By Craig Davis, craigslegztravels.com
Vintage rock and roll acts don’t just fade away. Those that survived the excesses of their past now go on to play on music cruises.
Five days of nonstop music during the On the Blue Cruise aboard the Norwegian Pearl (Jan. 28-Feb. 2, 2023) demonstrated that passion for rock music remains strong, contrary to fashionable claims that the genre is dead and the music industry’s best efforts to bury it.
On a sold-out cruise ship with 27 acts performing at least two shows apiece in six different locations, the only question in this crowd was, where do we go next? From morning till late night on passage from Miami through the Caribbean with stops in Belize and Mexico, nothing else mattered but the next show.
There usually were two acts in progress at any given time from breakfast until late-night libation at the Martini Bar, where some musicians (some of them passengers) gathered for impromptu jamming. Including Q&A sessions and photo opps with the musicians, there was barely time to eat and sleep.
(To view gallery, click through individual photos.)
Five days solely devoted to music
It was a ship full of music. In the aftermath it continues to reverberate in our heads, one memorable song bleeding into the next on an endless loop.
Easy to see why music-themed cruises have become a phenomenon over the past two decades. These days there is a cruise geared to virtually every musical taste. Here are some scheduled for 2023 and beyond.
It’s the Woodstock of the 21st century.
On this cruise, the premier acts were from the Woodstock generation. The headliner was long-time Moody Blues vocalist Justin Hayward, now performing on his own.
Here is the full lineup that performed during the On The Blue Cruise:
This wasn’t just a nostalgia trip. It was a voyage of rediscovery, of old favorites that got left behind when we moved on to the fertile ground of ’80s music and beyond.
Also of discovery of faces behind the music that weren’t as readily accessible in their heyday, before there was YouTube to provide a look at the groups playing your new favorite tunes. Even before MTV and the popularity of music videos.
So on more than one occasion there was an ‘Ah, ha, that’s what they look like’ moment. Or in many cases, ‘look how different they look now without hair.’
(See below in story for some of top highlights from the performances.)
Rocks legends joined by young talent
Of course, all of the groups have undergone profound changes.
It was refreshing to see the likes of Justin Hayward, Al Stewart, Dave Mason playing with backing bands of much younger musicians. Yes, an infusion of fresh blood keeping the genre alive.
One group, a classic rock cover band called Bottom Feeders were comprised of young musicians who looked to be a long-haired reincarnation of what some of the headliners on the cruise looked like back in the day. The lead singer was spot on in channeling Jim Morrison when they played the Doors’ “Break on Through (to the Other Side).” (see video below)
Turnover of personnel has always been a constant in rock groups, and given the passage of 40 to 50 years it can be extensive. It was remarkable to see groups that have been able to maintain an identity around the continuity of one or two original members. That was the case with the Zombies, Firefall, Ambrosia.
The Canadian band Lighthouse, founded in 1968, had two original members among 10 on stage. The others had all been with the group for 30 years or more.
Some groups have evolved better than others. We didn’t care for the latest incarnation of Starship featuring Mickey Thomas. Plenty of people seemed thrilled to see them. No matter, we just moved on to the next show. There were ample options to satisfied all tastes.
A highlight of the week was watching both performances of the Skatalites, the legendary Jamaican ska band that dates to the early 1960s. Only one original member is still alive, but the current lineup remains true to the pioneering sound that influenced generations of ska, reggae and rock-steady acts that followed.
The cruise was dominated by holdovers from the British rock invasion, notably Hayward, Dave Mason, Alan Parsons Live Project, Zombies and Al Stewart.
These were most memorable:
Justin Hayward elevates On The Blue Cruise
We have seen Hayward with the Moody Blues multiple times since the mid-’80s. Now 76, he seemed energized to be performing unencumbered by his former group. His distinctive voice remains as pure as ever, with the familiar layered, ethereal intonation that lifts your spirit to pleasantly fanciful places.
Hayward played the classics he wrote for the Moody Blues plus his folksy 2022 release “Living For Love” during a 1-hour, 45-minute set that culminated with a three-song encore.
During his Q&A, Hayward indicated he is inspired by his much younger backing musicians.
“I’m just full of admiration for the people that I’m with. They bring my songs alive,” Hayward said of former Moody Blues member Julie Ragins (keyboard, vocals) — he described her as “the best female Moody that we ever had by far” — Mike Dawes (guitar) and Karmen Gould (flute).
The Alan Parsons Live experience
Most impressive presence was Alan Parsons, a giant in rock music who I didn’t fully appreciate until seeing his group perform on the cruise. Some of the songs were recognizable from radio play but proved to be much more captivating performed on stage.
Parsons, 74, has his fingerprints all over rock history as a producer, composer and performer. He worked in production for some Beatles albums and was engineer on Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” Recovering from back surgery last year, Parsons spent most of the show seated at a keyboard on an elevated riser at the rear of the stage before stepping to the front to sing lead on “Eye in the Sky.”
He is a big man with the regal bearing of a Camelot-era king. His band puts out a wall of sound that is complex and finely crafted, befitting Parsons’ long history of composition and production. There was a clear sense of observing Rock and Roll royalty, and it was a feeling that I didn’t want to let go of as the last notes faded in the Stardust Theater.
Al Stewart a Rock and Roll treasure
Most engaging was Al Stewart, who at 77 appears more like a British country gentleman than a royal rock figure. But he has been part of the folk-rock scene since the mid-’60s and once shared a London flat with Paul Simon, though he didn’t hit it big until his “Year of the Cat” single and album in 1976 — Alan Parsons engineered it — and the follow up “Time Passages” album.
An avid history buff, Stewart’s songs are unique tales about historical figures, military battles and mysterious escapades often set to uplifting Spanish guitar melodies that drag you merrily along into the recesses of Stewart’s imagination. He is a consummate storyteller, in song and on stage.
Introducing his song “Antarctica,” Stewart recounted in detail the travails of the expeditions to reach the South Pole in the early 1900s. He paused and said, “Now you think you know what the song is about, but you don’t. It’s about a really cold woman who wouldn’t sleep with me.”
In the lead up to “Year of the Cat” Stewart related what he said was the coolest compliment he’s ever received. It happened in the ’80s when he encountered a women backstage at a club where he was performing in Florida. She told him the only cassette tapes (remember those?) she played in her car were by him and her brother.
“I said, was your brother in a band? She said, ‘Yeah but they broke up,’ and left it at that. … As I’m leaving to go on stage I said, what was the name of the band your brother was in? She said, ‘the Beatles.’ And I remembered at that exact moment that George Harrison lived in Florida.
“I mean, that is amazingly cool. Her brother was in the Beatles and the only thing she said to me was he was in a band and they broke up. Now that is cool.”
So was everything about the On The Blue Cruise, which left us looking forward to our next music cruise.
On The Blue Cruise bonus videos
More videos on YouTube: Fellow passenger Greg Perry @gregperry9943 has been posting excellent videos of many of the performances from the cruise. Subscribe to his YouTube channel to view them.
Sad note on Louise Harrison
Coincidentally, George Harrison’s sister passed away on Jan. 29 at age 91. That was the day after Stewart told the story during the cruise about their encounter decades ago.
More themed cruises
Wrestling cruise: The week after the On the Blue Cruise the Norwegian Pearl was the venue for Chris Jericho’s Rock N Wrestling Rager At Sea. In case you missed it, another is scheduled in 2024.
When it comes to themed cruises, it’s whatever floats your boat.
Hip-Hop cruises: The first Rock the Bells Hip-Hop Cruise will sail on the Pearl Nov. 13-17, 2023 out of Miami.
There is also the Days of Summer Hip-Hop Cruise and Music Festival scheduled for July 2-5, 2023 on the Norwegian Sky, also out of Miami.