PROG-PSYCH CRUISE SHIP DEATH MATCH! Yes Vs. the Moody Blues

Moodies cruise

Our contributing editor brewed up some mushroom tea, packed his mini-Mellotron, tossed back a few tabs of Dramamine, and hit the high seas with some of the most legendary progressive and psychedelic outfits… ever! First he hitched a rise on the Moody Blues cruise, then he followed that up with a so-called “cruise to the edge” with Yes and friends.

 REPORTS BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

 The Moody Blues Cruise: “A Return to the Isle of Wight” 4/2-4/7/14

 Boasting an onboard line-up that included not only its namesakes, the Moody Blues Cruise – subtitled “A Return to the Isle of Wight” in celebration of the 1970 British festival that originally featured several of the participants– offered an A list line-up of classic rock contenders. With special guest Roger Daltrey, Carl Palmer of ELP, the Zombies, Strawbs, Starship, Little River Band, Shawn Phillips and various other artists of a vintage pedigree providing the draw, the cruise offered five fantastic days of rock and revelation to a couple thousand passengers intent on celebrating the sounds of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

 Indeed, the timeline that defined both the era and the ages of audience and entertainers was clearly in sync. Yet while that meant that most of those on board were in sixty plus age range, this was hardly the sedate sea-going voyage one might have imagined even a few years ago. Any arthritic infirmities aside, this crowd was clearly intent on reliving its freewheeling adolescence, while generally grooving to the sounds that became the soundtrack to their youth. As one performer put it, it was inspirational to see even the seventy-somethings partying like they did as teenagers. Those that cling to the belief that youth is wasted on the young need only have witnessed this crowd cheering on their musical idols to appreciate the fact that one is never too old to rock and roll, especially when the waves are churning and maintaining the motion.

 “How you have the stamina to keep this cruise going is unbelievable,” the Moodys’ John Lodge remarked at one point, citing the crowd’s dexterity when he could very well have been referencing his own. Still, there was some concession attributed to age in drummer Graeme Edge’s explanation of his weight gain. “My chest lost its battle with gravity,” he joked.

 Still, with a talent roster boasting such a storied pedigree, the mix of sentiment and celebration was bound to be contagious. And indeed, the headliners didn’t hedge when it came to their prime time performances, even despite time constraints that shaved thirty minutes to an hour off their usually lengthy sets. Happily too, the party atmosphere didn’t dissipate when it came to the second string artist either. Even the obligatory cover bands managed to maintain the momentum. Randy Hansen did a near perfect aping of Jimi Hendrix, down to his vintage garb and guitar pyrotechnics, while a band called Heavy Mellow did an able job of conveying its archival covers. And while some may have raised their eyebrows at Starship, Little River Band and The Orchestra (an offshoot of sorts that clings to the Electric Light Orchestra branding) holding on to their branding despite the scarcity of original members in their respective rosters, all three outfits did a superb job of retracing their legacies through songs that brought those ensembles to fame and fortune well before the current members’ involvement. If Starship stretched its credibility by including Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love” among their archival offerings, shipboard spirit allowed for a certain amount of forgiveness.

 In that regard, Carl Palmer’s take on certain staples of the ELP catalog was especially telling. Palmer doesn’t sing of course, and neither do the two young players who complete his trio, but their renditions of “Knife Edge,” “Fanfare for the Common Man,” “Tarkus” and “Pictures at an Exhibition” managed to shore up the same ferocity imbued in the originals. Palmer took that history lesson even further, offering up a take on King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” and the Nice’s version of Leonard Bernstein’s “America,” each a tribute of sorts to Emerson and Lake’s mates’ earlier ensembles.

Likewise, both the Zombies and the Strawbs showed why they became staples of classic British rock, the former providing a few choice selections from their underrated classic Odessey and Oracle album, while the latter provided select cuts from their equally unappreciated progressive folk rock canon. Each helped turn a much deserved spotlight on artists of a decidedly vintage variety.

 However, as Edge explained, even the most seasoned performer can get anxiety. He admitted to having a recurring dream that he’s sitting at his drum kit, reaching for his sticks and then pulling out a pair of bananas instead. There’s some sort of phallic reference there that remained unsaid, but that can be left to one’s imagination. Hayward, on the other hand, offered another confession of sorts. When they’re onstage, for those two hours they essentially play for free. The pay they receive is for the hours they spend traveling in-between. Daltrey admitted pretty much the same.

 It’s little wonder then that the headliners performed with their usual verve and intensity. Emphasizing the more incendiary songs in their live repertory – “Somewhere Out There,” “I’m Just a Singer in a Rock and Roll Band,” “Ride My Seesaw” – along with their usual standards — “Tuesday Afternoon,” “Nights in White Satin,” “Isn’t Life Strange” et. al. – the Moodies seemed particularly inspired by their audience of diehard devotees. So too, Daltrey’s pair of performances were typically explosive, combining Who standards like “Behind Blue Eyes,” “Naked Eye” and “Pinball Wizard” with a pair of tunes from the new album he recorded with Wilco Johnson as well as a superb solo set closer “Without Your Love,” a song that seemed particularly on point considering the audience’s adulation. (“I should thank you for what you do because without you, I couldn’t do what I do,” he said sincerely.) Happily, guitarists Frank Simes and Simon Townshend helped affirm the energy and adrenalin, bringing a Who-like spectacle to the proceedings. In a Q & A session, Daltrey claimed that in nearly fifty years of famously spinning the microphone chord, he’s only broken two mikes. However, he did admit that his band mates often have to duck just to get out of the way.

 Nevertheless, the live music wasn’t confined to the theater performances. The outdoor Aqua Park and various venues throughout the ship offered more intimate environs, although the closer confines sometimes made seating a challenge. However, the various storyteller sessions and question and answer offerings with the artists did give an opportunity for fans to meet and mingle with the musicians, providing the kind of experience that only a cruise of this kind can offer.

 Indeed, even if the seas stayed calm, the boat rocked regardless.

 Yes cruise

 Yes, Marillion, Steve Hackett & Others “Cruise to the Edge” 4/7-4/12/14

 The name alone seemed to suggest some sort of limitless adventure and on that score, the recent Cruise to the Edge delivered on all counts. Although inclement weather limited the port of call to Cozumel and forced the exclusion of Honduras, the onboard revelry seemed limitless in scope, providing a far reaching sampling of what’s come to represent today’s progressive rock vanguard. Headlined by Yes, the line-up also included Steve Hackett, Marillion, U.K., Strawbs, Simon Collins (Phil’s offspring) and his band Sound of Contact, Tony Levin’s Stickmen, an offshoot of Gentle Giant called Three Friends, Renaissance, Patrick Moraz, IO Earth, Saga, Queensryche, PFM, Tangerine Dream, and the latest incarnation of Soft Machine, among others. It was a broad sampling of adventurous sounds, and one which made this musical cruise unlike any other.

 Naturally, on an outing like this, one might expect to encounter a fair number of eggheads and intellects (read “nerds,” if you will), and while it’s tempting to label many of the voyagers as such, it’s also fair to say that the knowledge these fans shared was well beyond that of the average music aficionado.    Everyone one turned, there seemed to be discussions of the attributes and back stories of the various bands, enough to offer a quick primer on any ensemble that wasn’t already well known. It was no surprise then to find that the level of enthusiasm reigned at peak proportions. Some of the discussions proved contentious; debate about Yes’ status found some extolling the group’s virtues and others arguing that their decision to replay full albums offered no change from their standard tour fare. Nevertheless, for the uninitiated — admittedly those in the minority – the onboard offerings showed a full range of prog prowess.

 Certainly, there’s no denying Yes’ continuing endurance, not only in their ability to maintain a peak of performance, but also in terms of sheer perseverance. The membership roster has been fluid throughout their forty plus year collective career, but even with new singer John Davidson at the helm, the band’s ability to effectively retrace its earlier catalogue remains unimpaired. That was clear not only in the way they wove their way through both The Yes Album and Close to the Edge in their entirety, but also in the choice of “America” as their opening assault, a song that dates back to their earliest initiatives.

 Still, it’s a mark of just how high the musical bar was set that the pair of performances by Yes were merely two of the cruise’s many highlights. And yet that’s hardly surprising considering the level of musicianship shared over the course of five days at sea. Clearly, there was no shortage of exceptional guitarists, brilliant bassists and dazzling drummers.

Yet while some bands seemed content to do nothing more than offer displays of flash and fury – Saga, Queensryche and UK being those in particular – others, like PFM, Three Friends and Strawbs showed off their skills with subtlety and nuance. Sound of Contact railed with an anthem-like intensity, but provided an obvious flair and musicality that kept their melodic tendencies intact. On the other hand, Patrick Moraz’s attempt to flaunt his keyboard skills amidst a backing track of sampled sounds took nearly an hour of preparation and then compelled an initially enthused audience to slowly trickle out of the venue once the playing began in earnest.

 Renaissance, on the other hand, had to do with some unexpected motion of their own, literally doing a balancing act once the seas started picking up. Singer Annie Haslam teetered precariously as she walked towards the microphone stand in an attempt to maintain her footing. “You probably felt that on your bottoms,” she joked after one rolling wave threw her off her stride. Theirs was a moving performance in another way as well as Haslam dedicated their set to her late musical partner Michael Dunford, whose guitar work provides him a fitting epitaph on Symphony of Light, the band’s new album.

The elements also played havoc with the Q & As in the Aqua Park, where high winds prevented Yes and Marillion from hearing the questions tossed their way, even when the interviewer was standing only a few feet away. “Have you ever had a stranger interview?” they were asked and the answer was an unequivocal yes from both Yes and Marillion. Still, it wasn’t auditory challenges that found Marillion’s singer, Steve Hogarth (known by most simply as “H”), seemingly nonplussed. Rather, it was the site of his bare legs on the huge screen in front of him that had him sharing his surprise.

 Sights and sounds made Tangerine’s Dream nighttime set on that same stage seem like something of a spectacle, with laser lights and strobes simulating the late night ambiance of a Manhattan disco. Steve Hackett’s concerts were also simulating, thanks in part to the ethereal effects achieved with his performance of Genesis Revisited, a set of songs that retrace his involvement with that band as well as his earlier efforts prior to his tenure. His latest album, a massive three CD/two DVD set spotlights that spectacle, but seeing the performance in person was nothing less than revelatory.

 The same can be said of Marillion, a band that’s achieved immense popularity in their native U.K. but whose big breakthrough has been stifled Stateside through lack of touring. Nevertheless, their two shows stunned the crowd, thanks both to their atmospheric sound and Hogarth’s indelible stage presence which found him pacing about the stage, sitting, squatting and even spread prone with a dramatic intensity. Yet while his songs are often stark and dramatic – usually while recounting tales from his own turbulent past (he was attacked by a horde of bees and stabbed by a former band mate) — he still comes across with both humor and affability. Sipping a pale yellow beverage, presumably tea, he joked about drinking his own urine. Introducing Steve Rotheridge, forced to sit due to a back injury, he identified him not as “on guitar,” but rather as “on chair.” Call him a populist Prog pundit for his ability to comfortably connect with the audience.

 Despite the competition from the veteran ensembles, the younger groups — Asturias, Scale the Summit, Lifesigns, Pineapple Thief, and Pamela Moore – offered impressive performances of their own, although the crowds paled in comparison, especially in the smaller venues throughout the ship. Still, Pamela Moore made a formidable impression as she roamed the atrium, still singing and offering high fives to the bystanders who lined the stairways and greeted her as she wandered about brash and barefoot.

 That same description could apply to the Cruise to the Edge in general, all ambitious intent combined with festive frenzy. Who would have thought that Prog’s cerebral scenario could make for such a cool cruise?

 

 

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