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Published: 2014/04/18
by Lee Zimmerman

Yes, Marillion, Steve Hackett- Cruise to the Edge- 4/7-12

Yes during their windblown interview – photo by Raphael Murciano

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, Queensriche, 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 insightful knowledge these fans possessed was well beyond that of the average music aficionado. Everywhere one turned, there seemed to be discussions of attributes, anecdotes and back stories tied to each of the bigger 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 performance, but also in terms of their 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 an opener. In the beginning, it was their unique interpretation of this Simon and Garfunkel song that helped affirm the band’s acumen early on.

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 mine their penchant for flash and fury – Saga, Queensriche 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, was challenged to remain grounded, forced to do a balancing act once the seas started picking up and adding a certain sway to the stage. 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 a rolling wave threw her off her stride. Theirs was a moving performance in an emotional way as well, as when Haslam dedicated their set to her late musical partner Michael Dunford, whose guitar work provides him with a fitting epitaph on Symphony of Light, the band’s new album.

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

Sights and sounds made Tangerine’s Dream nighttime set on the 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 stoked with sensory stimulation, thanks to the ethereal theme of his so-called “Genesis Revisited,” a set of songs that retrace his initial involvement with that band as well as earlier efforts prior to his arrival. His live album of the same name, a massive three CD/two DVD set, spotlights a broader set list, but seeing the performance in person was nothing short of 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 due to lack of touring. Nevertheless, their two shows stunned the crowd, thanks both to their atmospheric sound and Hogarth’s penchant for pacing about the stage, posing, sitting, squatting and even lying prone to emphasize his dramatic delivery. Yet while his songs are often stark and foreboding – many recounting tales from his own turbulent past, such as the times 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 that he was drinking his own urine. Introducing Steve Rothery, seated due to a back injury, he identified him not as “on guitar,” but rather as “on chair.” “Our songs are mostly about death and water, making us the perfect cruise band,” Hogarth teased.

Consider him a populist Prog pundit, given 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 shows of their own, although the crowds paled in comparison, especially since they were mostly confined to the smaller venues throughout the ship. Still, Pamela Moore made a formidable impression as she roamed the atrium, singing and offering high fives to the bystanders who lined the stairways and greeted her as she wandered about, brash and barefoot.

The very same description could apply to the Cruise to the Edge in general, the 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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