Cruise To The Edge: Prog reports back from the high seas

A photograph of Cruise To The Edge
Mike Portnoy\u2019s Shattered Fortress is revealed\u2026
(Image: © Buster Harvey)

After last year’s weather-beaten event, Cruise To The Edge has been moved from November to the more clement early February, as well as to a different ship, meaning that the fourth excursion of this floating prog extravaganza leaves Tampa with nothing but clear skies and smooth sailing. A whole new crop of bands join Yes for this year’s voyage. Co-headliners Kansas and Steve Hackett bring their unique brand of prog rock nostalgia, there are more current acts like The Neal Morse Band, Haken, IO Earth and Bad Dreams, classic 70s groups like Focus, Patrick Moraz, Curved Air and John Lodge, instrumental acts Electric Asturias and Alex Machacek, and many more eclectic groups filling this magnificent line-up.

Much of the cruise is centered on celebrating Mike Portnoy’s birthday, and also paying tribute to the recent passings of Greg Lake and John Wetton. Wetton had been scheduled to appear on the cruise but withdrew due to ailing health, sadly passing away just weeks before the ship set sail. It was the timeless music of these legendary musicians that brought together this community decades earlier, and their lives are celebrated in the most appropriate way.

Then there is Mike Portnoy’s 50th Birthday Bash, a celebration which has been in the works for over a year. Being involved in so many bands, he certainly has enough music to choose from, but until the ship is on the water everything is kept a secret. As all the guests gather on the pool deck atop the ship, Portnoy greets everyone on the massive outdoor stage that is complete with professional lighting and has sound that would rival any theatre. He promptly introduces his Flying Colors bandmates Neal Morse, Dave LaRue, Casey McPherson and Steve Morse, who play a four-song set. Marillion’s Pete Trewavas is brought up next to complete three-quarters of Transatlantic with Neal and Mike, with Spock’s Beard’s Ted Leonard filling in for the absent Roine Stolt. They play three tracks over a 60- minute set, with Neal Morse Band’s Bill Hubauer and Pain Of Salvation’s Daniel Gildenlöw joining in.

Stick Men’s Tony Levin gets stuck in

Stick Men’s Tony Levin gets stuck in
(Image: © Buster Harvey)

Headliners Yes play the first of two sets in the main theatre on the opening afternoon of the cruise. This set comprises the entire Drama album, half of Tales From Topographic Oceans and a few classic hits. Alan White, recovering from back surgery, plays on half of the set, splitting time with his stand-in Jay Schellen. The first of many tributes on the ship is at the end of this show, as Steve Howe leads Asia’s Heat Of The Moment in honour of John Wetton. Later that night around midnight, Dave Kerzner follows his band’s set on the pool deck with a tribute to Greg Lake that includes From The Beginning, Still You Turn Me On and closes with a full performance of King Crimson’s landmark album In The Court Of The Crimson King. The overjoyed audience singing along with the final chorus is surely one of the highlights of the cruise and is a great way to end the first night.

The second day of the cruise begins, in time-honoured tradition, in the main cafeteria, where it is not uncommon to see a fan strike up a lengthy conversation with Tony Levin, or catch Steve Howe and Billy Sherwood having some coffee, perhaps going over that night’s set. The first show of the day is a Q&A session with Kansas, who perform a five-song acoustic set prior to taking questions from fans. Host Jon Kirkman does a brilliant job of getting the most out of his guests. Next up is a show in the more intimate Colony Club with Chicago’s District 97, led by female powerhouse vocalist Leslie Hunt. In recent years, the band developed a strong relationship with John Wetton, having recorded a live album of King Crimson songs with him. So it’s fitting for them to end their set with a tribute to the singer. The group invite one of John’s closest friends, Dennis Mahon, on stage to sing Starless, and it is quite a surprise that he sounds very much like his lost friend. There isn’t a dry eye in the house.

After that, Prog is off the see The Neal Morse Band play the pool stage mid-afternoon. The band were all set to play their entire new double album The Similitude Of A Dream, however due to the shorter sets, they play disc one at this show and conclude with disc two and some other favourites the following afternoon. Ever since Morsefest was launched in 2014, the audience for the band has become a close-knit group that travel well, as evidenced by the overwhelming turnout to both of the band’s performances.

John Lodge plays the pool deck

John Lodge plays the pool deck
(Image: © Buster Harvey)

Focus, led by Thijs van Leer, follow and put on a fantastic and energetic set, while keyboard legend Patrick Moraz is thrilling a whole different audience with his majestic playing on a grand piano in the centre atrium of the ship, or as it is called, The Centrium. As soon as Moraz finishes, everyone can be seen heading to the Colony Club to catch the performance of The Fringe, the trio featuring Jonas Reingold, Nick D’Virgilio and Randy McStine. The band certainly pull in a celebrity crowd, including members of Spock’s Beard, Mike Portnoy and his family, Pete Trewavas, Nick Beggs and others. Each member delivers a powerhouse performance, and their show is one of the most talked-about on the cruise.

As on previous Cruise To The Edge outings, one of the special forms of entertainment is created by the cruising guests themselves at the Late Night Live Jam. Fans from all over the world get together online and agree on which songs to learn and who will play which instrument and then they perform those songs, unrehearsed, on the ship after midnight. These jam sessions last until four and five in the morning as bands play such difficult songs as Heart Of The Sunrise, Return Of The Giant Hogweed and Thick As A Brick. Meanwhile, on another deck of the ship, members of Spock’s Beard and other prog stars can be seen belting out various pop songs at karaoke. So while the fans want to play the most difficult of prog songs, the actual prog artists are singing Usher’s Yeah!

On the third day, the ship docks at Cozumel, Mexico. While many patrons leave the ship, those who stay witness an outstanding set near the pool deck from Spock’s Beard, with original drummer Nick D’Virgilio filling in for Jimmy Keegan, who recently left the group. They open with the aptly titled On A Perfect Day, with Nick singing the opening parts of the song he created as lead singer with the band. The rest of the set is mostly comprised of Neal Morse-era classics such as Go The Way You Go and Walking On The Wind. Prog spots Neal Morse in the audience, watching his old band and singing along.

Shortly after The Neal Morse Band conclude their double album to enormous applause, Haken deliver an exemplary set for their second outing on the ship, running through tracks from their recent album Affinity and closing with the epic Celestial Elixir from their debut album. This is followed by Stick Men, the group featuring King Crimson members Tony Levin and Pat Mastelotto, as well as Markus Reuter. This trio deliver a mix of songs that includes a few King Crimson classics such as Larks’ Tongues In Aspic. Despite the weather throughout this cruise being generally good, Sweden’s Änglagård are the lone band to get rained out this evening, just a few songs into a mesmerising set.

District 97’s Leslie Hunt

District 97’s Leslie Hunt
(Image: © Buster Harvey)

with heavy hitters, the first of which is Steve Hackett, who delivers his final show of the cruise in the Pacifica Theater with a mix of new solo material and Genesis classics. The set closes with Afterglow, as a picture of Hackett and John Wetton displays on the backdrop. Meanwhile, in the Colony Club, Frost* give a set full of comedic moments, such as when Jem Godfrey has to restart his keyboard at the 25th minute of their epic Milliontown, or when they instruct the fans to boo them instead of cheer, in order to prepare them for the winter weather that awaits them upon their return home to the UK.

The last 8pm slots go to Pain Of Salvation in the Colony Club lounge and Kansas in the main theatre. PoS order everyone to come to the front of the stage. The energy is electric as they perform through songs from their acclaimed new album In The Passing Light Of Day. Kansas close out the last show in the main theatre with a rousing set of prog classics from Point Of Know Return to Dust In The Wind and the iconic Carry On Wayward Son. Throughout, the group show why they are a mainstay, as they deliver one of the best shows on the ship. Long-time drummer Phil Ehart plays with the power of someone 30 years younger, while new vocalist Ronnie Platt channels Steve Walsh while breathing new life into these great songs.

The previous four days were all somewhat of a prelude to the highly publicised closing set by Mike Portnoy. Portnoy had announced that this was going to be the premiere of Shattered Fortress, the collection of five songs that compromised the Twelve-Step Suite that he wrote during his time in Dream Theater. However, there is still one more surprise, a performance of another one of his side projects, Liquid Tension Experiment. With Tony Levin on board with the band, it’s no shock to see him on stage revisiting his role in the group. But joining Portnoy and Levin and filling the roles of John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess are Eric Gillette (The Neal Morse Band) on guitar and Diego Tejeida (Haken) on keyboards. The foursome shred through three LTE tracks, setting the stage ablaze with their instrumental gymnastics. Gillette in particular shows he’s up to the challenge of playing Petrucci’s parts.

Once this is over, Portnoy unveils the Shattered Fortress line-up. Gillette and Tejeida remain, while other Haken members, guitarists Richard Henshall and Charlie Griffiths, bassist Conner Green and vocalist Ross Jennings, fill out the rest of the group. The blistering set is one for the ages, especially for any Dream Theater fans. Pain Of Salvation’s Daniel Gidenlöw and Spock’s Beard’s Ted Leonard each relieve Jennings at certain points, as does Portnoy, who sings Repentance while still behind the kit. The set lasts 90 minutes and brings the Cruise To The Edge to a truly fulfilling end.

As usual, there is something for everyone on this cruise. No matter what type of prog you are a fan of, whether it’s heavy or melodic, classic or current, vocal or instrumental, there is enough to overwhelm the senses. This is the fourth Cruise To The Edge, and the fifth prog cruise in recent years, so close friendships have been made and cheers soon turn to sad goodbyes. However, the next cruise has already been announced and Marillion are scheduled, so book your tickets now, my friends, to the Cruise that never ends.

(Image: © Buster Harvey)

There She Blows!

Merch Desk proprietor Nellie Pitts reports from the Cruise frontline, not letting her duties as Frost*’s tour manager get in the way of her alcohol consumption!

“Our fellow passengers on the 10-hour flight from London to Tampa include Steve Hackett, Haken, Nick Beggs and, behind my seat, Thijs van Leer of Focus. Throughout the flight, we are graced with the snoring, whistling and burping of the yodelling legend and before we know it, Nathan King and I have drunk the galley dry of red wine. That’s a real achievement, in my book.

Frost*’s only commitment on the first day is a Q&A with Jon Kirkman in the late afternoon on the Centrum stage just after the ship sets sail. A collection of hardcore fans gather with interest to hear what Jem and the gang have to say, while I stand by the bar drinking wine with Chris Topham of Plane Groovy. We want to catch Focus on the pool stage, but instead spend the rest of the evening hanging with Nick and Tiffany D’Virgilio, and later on Geoff Downes and his wife Martine, who announced the next day that she will never go out drinking with me again!

On day two, The Boys have their grip-and-grin photo session in the VIP bar along with the Dave Kerzner Band and Haken. Fans are led, snake-like, from one band to the next to have their photo taken. The photos are then available to buy at the end of the cruise. This event is preceded by the Frost* midget golf tournament held on the top deck. John Mitchell proudly celebrated a hole in one, but later admitted this was after the previous hole in 14!

On day three, we dock at Cozumel so I jump ashore with my excursion buddy, Nick Beggs, who went for a paddle in the sea. Even in a tiny café off the beaten track he was still recognised by a local, who paid for our tea.

There’s a real buzz going around amongst fans and fellow musicians in anticipation of Frost*’s appearance. Both of Frost*’s shows are besieged with technical problems including the power supply to John’s amp, Craig’s drum machine blowing up and some frantic running around to find replacements on the first gig. On the second day’s set, Jem has to reboot the Korg twice, and has no vocals through the first half of Milliontown, having to start the whole song again. Hats off to the production and backline team for sorting it out just in time, and none of these issues prevented the band from receiving a standing ovation on both days.

Looking forward to next year. I should have sobered up by the end of January!”

Strike a pose Nellie, queen of the seas

Strike a pose Nellie, queen of the seas

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