My wife jokes that I once told her that if I ever went on a cruise that she should shoot me — really. And I guess thinking I knew what happens on a traditional cruise, I might still believe that hanging around with a bunch of strangers on a large ship eating too much and lounging poolside wasn’t something for me. Well, that was two cruises ago. Mona and I flew back from Tampa, Florida yesterday after spending a week cruising the Gulf of Mexico on the “Southern Rock” cruise, one of seven StarVista produced themed music cruises (they do others including Malt Shop, Soul, Surf, Flower Power etc.). And I thoroughly enjoyed myself in spite of some initial hesitation.
A very close friend of mine — and former head of the music catalog at BMG — runs the operation. A couple of months ago, Mike called me and asked if I would be interested in joining him on one of his cruises. A week of live music on a cruise ship? Sure! But which one? Because my schedule is bound by the academic calendar, getting a week away has to track my semester break, spring recess, or summer vacation. Southern Rock, which might not have been my first choice based on the bands and music offered, was scheduled for early January — a perfect slot just before the new term starts on the 22nd.
The artists on the cruise included the headliners Lynyrd Skynryd, The Marshall Tucker Band, Molly Hatchet, and the Devon Allman Project featuring guitarist Duane Betts. Other performers included Blackberry Smoke, The Atlanta Rhythm Section, and Jimmie Hall of Wet Willie. There are multiple opportunities to hear live music all over the ship all day long and well into the night. From Hal Bruce, rocking out with just his solo acoustic guitar and Johnnie Neel on piano trying to convince other musicians to join him on stage (and succeeding) to the mega evening events culminating in Skynyrd’s closing number “Free Bird” on Wednesday night.
The production crew augments that main concert theater with stages on the pool deck, in the atrium, and in just about every bar on the boat. It’s actually amazing to think that a ship can be set up to accommodate 5-7 simultaneous music venues with all of the required physical stages, wiring, lights, audio, and other logistics but the crew had everything onboard and functioning on in less than 5 hours and removed everything during the final overnight sail back to Tampa. Having done non stop concerts during the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles, my hat is off to the crew!
I had to push a little harder than I probably should have to get Mona to agree to a weeklong cruise featuring Southern Rock bands. In fact to be honest, I expressed some mild concerns to my host about the make up of the crowd — the same fans that thrill to the wailing guitars at the close of “Free Bird” might not agree with my left leaning politics and preference for MSNBC over FOX News. There were more than a few Confederate flags on display, some of the T-Shirts inched past what I consider appropriate, and there was a lot of overt patriotism but I was very pleasantly surprised that the crowd was there to enjoy the music, meet the artists and take selfies, maximize the value of their $576 unlimited drink tickets (the ship sold over $600,000 worth of liquor in the course of 4 days on the previous Southern Rock cruise!), and party for as long as they could stand. Thankfully, smoking was only allowed outside by the pool.
People came from all over the world. I met people from Canada, New Zealand, Germany, and the Netherlands as well as others from California and colder places in the states . This was a very diverse group of music fans. The 12th deck fitness club didn’t get a lot of traffic during the week and they closed the climbing rock wall for the entire cruise but my initial fears about the make up of the audience weren’t realized. Everyone on board was there to hear some of their favorite bands, expressed themselves through slogans on their T-shirts, and avoided political discussions. This was a music cruise.
Mona and I had “gold” passes, which meant we got to join the artists when getting onboard and disembarking, gain entry to the restricted lounge/restaurant, and could attend both evening shows unlike the general population. It’s nice getting the VIP treatment although we found ourselves on the back deck and eating with everyone else at the endless buffet — there is not shortage of opportunities to eat during a cruise. I got the chance to chat with Marshall Tucker on the last day and was thrilled to be able to chat briefly with Devon Allman and Duane Betts following a very interesting interview session. I’ll talk more about the music I heard during the cruise in another post but having worked on several Allman Brothers projects and a Lynryd Skynyrd DVD, I felt a real connection to the bands and their music. In fact, one of the two Gold DVDs I’ve earned was for the Allman Brothers “Live at the Beacon Theater” project. It was a real treat to meet and talk to Devon and Duane. They’ve got a new record coming out produced in an analog studio in Muscle Shoals!
To Be Continued…