When the inaugural Cruise to the Edge was announced in 2013, featuring Yes and about a dozen other bands, it may have caused some derision amongst Prog fans. “So, it’s come to this?” many were likely thinking, “What’s next? A final stand in Vegas?” Those misguided initial assumptions have long been vanquished over the subsequent half-decade of follow-up Cruises, replaced by zealous support from fans and competition from bands to receive an invitation. Rather than turning into a graveyard of ancient dinosaur acts, a bevy of younger bands (and their fans) annually inject new energy aboard, even as they play alongside the veterans of the genre. Indeed, the old guard is often re-energized to step it up a notch as well, epitomized by the always-animated Adrian Belew literally performing his Crimson song “Dinosaur” with his Power Trio of younger musicians.
After 2020’s April Cruise to the Edge (CTTE) was scrapped for obvious reasons, it’s been a long time coming for the followup from 2019’s triumphant CTTE to take place. Now boasting over 3 dozen bands (quite a leap from its relatively modest beginnings) and its largest ship yet on Royal Caribbean’s Mariner of the Seas, CTTE was finally ready to return even though for the first time ever the Cruise’s namesake band Yes were not aboard. Marillion’s Steve Hogarth joked, “Looks like we’ll be headlining…It’s just sort of bizarre, really. It’s Yes’ cruise! It’s like not wanting to be a member of any club that would have you as a member.” However, the success of CTTE22 proves that the phenomenon now transcends any one band and there seems to be plenty of runway…er…ocean, for future Cruises regardless of whether Yes is onboard or not.
So, what IS a Cruise to the Edge, anyway? How does all of this work and how is it different from other festivals? For the neophyte, here’s a quick overview to get your sea-faring legs acclimated. Let’s start with the obvious: you’re aboard a ship with 3,000+ other prog fans and 3 dozen+ bands with no escape. Right away you can decide if that scenario is heaven or hell for you, given your proclivities. Assuming it’s the former (otherwise, why read this article?), let’s emphasize the situation: you are going to be living and breathing Prog for the entire week. You finally are meeting other people who know who the hell Moon Safari is, the entire family tree history of Yes, the latest phenomenon drummer who is performing in such-and-such band, and can tell you why Klone from France is the next band you must discover and, after seeing them, you agree. That could happen at any Prog festival too but the immediacy of being together on a ship for a week means everything is heightened ten-fold. Literally. You are bumping into your favorite bands in the dining rooms, the hallways, the elevators, the bars. You are meeting new Prog friends in all of these circumstances, too. It’s one big Prog celebration for over 5 days and, really, once you experience the relentless overwhelm and joy of Prog nirvana aboard, you’ll be hooked.
Logistically there is no way to see 36 bands in one week but you’d be surprised how many different sets you can take in. Nearly every band aboard plays two sets during the week, usually about an hour long though around a dozen of the more notable names and headliners play from 75 – 90 minutes. Their two sets might be identical but often many of the bands will change the set-list a good deal, especially if they’re already on tour or are rehearsed to play 2-hour concerts. At first the 1 hour time-frame might seem paltry given the excesses of Prog but in this context it actually works. It also reflects the best approach to take: instead of coming primarily to see a few choice bands, enjoy sampling from the generous buffet offered – CTTE is an indulgent smorgasbord of overflowing Prog prowess. Carpe Diem! (and, yes, Mike Portnoy is always aboard to promote the Carpe Diem ethos)
There are usually 4 venues on the ship: in this case the indoor Royal Theater is the most deluxe, boasting a brilliant sound system and over 1,000 seats, an ideal way to watch a proper concert. The cavernous Studio B is the next biggest indoor venue with plenty of stadium seating, an excellent place for a show though ironically this usually is an indoor skating rink, so the opportunity to host a Rick Wakeman caper (and cape) was sorely missed. The Starlight Lounge is a smaller venue for some of the lesser-known names on the marquee (but don’t be fooled – these often can be some of the best shows on board). Finally, the outdoor Pool Stage is more of a Prog party scene, standing room only in front of the stage, perfect for those beautiful sail-away shows and some of the harder head-banging moments.
Concerts are usually happening concurrently so passengers can come and go to shows as they please and often hard choices must be made about which band to see and which to miss…until their next set. For your favorite bands you may want to make sure to see both of their sets, whereas you may just dip in for 15 minutes of a new discovery before heading on to other delights. Even finding time to stop for a proper meal in one of the many dining establishments can be tricky; for many passengers, the music takes precedence and they make due with quick stops at the buffet restaurant. Music gets started each day around 11am and usually doesn’t end until after 1am, so there is little down time when a choice doesn’t have to be made.
In addition to the featured concerts there are even more side events continually going on: Q&A sessions with the bands, official group photo opportunities (though many artists will pause for a selfie when you catch them in a hallway), Eddie Trunk’s live radio show with featured guests, a riotous Karaoke bar, and a remarkable Late Night Live series hosted by Rob Rutz (founded by Bill & Devora Goldman who host a more elaborate Prog On The Ranch beforehand) where passengers sign up in advance to perform Prog classics together on stage, sometimes with featured Artists joining them, often to spectacular results. There usually are a couple of up-charge intimate events, too, like a wine tasting & story-telling session or a Painting-with-Artists session. This year Casey McPherson also generated several events onboard to support his To Cure A Rose foundation which raised over $40,000. Oh yes, and since we are actually on a cruise, there are a couple of ports of call to be made so that you can get off the boat and go frolic on the beach, take an exotic snorkeling or zip-lining or kayak excursion, or just have a fancy cocktail while rubbing elbows with more of your Prog heroes.
Whew. Getting the picture yet? It’s Prog Paradise. So, what of the bands themselves on CTTE22? This year there were several bands that took the ship by storm (so to speak) during their Royal Theater shows, being on the tongue of many-a-passenger as one of their top 3 shows of the Cruise: John Young’s band Lifesigns held a last-night send off in the Theater which literally hit new heights as the band aired their latest album “Altitude” in full and received one standing ovation after another. Dave Bainbridge’s soaring epic guitar solo for “Last One Home” is what guitar heroes are made of, while Jon Poole shatters the stereotype of sullen bass players. The love was palpable. The night before Riverside held court for one of the week’s most heralded sets with a stunning retrospective of their 20 years together, though it must be mentioned that their earlier Pool Stage show also reached legendary status for withstanding the fierce winds that challenged audience and band alike. Martin Barre’s band kept a rapt audience awake until 2am with a full reading of the “Aqualung” album (classics like “Cross-Eyed Mary” were played flute-less and with more edge) and many more classics from this 50-year veteran of the live concert scene, while Haken continued charting their ascension to the top of the prog metal scene with a killer Theater show, focusing on their latest album, the presciently-titled “Virus”.
The official headliners garnered plenty of acclaim as well, all performing primarily in the Theater. Marillion is obviously well-schooled in the art of festivals and here they ably made CTTE their home with spectacular sets which were some of the longest on the Cruise. Featuring their excellent new album “An Hour Before Its Dark”, which many fans claim is one of their best, their show was a delight from start to finish. Their first set had some technical issues resulting in a few start/stops which frustrated front-man Hogarth but ultimately resulted in a powerhouse finale of Neverland to channel his emotions. Super-group Transatlantic wrapped up their April tour of new album “The Absolute Universe” with a complete reading of the extended version during one set (including video projections from Christian Rios) and a back-catalog set on the other night. Although Roine Stolt’s voice was under the weather during the Cruise, his guitar playing was fluid as ever and Ted Leonard delivered many of Stolt’s vocal lines in a unique cameo role. Along with Pete Trewavas and the ubiquitous Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy, the well-oiled machine of Transatlantic blew the roof off. Alan Parsons Live Project was also featured as a headliner, delivering an extremely polished (perhaps too squeaky clean) set of the hits that so many of the audience had grown up with, while legendary guitar player Al Di Meola appeared in a surprisingly stripped-down set of acoustic music accompanied only by a percussionist. Legendary.
More than any Cruise to the Edge prior, the range of artists was wildly diverse. This was likely due to the fact that sister-cruise On The Blue did not sail this year, so the promoters combined some of both acts onto the same ship to draw a bigger crowd. The result was a flip-flop from the relatively mellow crooning of Justin Hayward and Al Stewart offering acoustic renditions of their timeless classics to packed crowds in Studio B on one day, to Pain of Salvation detonating a devastating performance in the same venue the next night. For the open minded listener, both extremes were fantastically rewarding. And for those who do enjoy some head-banging with their Prog, the Pain of Salvation set was quickly hailed as one of the most riveting of the whole week. French newcomers Klone also struck a chord on the Pool Stage with satisfying head banging, winning over many new fans.
Part of the charm of CTTE is experiencing bands and combinations that have never been on stage before and in some cases, may never again. There were several debuts onboard, one of the most notable being Randy McStine and Marco Minnemann who had released two albums during the pandemic but yet to ever play live in concert. As if their mind-boggling skills weren’t enough, they added bassist extraordinaire Mohini Dey and the acclaimed Nick D’Virgilio into the live lineup for a virtuosic powerhouse – Dey’s incredible Konnakol singing and bass playing interlude and duet with Minnemann blew away the room. It was a triumphant pair of shows for the quartet but especially for McStine, whose compositions and performance shined brightly, and who on the final day of the Cruise was announced as part of Porcupine Tree’s upcoming live touring band. Minnemann, meanwhile, couldn’t sit still (as usual) and teamed up with The Zappa Band for a pair of remarkable shows without having had a proper rehearsal with them. Unbelievable.
Meanwhile, Gabriel Agudo formed a new all-star band to perform his original music for a brilliant set, Jakko Jakszyk (King Crimson) played his first solo gig in 37 years with top-tier support musicians mostly from the Zappa Band highlighting his excellent recent solo album, and Lorelei & Durga McBroom performed their first featured gigs together including inspired original music and songs from their history singing with Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones. Durga even brought the house down with an incendiary reading of “Cult of Personality”. Pattern-Seeking Animals played some of their first live concerts ever, finally airing music from the three albums they had recorded over the past three years. It was worth the wait, as a 5-piece version of the band ripped through the complex but extremely engaging material, Leonard/Meros/Keegan/Atlas/Ino sounding even better than the albums thanks to a skilled mix by Rich Mouser.
Even well-known bands like to try out something a little different onboard. Haken relished returning to the stage after 3 years with a mostly-covers set for their Pool Stage gig, hitting some 80s highlight moments from Queen, Yes and Toto before going where few bands dare to tread: Spinal Tap’s “Big Bottom” and “Stonehenge” complete with a dancing Jimmy Keegan around a miniature monolith. Where the hell else are you going to witness that? District 97 took a pause from their own hard-hitting material to bring out guest Mike Portnoy and do a take on Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know”. And the brilliant Moon Safari delighted audiences as they always do with their incredible vocal harmonies and musicianship, even though they faced the challenge of not having their official lead singer aboard. They succeeded spectacularly.
There’s serious music aboard, too. Musos, including many of the featured Artists, gravitated toward Simon’s Phillip’s sets with his mind-blowing band Protocol. Reportedly Phillip’s own drum kit was too large to fit on the Star Lounge stage, so his second set had to be moved to the much larger Studio B. Jazz fusion fans could also take in guitarist Alex Machacek’s band and then add a little more rock to the equation with Jane Getter’s impressive debut on the ship. Alan Hewitt & One Nation melded a bit of fusion into their uplifting rock performances, while Stu Hamm laid down the bass grooves with his trio for a wonderfully diverse set. More experimental music came from keyboardist Adam Holzman during a solo spot which combined electronics with jazz piano and a guest visit from Randy McStine for a spacious “Here Comes the Flood”.
Nektar’s impressive longevity keeps infusing new energy into their sets, generating enthusiasm from adoring crowds and even picking up new fans along the way after 50 years of existence. Even Claudio Simonetti held court with Goblin for some good ‘ole horror Prog much to the joy of the Star Lounge audience. Also coming back from the dead, Saga performed a very lively set, shattering the expectations set by their “farewell shows” years earlier on CTTE18. And while Roine Stolt’s voice couldn’t quite be revived, The Flower Kings overflowed Studio B’s capacity early on with Hasse Froberg taking on most of the vocal duties during a set which largely focused on the band’s earliest albums to the crowd’s delight.
As far as the classic bands go, Wishbone Ash’s and Cruise-favorite Dave Kerzner continued to assemble some of Prog’s finest into his band, including Billy Sherwood on bass and the mighty Joe Deninzon on violin, for sets which largely focused on his upcoming album “The Traveler”but also included surprises like a song from Kevin Gilbert, sung by drummer and fellow Gilbert band-mate Nick D’Virgilio. Fernando Perdomo usually closes Kerzner’s sets with a nearly Townsend-esque treatment of his guitar; this year the guitar was literally launched into the audience during the finale. But it came back for Perdomo’s own sets with his Out to Sea Band, featuring music from his four instrumental albums of that name, along with a piece by featured guitarist Dave Bainbridge.
Guitarist Dave Cureton played fiery debut sets of his own, en lieu of his full band IO Earth being unable to make it at the last minute. And Marbin brought their shredding instrumental music to the stage and their troubadour gypsy jazz to…well…everywhere on the ship throughout the week. Literally. This author was sitting in the Promenade with friends outside a restaurant when Marbin’s Dani & Danny pulled out their instruments and started serenading us, soon joined spontaneously by Nick D’Virgilio who utilized silverware on the table as his percussion. That’s what happens on Cruise to the Edge.
Believe it or not, this epically long overview doesn’t even cover everything featured aboard, not to mention the one-off spontaneous jams that pop up around the ship, whether at Brook Hansen’s piano bar lounge or a special guest cameo at Late Night Live like McStine/D’Virgilio/Meros covering Robin Trower songs. But we should mention the pre-Cruise Party Concert which happens on land the night before boarding the ship. This year it featured the incredible Alan Hewitt & One Nation band, the dueling pianos of Will Doughty & Tyson Leslie and a crowning set from the newly formed Progject featuring Ryo Okumoto, Jonathan Mover, Michael Sadler, Matt Dorsey and Mike Keneally. What a way to start the week!
There are many brilliant Prog music festivals around the world. But there’s a certain magic that happens in an outrageously over-the-top venue like a cruise ship. It may not be to everybody’s taste but for the 3,000+ Prog fans aboard the Mariner of the Seas, Cruise to the Edge was a Prog Party like no other. Keep your eyes peeled for what CTTE23 has in store.