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The World’s Best Progressive Rock Festival Isn’t on Land: CRUISE TO THE EDGE Sails Again

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Progressive Rock festivals have taken place in amphitheaters, outdoor fields, bars, indoor theaters small and large, but few venues reveal their splendor as much as sailing on the waters of the Caribbean. Now in its sixth year, the annual floating festival known as Cruise to the Edge has established a home for progressive rock’s finest, both young and old. Some 2,000 fans (shall we say 2,112 of them?) enjoy rubbing elbows, sharing meals and celebrating in the music of their prog heroes for 5 days during this fantasy getaway which has been selling out for the past several years. Initially centered around two founders of the genre, Yes and Genesis (represented by Steve Hackett’s “Genesis Revisited” repertoire), the Cruise has grown to include up to 35 bands each time it sets sail. This staggering amount of music challenges even the most passionate prog music aficionado to be able to take it all in. Most bands play two sets during the Cruise, ranging from 60 to 90 minutes each, and scheduling conflicts between competing bands are par for the course. For example, would you easily choose between seeing Mike Portnoy & Friends or Riverside, or between Frost* or Spock’s Beard? Regardless, the bottom line is that there’s going to be more top notch music than anyone can handle, and an incredible time is guaranteed for all, year after year.

The Neal Morse band during the Pre-Cruise party

Even before the Cruise begins, passengers are treated to a “pre-cruise concert” party the night before boarding the ship. This year’s edition was likely the best ever with a killer lineup, starting with the sensational young band Marbin who took the crowd by storm. As they commented halfway through their set, they are more used to a jam-band audience but were enjoying the attentive engagement of a prog crowd. Marbin won the award for playing the most music on the Cruise, as they were constantly playing their acoustic instruments everywhere: on the street corner after the pre-cruise concert, in the bars on the ship, in the buffet restaurant…you couldn’t stop these guys from unleashing their jazzy instrumental jams, always accompanied by big smiles on their faces. Dave Kerzner was up next at the pre-cruise concert and delivered one the most impressive sets of his career which focused on his solo albums – songs “The Truth Behind” and “Stranded” were standouts – but also featured a few choice covers. Guitarist Fernando Perdomo’s smile radiated as brightly as his solos smoked, while singers Durga and Lorelei McBroom took their stage presence and vocal delivery to new heights during inspired renditions of Floyd’s “Great Gig” and “Have a Cigar”. Even John Wesley cameo’d with more Floyd fun on “Time” before surprise guest Jon Davison brought the house down with a closing rendition of the Rush classic “Tom Sawyer”. The final act for the night was a late addition to the Cruise: the Neal Morse Band performing the first album of their brand new double-album The Great Adventure. Complete with background video from Christian Rios, the band brought a flair of theatrics to the evening with this concept story. Although this was only the second show on their new tour itinerary, their performance was virtually flawless, bouncing between Mike Portnoy’s dizzying percussion and Eric Gillette’s guitar shredding with Neal Morse front and center. By the end of the nearly four-hour concert, it was hard to fathom that everyone was still on dry land and had 5 more days of musical bliss to come.

Ryo Okumoto with Spock’s Beard

However, an unexpected intermission was in the offing the next morning. This was due to what has become known as “the Prog Fog”. CTTE’s home ship, the Brilliance of the Seas, was not able to arrive in port from its previous cruise due to a dangerous fog, similar to one which had caused a fatal accident in the harbor decades earlier. Ultimately, passengers and bands alike were not able to board the ship until over 8 hours later than expected, and the first bands would not strike a note until after midnight that night. However, spirits remained high and a few days later the Prog Fog would be a distant memory thanks to the deluge of notes which was to come. Those first notes in the midnight hour came courtesy of acoustic band UniKuE who appropriately began their set by singing “Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends…”. The twist to this band is that their instruments are primarily ukuleles (hence the clever band title) and they offered jaw-dropping Uke arrangements on everything from King Crimson’s “Frame by Frame” to Genesis“Cinema Show”. Helmed by master drummer and vocalist Nick D’Virgilio, UniKuE quickly let cruisers know they were in for something special this year. Meanwhile in the Colony Club, Airbag was enthralling its audience, a moody band from Norway whose ambient soundscapes set the perfect stage for the Gilmour-esque guitar solos of Bjorn Riis. A little while later, Pendragon was set to make their first CTTE appearance in the main Pacifica Theater, but production delays from the fog resulted in their set not beginning until 2:30am. An amazed Nick Barrett expected to find nary a soul still awake, but instead was met by enthusiastic cheers from the grateful crowd who rocked out with the band until the wee hours of the morning as they offered up one brilliant song after another from their 40 year career.

Steve Howe with Yes

By the next morning the production team was doing their best to catch up with rescheduling missed shows from the previous day, though various delays would continue to haunt a good number of the sets throughout the Cruise. The crowd and artists were good sports about it all, as there was no shortage of musical prowess emanating from every quarter of the ship. The Pool Stage was the sole outdoor venue, allowing the audience to take in the glorious surroundings while rocking out to some highly charged sets. One of the first bands on this stage was Riverside, making their CTTE debut and taking no prisoners as frontman and bassist Mariusz Duda wasted no time in leading the energy of the crowd. Despite the past tragedy that plagued this band, their two shows on the ship proved that they are triumphantly moving forward. Magic Pie also made their CTTE debut on the Pool Stage, but while the boat was docked in Cozumel. In a strange twist of fate, the name of a neighboring ship which docked right alongside the Brilliance was called…wait for it…”The Edge”. Truly, CTTE had cruised “to the Edge”! Magic Pie made the most of the situation by noting that many of the passengers on the neighboring “Edge” ship were watching the show as well from their balconies, so lead singer Eirikur Hauksson called out to them, “You’re on the wrong ship! The party is here on Cruise to the Edge!” as the band continued to rock out two ships at once. Some of the many other bands to own the Pool Stage included Dave Kerzner’s fabulous new group In Continuum which featured Marco Minnemann on drums and killer guitar solos from Randy McStine, the young but uber-talented District 97, two incendiary evening sets from Spock’s Beard with new drummer Mike Thorne, John Lodge and his 10,000 Lightyear Band, and a special evening show from Haken with surprise guests which featured only covers, ranging from Van Halen to Gentle Giant to Rush and much more. PFM proved why they still stand as one of Italy’s premier prog exports with the age-defying Franz Di Cioccio alternating between drums and vocals, wowing and wooing the crowd the entire time. The Neal Morse Band was also featured on the Pool Stage, presenting the second half of their double-album show for what became an emotional tour de force which left many of the audience wiping tears from their eyes, not the least of which was Morse himself. The Pool Stage closed on the final night of the Cruise with a brilliant performance from new supergroup The Sea Within which truly came into their own as a band during this show. The combination of Roine Stolt, Tom Brislin, Casey McPherson, Jonas Reingold and Marco Minnemann was breathtaking and hopefully much more will be heard from this band in the future.

Steve Hackett

The Pacifica Theater is the ship’s proper full-blown venue with all of the desired bells and whistles of lighting and audio engineering. The headliners play here of course, but many other up and coming bands got their shot at playing on the big stage, too. Electric Asturias from Japan were one of the first on stage, and quickly won over the crowd with their instrumental material, at times joined by special guest Ryo Okumoto from Spock’s Beard. Adrian Belew was thrilled to return on the Cruise and played two sets in the theater, mixing in Crimson faves with his solo repertoire for what would be the last shows of his “Power Trio” for some time, as a new fourth member will be joining his band for their forthcoming tour dates. Despite having helped usher in a prog comeback in the ’90’s, some passengers are still discovering the band Enchant for the first time and their Theater show offered an ideal way to do it, with beloved members such as Ed Platt, Doug Ott and Ted Leonard proving why the band continues to be one of the best out there. Although In Continuum had played earlier on the Pool Stage, during their Theater show they aired their debut album in full, their crack band augmented by a non-stop run of special guests including Steve Hackett, Jon Davison and Thijs van Leer. With their concept album geared around a sci-fi theme, this was as prog as it gets. Jordan Rudess may not have needed a full theater stage for his solo offering on piano, but the theater was packed for both of his shows as he gave a career retrospective of songs and stories that enchanted the crowd and gave a nice contrast to the bombast of favorites like Haken and Riverside who later took the stage. Finally, main headliners Yes and Steve Hackett both solidly represented the old school prog that virtually every passenger knows like the back of their hand. Yes chose to offer a varied setlist from across their career before featuring the Close to the Edge album in full. They brought out original keyboardist Tony Kaye for an encore which included a surprise, the song “No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed” from the band’s second album, before closing with “Roundabout” and “Starship Trooper”. A rare hour-long “opening slot” was given to Rachel Flowers at the piano before Yes’ set, which introduced many of the audience to this amazingly talented prodigy who was taken under Keith Emerson’s wing as a teenager and now can hold her own with any musician on the ship, in addition to playing her original soulful material. Rachel is one of the brightest lights to shine upon the Cruise and captivated everyone she came in contact with. The other main headliner Steve Hackett has been on fire as of late, and even more-so during these exclusive performances which featured Marco Minnemann on drums (yes, he played for 3 separate bands on the ship). Sadly, Hackett’s fine new album At the Edge of Light was not played at this show, but several of his other solo pieces were featured along with a wallop of classic Genesis tunes ranging from “The Musical Box” to “Supper’s Ready” to “Los Endos” and much more. Minnemann’s solo during “Shadow of the Hierophant” was worth the price of admission alone, but Hackett offered plenty of his own fireworks on the guitar on gems such as “Firth of Fifth”.

Spock’s Beard at The Pool Deck

Smaller venues on the ship such as The Colony Club allowed fans to get a bit more close and personal. Brand X made the most of this setting by mesmerizing their audiences on three separate occasions, often with many VIP musicians attending to witness the spectacle. Led by Percy Jones with guest Alex Machacek on guitar, Chris Clark on keyboard, Scott Weinberger on percussion and the masterful Kenny Grohowski on drums, their jazz fusion explorations were extremely well received. A last-minute addition to the Cruise (in part, to replace Fish who had to cancel at the last minute) was Michael Sadler from Saga who enlisted Enchant to be his backing band and play a set of Saga classics and other gems, including a stunning “Nights in White Satin” with guest Rachel Flowers. It was wonderful having Sadler on the Cruise, as his energy and support of his fellow musicians is infectious. Norway’s band Gazpacho also fit right into the vibe of The Colony Club with an ambient but intense approach that had their fans raving. Classic bands who originated at the birth of prog were featured there as well, such as Focus who has just released new album “Focus 11” and Canterbury-scene mainstay Soft Machine. Meanwhile, the David Cross Band mixed their harder rock edge with dips into King Crimson’s repertoire which featured special guest David Jackson. IO Earth have been a mainstay of CTTE since its inception in 2013 and continue to draw a devoted crowd whether they play acoustic or electric sets. Finally, after 11:30pm The Colony Club becomes the home for Late Night Live, where passengers get the chance to play prog classics themselves, sometimes with the marquee artists sitting in to join them. If this sounds like amateur hour, it’s not; all musicians have previously auditioned to make the cut and then rehearse on their own for months ahead of time before coming together from all parts of the globe to perform on stage. Several of the bands on the Cruise make a habit of attending just to watch the talent, some saying it’s their favorite part of the week. Put together by a selfless team of volunteers, Late Night Live often goes until the wee hours of the morning. Even as Late Night Live wraps up, the piano in the nearby Schooner Bar offers impromptu jams that are as surprising as they are genius: resident piano man Brook Hansen trades keyboard runs with Rachel Flowers, Ted Leonard takes requests for Kansas songs, Thijs van Leer makes the piano his home whenever not on stage elsewhere, and Tom Brislin and Chris Clark cover most of the Drama album before blowing everyone away with Sound Chaser. Passenger piano players like Jace Grey and Toby Moss Krawitz also offer plenty of Genesis and Yes material as spectators come and go. There’s always something new to be discovered at any hour during Cruise to the Edge! And the best part? Come the next day everything begins again! 

Jordan Rudess joins Haken on stage

The Centrum stage is located at the bottom of an 8-story atrium, lavishly surrounded by glass elevators and ornate decorations. Although acoustics can be tricky in this cavernous space, most bands got it right and delivered powerful performances. Foremost among these were Frost* whose humor almost matches their flawless musical delivery, supported at these shows by Nick D’Virgilio on drums and vocals. Tony MacAlpine offered a wide-ranging set from metal to classical, Alan Hewitt & One Nation were more on the smooth-jazz end of the spectrum albeit with a good dose of musical muscle, and Fernando Perdomo gave his first “solo” CTTE performances to support his Out to Sea albums with his excellent band. Japanese band Baraka were happily invited back after their success on last year’s Cruise, weaving a bluesy blend of adventurous instrumental rock. Repeat bands like Enchant and District 97 also played a searing second set in the Centrum to packed houses. For those able to get up at an earlier hour, a new “coffee & acoustics” series was launched with performances from Gabriel Agudo, Fern & Celli and Casey McPherson, all of whom provided a remarkably inspired way to rise and shine. At other times the Centrum was used in more of a talk-show format, as rotating bands offered Q & A sessions with the passengers and host Roie Avin, and Eddie Trunk ran his own radio show with several interviews as well. Finally, artist Roger Dean made multiple appearances with painting demonstrations and Q & A with guitarists Steve Howe and Hackett which were both illuminating and inspiring.

Mike Portnoy during his “Portnoy and Friends” set

Perhaps the biggest grand finale on the final day of the Cruise was the Mike Portnoy set on the Pool Stage. Although the setlist was a closely guarded secret, many of the accompanying band members were fairly obvious or had been confirmed publicly. After several production delays, Portnoy finally took the stage and introduced the first part of his trio of surprises: the band Flying Colors. As they launched into “Blue Ocean”, Steve Morse’s guitar solos stood out for their brilliance and also their scarcity: in a week-long Cruise, one of the world’s best guitarists only got to play 4 relatively short songs. Fortunately, this will be remedied next year when Flying Colors is featured as an official headliner. Still, the short set was thrilling and left the crowd wanting more…which was soon to be met by the appearance of Transatlantic. With three-quarters of the band present (Portnoy, Roine Stolt & Neal Morse), Randy George filled in ably on bass, Ted Leonard provided extra guitar and vocals, and Bill Hubaeur extra keys and vocals. As the Keeper of the Setlists, Portnoy tries not to repeat himself whenever possible, so he pulled out a rarely-played gem “Suite Charlotte Pike” which is more or less an extended tribute to The Beatles. The band decided to expand that theme and played the entire second side of Abbey Road, interspersing its songs between the sections of “Suite Charlotte Pike”. It was a brilliant, inspired idea and even when the PA system gave out as Morse started singing “Once there was a way…” from “Golden Slumbers”, the crowd jumped right in and finished the phrase “…to get back homeward” and continued singing until the speakers came back on. After that half-hour trip down the Beatle’s memory lane, what could be next? Fittingly, it was what many fans had been hoping for: the long-awaited reunion of two friends who once played in Dream Theater together, Portnoy and Jordan Rudess. Joined by Eric Gillette on guitar and Connor Green on bass, the quartet tore through “Instrumedley”, a combination of Dream Theater and Liquid Tension Experiment material that sent the crowd into a frenzy. It was a hard-hitting way to finish an epic set, which Portnoy has thrived on for the past several cruises.

Jordan Rudess joined Portnoy on stage after 9 years

Sailing on a ship to nowhere for 5 days may not be everyone’s cup of tea, regardless of what bands are on board. And despite the fact that CTTE does indeed stop at a couple of ports of call (this year it was Key West and Cozumel), there isn’t much of a way to escape the onslaught of music that pervades the entire ship, including being piped in over the ship’s hallway speaker system 24/7. But the sold-out crowd had obviously self-selected themselves to affirm that this is indeed what they want, and that “more never is enough”, to quote a Transatlantic title. Cruise to the Edge 2020 is already booked and before long the bands will be announced, plans will be made, and hopefully the Prog Fog will stay away as CTTE sails into the sunset.

Photos courtesy of Igor Vidyashev. Check out Igor’s work at his Website and Instagram page.

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