The first time many rock fans heard about the concept of a prog rock cruise, their initial reaction might have been one of distaste: “Really? That’s what it’s come to, then? Trapped on a ship with other music nerds to listen to aging bands that can’t get gigs anywhere else and are irrelevant?” But in actuality, progressive rock cruises have proven the skeptics wrong. Six prog cruises, hundreds of bands and thousands of fans later, the verdict is in: this form of floating music festival is tremendously popular among fans and musicians alike and is getting more successful with each expedition. The fifth edition of Cruise to the Edge just returned from a sold out cruise in February 2018 and is already slated for next year with fans chomping at the bit to book once again.
One of the brilliant aspects of these cruises is that they combine the top bands/musicians from prog’s Golden Era (Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, ELP, Jethro Tull, Kansas, etc…) alongside of the “younger” generation prog bands from the 80’s/90’s/00’s who are equally or more exciting than their predecessors (Marillion, Anathema, Neal Morse Band, IO Earth, Spock’s Beard, Haken, Dave Kerzner, etc…), and occasionally even debut brand new live projects like this year’s Sons of Apollo or the Eric Gillette band. In addition to concerts on multiple stages, there are ongoing Q&A sessions and official “photo experiences” with most of the bands, special art exhibits and contests, even a Late Night Live professional stage where passengers sign up to play prog classics themselves…often witnessed (or joined) by the headline artists who love to see the talent that their inspiration has bred. Throw in a couple of ports of call in exotic locations (this year was Belize and Costa Maya) and you have one heck of a dream vacation that can only be described with one appropriate word: epic.
Being invited to play on the Cruise has now become an honor that most prog bands dream of, even the well-established acts. Some bands have seen their careers flourish thanks to repeat bookings, such as Haken, IO Earth or especially Bad Dreams, and they even plan new album releases to coincide with the Cruise schedule. IO Earth has become such a mainstay of the Cruise, that they go the extra distance for their loyal fans with special prize-filled egg-hunts, acoustic bonus performances and extra band receptions at the pool.
This year’s Cruise to the Edge may not have hit all of the frenzied peak moments of past cruises such as Mike Portnoy’s 50th Birthday Bash in 2017 with surprise special guests, or his previous tribute to Chris Squire in 2015, but it did boast one of the most successfully well-rounded lineups ever. One of the biggest draws this year was the return of the ever-popular Marillion, whose fans happily continent-hop for annual Marillion-weekends in addition to their appearance on the Cruise. Perhaps most noteworthy on the ship were the stunning performances of Steve Hackett whose renditions of Genesis classics created more buzz than even the main headliners Yes. However, the host band – entering their 50th Anniversary – had some tricks up their own sleeve as well by bringing back original keyboardist Tony Kaye as a special guest and running through songs from their first 10 albums for a very well received set. This Cruise also saw the birth and farewell of two bands, as Sons of Apollo made a hard-hitting debut with their more classic-rock-inspired material, while Saga played two of their last concerts ever to a packed & enthusiastic crowd. IO Earth unveiled their brand new album “Solitude” with a full performance of it in the main theater, while Haken took the opportunity to play two of their most popular albums in full during their two sets – “Visions” and “The Mountain” – which knocked out the adoring crowd. On the other end of the spectrum, Flying Colors lead singer Casey McPherson led a quiet but powerful set in the small Centrum stage, joined only by a cellist, and even Neal Morse focused primarily on solo singer-songwriter performances assisted by looping effects, rather than being joined by his full electric band. Both of those artists succeeded in creating incredibly rich and powerful sets of music, even though dramatically different from previous years’ shows. This range of diversity is what makes the Cruise extra special, and changes the dynamics from year to year.
Cruise favorites Lifesigns nearly had to cancel their appearance as their lead man John Young was still having consequences from a bad flu he had just recovered from, but happily their two sets were triumphant featuring one of the best bands on the ship and certainly the best sound engineering anywhere, outside of the Hackett shows. Focus and Gong provided strong throwbacks to their 70’s heydays with modern versions of the bands reinvigorating the material much to their crowds’ delight. Jethro Tull fans are aplenty on the Cruise and they were treated to guitarist Martin Barre’s fine band running through truly inspired arrangements of Tull classics and other standards; their version of Crossroads was one of the most satisfying I have ever heard. The even more voluminous hoards of King Crimson fans were richly rewarded with sets from Adrian Belew and Stick Men featuring David Cross who played lots of Crimson in addition to their own original material, although unfortunately they did not collaborate together onstage (Adrian reportedly was sick for much of the Cruise which likely limited his availability, though he beamed radiantly during his sets)
Elsewhere, plenty of collaborations did indeed occur. Dave Kerzner’s crack band were joined at times by Steve Hackett, Geoff Downes and Harry Waters, as well as Cruise “stowaways” Randy McStine, Gabriel Agudo, Jamison Smeltz and John Wesley, for some of the most engaging sets on the ship, including a full-blown Pink Floyd tribute. Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy power trio had surprise guest Neal Morse sing “Lucky Man”, while Neal’s own show featured a few songs with bandmates from his other projects as special guests. Glass Hammer have a long discography which occasionally has featured current Yes singer Jon Davison, and this Cruise marked the very first time that Jon was able to guest sing some of those songs live with the band. Even before that cameo, the band delivered a remarkable set of their more recent material featuring current lead vocalist Susie Bogdanowicz and a truly fantastic band. These kinds of collaborations are what truly set this festival apart, with memorable pairings that often will never be repeated anywhere else.
Meanwhile, lesser-known bands were busy making their mark and winning over new fans. Power trio Baraka, hailing from Japan, has been around for decades but is practically unknown in the States and woo’d many a fan with their flavors of Jeff Beck, Rush and jazz fusion. Knifeworld unleashed their quirky but satisfying 8-piece UK band, led by Kavus Torabi, on a very appreciative audience, while America’s own Thank You Scientist continued to blow away new crowds with their tight and energetic shows. Although Moon Safari creates a buzz wherever they go, they still fly mostly under the radar so it’s always a joy to witness audience members with their jaws dropped open upon hearing the Swedish band’s vocal harmonies for the first time. Guitarist and songwriter Eric Gillette had previously been known only for his impressive work with the Neal Morse Band and Mike Portnoy’s Shattered Fortress, so it was a great treat to hear his solo debut on the Pool Stage which featured most of Haken’s band as he rocked out under the midday sun. Look for great things to come from this talented gunslinger with an angelic voice!
The inevitable march of time has resulted in the passing away of several prog’s heroes from the ’70’s, many of whom have been honored on the annual Cruise to the Edge. In past years there were musical tributes to Chris Squire and Greg Lake, whereas this year’s Cruise paid homage to John Wetton with a mostly spoken-word memorial from former band mates, associates and friends. These moments bring the prog community even closer together, carrying a sense of family and caring that is palpable.
Underlying this embarrassment of riches is the clear fact that everyone aboard is a fan of progressive rock and is ready to fully celebrate being together for 5 days. Fans literally rub elbows with their heroes in the hallways, at restaurants, at the Late Night Live shows, and even while enjoying other artist shows together. The fact that 3,000 people are on a floating festival together in the middle of the sea with majestic backdrops and ports of call only heightens the intimacy and the uniqueness of this progressive utopian fantasy. Against the odds, progressive rock is riding a new wave of success and cruising the topographic oceans, and apparently is one of the sweetest waves to catch.