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Rockin' the Boat 

2000+ people. Over a dozen musical acts. It’s the kind of thing that floats your boat

 

by Craig Anderton

 

I’m not really a cruise guy or even a fan of 70s rock, so it seems like I wouldn’t be the target demographic for the '70s Rock and Romance Cruise—to say the least. But when I saw the ads for this cruise pop up on Harmony Central, I was intrigued. That led to asking for and receiving an interview with the TimeLife people, sister company to StarVista LIVE who put these themed cruises together, and it was sufficiently interesting that I wrote an article about the backstory. What struck me was how the people behind these cruises are totally into music. These aren’t just attempts to cash in on peoples’ memories, but celebrations of the music associated with particular eras or genres—and as long as they produce revenue, they can keep doing more. There had already been Flower Power and Soul Train cruises this year, with a Southern Rock one slated for 2018.

 

But while I may not be into cruises per se, I am an experience junkie. And I am a music guy to the core, and overdue for a vacation by about 18 years…so I boarded a plane to Fort Lauderdale to see what was in store.

 

Spoiler alert: I had a really good time, both for the reasons you might think…but also for some reasons I was not expecting at all.

 

Interestingly, before going on the cruise, an associate at Gibson had gone on a themed music cruise from a different company on a different cruise line. She got back a few days before I left, so I was hoping to hear “Yeah Craig, it was so cool, you’re gonna love it!” But she said the food was bad (although it sometimes reached below average), and she got seasick, so she had to take anti-motion sickness pills…which meant she couldn’t drink, and she’d paid in advance for a drink package (cheaper than buying a drink at a time). Her summary: “It was kind of like going to the dentist for oral surgery. I had a painful experience, and paid a lot of money for it. Although at least with a dentist, you end up better than when you went it.”

 

Uh-oh.

 

Fortunately, I have a friend who does maritime ship insurance so I asked him what he thought. He said “it’s all about the ship” and when he found it was the Celebrity Summit, said I had nothing to worry about. He was right.

 

THE THEME

 

The theme was 70s music, and really, it was more like a rock concert festival that just happened to be onboard a ship. The roster of artists was Peter Frampton, America, Little River Band, The Orchestra Starring Former Members of ELO, Christopher Cross, Ambrosia, Orleans, Stephen Bishop, Firefall, Player, Chuck Negron formerly of Three Dog Night and various tribute bands playing everywhere from side stages to lounges.

 

 

One of the more popular tribute acts was a humorous but affectionate tribute to Elton John [photo courtesy StarVista LIVE]

 

I had no idea the two guys in America had been together continuously for 47 years, or that the current lineup for the Little River Band—which had none of the founding members—had ironically been together much longer than the original lineup.

 

It wasn’t just about the bands, though. When you got on the ship, all the music played onboard was from the 70s. There were 70s-related activities, like trivia games and such. But what impressed me the most was that the entire ship was populated by fans who love music. It’s interesting to be in an environment where there are over 2,000 people and if you happen to strike up a random conversation, it’s going to be about music.

 

Even during the day, there were outside concerts. [photo courtesy StarVista LIVE]

 

Even more telling: Each day there was a panel discussion with particular band members. I thought a bunch of fun-loving cruise folks would prefer to be sunning themselves or drinking a Mexican Firing Squad by the pool, but the panel discussions were packed—as in, good luck finding a seat in a venue that was second in size only to the theater. Nor were these about fluff or nostalgia. There were some really interesting insights, and frank talk about what it takes for a 70s artist to make it through to the year 2017. The moderator started out keeping it light, but fortunately, sensed both the direction the musicians were taking things and the crowd’s interest, and reacted accordingly.

 

 

Members of America, the Little River Band, and Orleans on a panel about “Surviving Pop Music in the ‘70s” [photo courtesy StarVista LIVE]

 

For example, Wayne Nelson of the Little River Band talked about how members leaving was traumatic. He said “it was driven by egos and money. You got money for having songs on an album, and everyone was competing to get their songs on it. It wasn’t about the art, but the money.” But the silver lining was that as people were replaced, they were replaced by more compatible members so in his estimation, with the personnel changes the band became better and more vital instead of having the same people trying to resurrect past glories. More on this shortly.

 

THE FIRST NIGHT’S HEADLINE CONCERT

 

Those on the cruise were divided into two groups. You could do early show/late dinner, or early dinner/late show. The headliners would do the early show one night and the late show the next night (or vice-versa), so everyone got to see them.

 

First night for my group was the Little River Band. I was dimly aware of them (the 70s were when I was doing studio work in New York and establishing my career as a writer so it was kind of a lost decade). However I did know who their keyboard player was; Chris Marion had done some writing for Harmony Central.

 

 

Chris Marion steps out with an actual Roland Keytar—that still works [photo courtesy StarVista LIVE]

 

They hadn’t played in a while and initially, where somewhat stiff/hesitant. I started thinking I’d probably have more fun going back to my stateroom and making my own music in my little studio setup.

 

Always have a studio at the ready! I didn’t have space for my 4” V-Series KRKs, but IK’s Micro-Monitors did a great job.

 

But they kept gathering momentum. They have five vocalists, and the vocals were amazing—right on target, and no Auto-Tune. The dual guitar lines were equally impressive, and their drummer was tight and downright melodic in his approach. Chris added the necessary textures and stepped out front with a Keytar a few times. The crowd was digging it. Their front man, Wayne Nelson, is no kid but he’s a superbly tasteful and accomplished bass player and can sing his heart out. 

 

But what really flipped the switch was when they dared to do a new song. The popular wisdom is that people are there to see the hits and only the hits. The band was almost apologetic, saying “all the songs you’re going to hear over the next four days were new songs at one point.”

 

The crowd loved it.

 

From that song on, there was that unique kind of audience/band energy exchange that you know about if you’ve ever played live and had one of those nights. The band got looser socially and tighter musically, and you could tell they were having more and more fun as the evening went on. Each song had more energy, precision, and style than the previous one. I was very impressed by a band that I would never have guessed would impress me.

 

Furthermore, the sound was great. As in, so good I sought out their front of house engineer because even though it was a theater with good acoustics (and packed with the ultimate sound absorbers/diffusers—people!), he managed to make the low end really tight, keep the mud out, and balanced five vocalists perfectly. Given that one of them played drums, I asked how he managed to keep the drums out of the mic. Simple: He ducked the mic with a notch at the snare drum frequency whenever it hit, and rolled off everything below about 125 Hz. He said that it was actually an advantage, because he needed to bring up the overheads on only three songs; the vocal mic picked up enough.

 

I asked a bit about where the band was going next, and mentioned that I thought the fans accepting the new material was when the band really started cooking. He said some fans have seen 200 shows, and this loyal following is what keeps them playing—the audience is there.

 

Well that’s enough about day 1…

 

 

AMBROSIA, AMERICA, FIREFALL, AND SOME INSIDER BASEBALL

 

Day 2 seemed like a good time to check out the ship and find out what was there. But it was also a chance to catch up with Chris Marion and Charlie Morgan (currently with Orleans and Richard Marx; he was also Elton John’s long-time drummer).

 

 

Charlie Morgan, pounding away on the drums [photo courtesy StarVista LIVE]

 

I mostly wanted to pick Chris’s brain on how, as one of the performers, he viewed the cruise. He’s a big fan of the themed cruises, because he confirmed what I suspected—the boat is packed 100% with people to whom music is an important, maybe even crucial, part of their lives. These weren’t mindless fans but people who could talk intelligently about music, careers of certain bands, and the like. They followed the band personnel twists and turns, and many even knew what I used to think was musician-only trivia, like who did the engineering and production. There was also a surprisingly large number of players.

 

Chris also talked about how virtual instruments and such had changed the game. We ended up talking quite a bit about tech, and some of the complications in a themed cruise—for example, it wasn’t always possible to bring all your own gear. While we were talking, several fans of the band came up and complimented him on how great the set had been. They were respectful of his time, welcomed the opportunity to thank him personally, maybe mentioned a particular show they had caught, and moved on.

 

Then I found Charlie Morgan, who I’d never met but we have mutual friends. It was a non-stop bunch of fun stories about studios, the old days of A&R, doing the Elton John tours, the current state of the music business, and swapping our respective George Martin stories. Interestingly, both Chris and Charlie live in Nashville, and the irony was not lost on me that after many “yeah, we should get together sometime” moments, we had to be on a boat somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico to finally hang out.

 

Although in some ways I’m not super-gregarious, I was after all going to write up the experience, and engaged a lot of random people in conversations to take the pulse. Every conversation was about music. These are all people who spent a decent amount of money and took the time to go on a themed cruise, and they chose music over other ways to spend their time and money. Although I expected the cruise to be mostly couples reliving their past (the “romance”) part, quite a few people went with friends and there also those who went not because they were part of the music at the time, but acquired a taste for it after the fact and wanted to see the performers.

 

The headliner that night was America. I never really was a fan of the band, and although the crowd was happy, I couldn’t help but think there were some in-ear monitor issues. If you like America, you’d be pleased to see them after 47 years of playing together—still playing their music and still digging it.

 

One of the best lines was when America said “If you’re looking for our web site, don’t Google ‘America’” (it’s venturahighway.com) [photo courtesy StarVista LIVE]

 

There were several groups I didn’t get to see; there’s a lot going on during these cruises and while there aren’t too many overlapping events, sometimes I needed to prioritize eating or getting a decent night’s sleep over catching more concerts. But I did see part of Ambrosia’s and Orleans’ set, and both were crowd pleasers. Ambrosia took the liberty to stretch out a bit—which I always appreciate—and Orleans served up some tight, funky Louisiana gumbo that showed the band had more depth than just their “Still the One” hit. Good stuff.

 

 

PETER FRAMPTON…AND MORE

 

On Day 3, the boat was docked at Cozumel, Mexico and there were numerous offshore excursions. I chose to see the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza; here’s a photo of the main pyramid.

 

 

El Castillo is the main pyramid at Chitzen Itza, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

 

I find this kind of thing fascinating but this article isn’t about the excursions, so let’s move on to the evening’s headliner—Peter Frampton.

 

I hadn’t seen Frampton in concert before, but if he wasn’t at the top of his form, I’d sure like to know what it would take to do better. This was everything a concert should be. His playing was as spot-on and lyrical as ever, the vocals were strong, and the band was clearly not just a bunch of “I-can-get-them-for-cheap” sidemen—they added a lot, and were clearly enjoying themselves.

 

 

Peter Frampton was one of the cruise’s highlights, and delivered an outstanding, vibrant set [photo courtesy StarVista LIVE]

 

But what I really noticed was that Frampton seemed to be having an absolutely fabulous time, and loving every minute of being up there. Granted, the audience was feeding back a lot of energy. But if he was faking it, he really should give up music ASAP and switch over to an acting career. The sound - like the sound for all the concerts - was excellent, as wass the pacing of the songs (the second song was a version of Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel”), the way he wrung real dynamics out of his multiple Gibson guitars…everything. There’s really not much else to say except that I was extremely impressed, and enjoyed myself both from a show standpoint and a “musician’s critical eye” standpoint.

 

Later on, I caught Stephen Bishop at the behest of a friend. I’m not all that much into watching a singer-songwriter banging away on an acoustic guitar, but he was hilarious. With a loose and varied set, he had the audience in the palm of his hand (and you have to hear his impression of Bob Dylan hailing a taxi in New York). It was a pleasant surprise, to say the least. The playing was excellent, and the engaging personality in an intimate setting made me glad I went.

 

Getting off music for a second, food on cruise ships is always controversial so I want to weigh in on that. There were specialty restaurants where the cost is not included in the cruise charge, and restaurants that are included: a buffet that seemed be offering something most of the time, some poolside eateries, and a main dining room for dinner. My sometimes-cynical brain assumed the “standard” eateries would be set up to encourage spending money on the premium dining, but that wasn’t the case. The food in the main dining room was sufficiently good and varied that I never did do the optional-at-extra-cost thing, and the buffet had enough variety (including some ethnic foods) so that I could always find something I wanted. Unless you’re a real food snob, the experience was definitely above average. Several people said the specialty restaurants were fabulous, but the fluidity of my schedule often meant I just didn’t have the time to sit down and indulge myself in a long dinner.

 

YES IT’S A PACKAGE, BUT…

 

Different cruise lines have different “freebies” as part of the package. Some do all-you-can-drink liquor or free spas, while others charge for those same things. On the cruise, there were plenty of optional-at-extra-cost options, and if you’re a drinker, the price could add up quickly so it was sometimes best to spend the bucks for the $45 or $65 (plus 18% gratuity) drink packages. I’m not into drinking that much, so it was more cost-effective to just buy a drink when desired.

 

Internet access cost money as well—$149 for unlimited during the cruise, or around $25 an hour (and this was one of the less expensive lines; with some cruise ships you pay by the minute for the privilege of frequent disconnects). Actually, this was great because I had an excuse to disconnect from real life for five days.

 

The bottom line is in this case, the cruise package price buys you access to every musical activity, food, excellent service (there are about half as many crew members as there are passengers), and various other goodies. So really, you can just go with the basics and travel economically, or spend as much as you want to upgrade the overall experience. For example, it was worth it to me to spend the $134 to go to Chichen Itza, and I don’t regret going there for a second.

 

THE ORCHESTRA AND CHRISTOPHER CROSS

 

The next headliners were The Orchestra Starring Former Members of ELO. Again, a real crowd-pleasing set, excellent musicianship, quality sound, and I really enjoyed myself. You could see all the performers got a jolt of energy from the crowd. No wonder Chris Marion mentioned how much he enjoyed these cruises—you can’t go wrong with a captive audience that’s totally into what you do.

 

 

The Orchestra, with (l-r front row) violinist Mik Kaminski, bassist Glen Burtnik (formerly with Styx) playing the SG bass with a psychedelic paint job, and Parthenon Huxley on guitar [photo courtesy StarVista LIVE]

 

Although they had to adapt a lush studio sound to a live performance context with seven musicians, they were skillful in that adaptation and were able to re-invent the music for the context while retaining the core. Tough to pull off, but they did.

 

On the final night, Christopher Cross headlined. I wasn’t that aware of what he’s done recently; of course I heard “Sailin’” like everyone else, but he’d pretty much dropped off my radar. Yet I have to say he delivered a gorgeous set, emotionally deep, musically tight, and with a humility that made you forget you were in a theater…it felt like an intimate venue. With zero pretense and a hefty catalog of songs, Cross delivered big-time. I hope his career gets a second wind; he deserves it.

 

Christopher Cross, ably aided by two backup singers from Nashville [photo courtesy StarVista LIVE]

 

The next morning, the cruise was over. Embarkation and disembarkation can always be a scene of confusing chaos; maybe we just got lucky, but it was handled extremely well. Again, I asked several people what they thought. The answers were uniformly enthusiastic, with several people saying they had already signed up for next year’s cruise (somewhere around 60% of this year’s participants had signed up the year before). That’s a pretty phenomenal retention rate.

 

CODA

 

Life is full of surprises, and this cruise sure managed to surprise me. It was an experience to be surrounded by nothing but hardcore music lovers for five days, but also, it gave an opportunity for bands that were still vital and gigging, but no longer “in fashion,” to connect with their fans and continue their careers. I'm not sure who chose the bands, but none of them was just "going through the motions." They all immersed themselves in the music and the performance.

 

Peter Beckett from Player [photo courtesy StarVista LIVE] 

 

StarVista LIVE’s plan is to continue to tweak and extend the concept…could an EDM cruise be far behind? A jazz cruise? Given the success of the panels, will there be more events that dig deeper into the music business? It will be interesting to see what the future brings, but for now, it was great to spend some time in an environment where live music reigned supreme.

 

{Breaking news: Here are the details on next year's cruise. Confirmed artists are Styx, Michael McDonald, War, The Guess Who, B.J. Thomas, Atlanta Rhythm Section, Badfinger featuring Joey Molland, and Poco. The dates are March 3-8, 2018, and ports of call are Ft. Lauderdale, USA; Falmouth, Jamaica; and Georgetown, Grand Cayman. The ship is the same as this year, the Celebrity Summit.]

 

______________________________________________ 

 

 Craig Anderton is Editorial Director of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.

 

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Eden's Paradise  |  April 17, 2017 at 10:12 pm
Craig, I enjoyed reading your article. I am very happy you were able to see Ambrosia. They are such a class act. Orleans and Firefall also put on great performances. Unfortunately I did not get to see America or ELO perform. Plus we disembarked in Cozumel for a wonderful 3-day vacation so we missed the second half of the cruise entirely including Peter Frampton. But fortunately I have seen Stephen Bishop many times. Isn't he a hoot? Half musician, half stand-up comedian.  We toured with Christopher Cross a few years ago and were so impressed that he still sings his beautiful songs with the same amazing voice. And of course, I have seen Little River Band several times. My husband, Peter Beckett of Player, toured with them for 9 years. Wayne Nelson is a great musician and a great person. We have done several cruises, and this was my favorite so far. I am hoping someone puts together a Yacht Rock cruise very soon featuring the top 10 Yacht Rock songs of all time. The guys who started the Yacht Rock web series should all come too along with the best Yacht Rock cover band of all time Yacht Rock Revue. Jimmy Fallon could host! Ahoy, Eden
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