5: Decisions, Decisions…
Ah…the schedule conflicts. With Dave Mason’s red group performance at 12:30 p.m. in the Stardust Theater and Renaissance on the Pool Stage at 12:45 p.m., I opt for Renaissance and am rewarded with a spellbinding performance with Annie Haslam’s glorious five-octave voice its glittering star. From the first note of “Carpet Of The Sun,” Annie’s voice captivates us all, almost making us forget the punishing heat of the afternoon!
Sometimes—even aboard a rock cruise–you need music that soothes and, at The Spinnaker, Tom Toomey, lead guitarist for The Zombies, delivers just that with a superb, relaxing set alongside talented keyboardist/vocalist wife Milly Riquelme-Toomey. From instrumental guitar pieces like “Classical Gas” to original songs and even the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love,” with guest appearance by Zombies bassist Soren Koch, Toomey shows he can captivate an audience even without Colin and Rod.
Starship featuring Mickey Thomas will perform at the Stardust Theater tonight but I still haven’t packed to head home tomorrow. Maybe I’ll do that now and then check out the late-night karaoke and hope to see On The Blue passenger Norman Greenbaum do his 1969 hit “Spirit In The Sky” or maybe watch Blazing Saddles on the movie screen in the atrium.
Fans of On The Blue had waited years for this sailing, which had been repeatedly postponed during the Covid pandemic. But, as we disembark Norwegian Pearl sporting rock band t-shirts and other items purchased at the poolside merch stand, we realize it was worth waiting for. And all of us aging baby boomers are confident we’ll be back…for as long as we’re able.
The next On The Blue Cruise is yet to be announced. Details will be posted at www.ontheblue.com once scheduled. Prog rock fans can visit www.cruisetotheedge.com for information on Cruise To The Edge 2024 (March 8-13, 2024) with Marillion, Steve Hackett and more, and heavy metal maniacs may visit www.monstersofrock.com for details of Monsters Of Rock’s April 29-May 4, 2023 sailing featuring Tesla, Autograph and other heavy metal bands.
(Photography by Judi Cuervo)