BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
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.