Riding That Train – The Awesome Array of Artists That Made the Sail Across the Sun Cruise an Awesome Adventure
I’m a big fan of music cruises. For me they are ideal entertainment. You get a bunch of great bands onboard, all the food you care to gorge yourself on, nice accommodations, a friendly service staff and a party atmosphere like no other. Suffice it to say, these excursions are like traveling seaworthy festivals, except at the end of the day when you’ve burnt yourself to a crisp you don’t have to go back to a tent and flounder in the mud. Instead, you can beat a retreat to your stateroom where you’ll find your bed all made up, a porter that’s all too anxious to cater to your every need and, if you’re really lucky, a towel animal to give you that extra added levity.
Really. If you’re a music lover… or if you just like you’re entertainment coming at you fast and furious, a music cruise is the way to go. Whether you’re ship-faced, full of ship, or just in hte mood to kick some ship, it’s all good.
Natch, the wife and I couldn’t resist the temptation to explore Sail Across the Sun, the inaugural cruise curated by the band Train, featuring a ship-load of great bands offering around the clock musical mayhem. I have to admit, I was never a huge Train fan – that’s my wife Alisa’s domain – but they were damn good – DAMN good – and the perfect hosts to boot. And hey, it was a Valentine’s Day outing, so it proved a damn good way to make points with the spouse. Guys… take note for next year.
In case you’re not already aware, Train have a TON of hits, so many that even a novice like myself could recognize and groove to the majority of their set list. However, truth be told, there were so many other artists that grabbed my attention, it wouldn’t have even been necessary for me to hop on that Train. I even caught some of them twice. That’s not to mention the fact that I ran into quite a few artists while cruising along the decks. Holy ship! Talk about getting up close and personal. The seas were calm, but no matter. Here are a dozen artists that rocked my world.
13) Train: It goes without saying. Gotta give some love to the hosts, right? And when you’re out there on the pool deck, arms raised, swaying and singing along to “Calling All Angels,” “Drops of Jupiter” or “Save Me, San Francisco,” you will find yourself converted. The fans love them, and for good reason. They genuinely seem to love their fans right back. And hell, they have their own wine. Gotta love that!
12) Yacht Rock Revue: It also goes without saying that I really don’t like cover bands. I simply can’t understand the need when a good DJ or a jukebox would suffice. However, my opinion might have been changed by this bunch of professional, well suited, remarkably proficient musicians. For one thing, their choice of tunes – mostly of ‘80s vintage – were of the category that – as one of their singers put it – you either love them or you’re lying. And having John Oates – he of Hall and you know who fame – sit in for a flawless cover of “She’s Gone” certainly added a fair share of cred.
11) John Oates: Speaking of Mr. Oates, here’s a guy that proved he didn’t necessarily need the aforementioned Mr. Hall to shine all on his own. While there may be a certain stigma to being the other guy, the one that takes second billing, that’s forced to follow the “and” in the duo’s handle, Oates showed a range in both his vocals (can you say “falsetto?”) and song choices, clearly demonstrating that he deserves the kind of recognition that could take him out from under the pair’s shadow. Oates seemed to be everywhere, sitting in with practically every act, and yet even without reprising anything from the Hall and Oates hit parade (save the aforementioned “She’s Gone,” which in his solo set, he admitted, is a song he could never top), he impressed with a selection of bluesy, folky, country-sounding selections that one would never associate with the Hall and Oates catalogue. While his look back at his trajectory through the ‘70s and ‘80s left many in the audience at his solo show anticipating some of H&O’s hits, his off-handed aside (“Ah hell, does that mean I have to play ‘Maneater’?”) made it obvious that it wasn’t going to happen.
10) Secret Sisters: The personification of sibling rivalry in the form of a multi-faceted country band gave this sister act a comedic touch. The two Alabama-bred front persons spent a good dealing of time exchanging snide comments and looks of disdain, but when they blended their voices, the duo became the epitome of sweet southern soulfulness. Splitting their set between songs from their 2010 self-titled debut – including a remake of the Frank Sinatra/Nancy Sinatra duet “Something Stupid” (which they acknowledged was creepy enough when sung by father and daughter, but creepier still when sung by two sisters) – and songs from their forthcoming sophomore set, which includes a song co-written with Bob…wait for it… Dylan. Based on what we heard, we’re plenty psyched.
9) Michael Franti and Friends: You’ll never find a more energized, energetic and effusive performer than Mr. Franti. With a guitar strap emblazoned with the word “Love,” you can be assured he’s offering complete truth in advertising. His Mohawk haired guitarist may look like a British punk poser, circa 1977, but the group’s songs of unity and inclusion get even the most hardened cynic up, dancing, waving one’s arms and generally singing along. Sample scenes: a barefooted Franti wading into the audience and up to the balconies, offering hugs and high-fives all the way; a crowd of kids invited up onstage to practically steal the show; and some love-struck couples slow-dancing while Father Franti gave his blessing. The songs are simple and straightforward, while the good vibes they emit are all too obvious. Here’s a guy you just want to squeeze with a man hug that tempts you to never let go.
8) Brett Dennen: Exceptionally tall, with a strikingly youthful demeanor and a seemingly single-minded sweep of red hair draping his brow, singer/songwriter Brett Dennen is all too aware of the fact that he stands out in a crowd. That makes him a bit self-conscious, he confided, but when he’s onstage, all hint of shyness quickly dissipates. Seemingly spontaneous, his combination of an awe-shucks personality and a random stage shuffle gave him a somewhat eccentric demeanor. Nevertheless, his appearance takes second place to his instantly engaging music, currently represented on his most recent album Smoke and Mirrors. With a crack band and the faithful following garnered onboard, the title seems like something of a misnomer. Five albums on, his unlikely charisma and skilled song craft seem to have him destined to be a star. (Notable aside: We saw him grooving to the aforementioned Yacht Rock Revue, leading to suspicion that he’s a pop purist at heart. And if that wasn’t proof enough, when we ran into him on the final night of festivities, he confided that he was on his way to catch them again.)
7) Vicci Martinez: Our local girl made us proud when she made the finals on the TV talent show “The Voice.” And indeed, that voice was everywhere on the cruise, sitting in with Train, Michael Frante and seemingly everyone else. A Broward resident, Martinez reportedly had her faith renewed, telling her audience that after some period of doubt, the reception she received has her more committed than ever to pursue her craft. And from the way the crowds received her, she’s clearly making the right decision. Viva Vicci!
6) Simplified: I must admit, I had never heard of this band before, but even a quick encounter in the ship’s atrium confirmed the fact that they put on a rocking good show. A combination jam band, party band, ska band, and, of course, a rock ‘n roll band, they were, above all the buzz band that everyone was talking about. Think Red Hot Chili Peppers with a dash of horns, complete with a bass player who knows how to totally tear it up.
5) The Lone Bellow: It’s little wonder that this band took the Americana community by storm when their debut album was released a couple of years ago. All the more reason why their next effort, due sometime this year, is going to be one of the most widely anticipated albums of the year. It’s the harmonies that make the most immediate impression, a vocal lock so clinched that it’s a wonder they’re not siblings. At first, the melodies seem a bit weary, but as the set expanded, the Lone Bellow actually roared. “Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold,” “You Don’t Love Me Like You Used To” and “Driving Wheel” already sound like country standards.
4) Jim Breuer: Some may remember Breuer as Goat Boy on “Saturday Night Live,” but the simple fact is, he doesn’t need to fall back on that weird impression to get an audience heaving with laughter. His was the only performance that fully packed the Pearl’s Stardust Theater to standing room only status (although Michael Frantic came close) and for good reason: the guy is hilarious. His rumination on ship board buffets, family dysfunction, dealing with parents in need of diapers and a summit meeting between various alcoholic additives in your stomach during a night of inebriation was as funny as any live comedy show yours truly has ever encountered. The rubber faced Breuer is also a master of body language and when he swears, “I’m not high,” one’s hard pressed to give him the benefit of the doubt.
3) Ben Rector: Seemingly out of nowhere, Rector and his ultra-amazing band took the ship by storm. Call him Rhythm and Reflection, Rock and Revelry, or simply a Super Showman, it’s no matter; Rector is remarkable. What’s more, his keyboard player reminded me of a young Jerry Lee Lewis. Still, after three indie albums, Rector remains all but unknown. No worries; seeing is believing and this guy’s got the goods.
2) Dirty Guv’nahs: Okay, I admit I’m a bit prejudiced as far as the Guv’nahs are concerned. They’re from Knoxville Tennessee, one of my favorite cities in the nation and they’re, well, really nice guys. Fortunately, they also make great music too, a sound that taps into the southern tradition without coming across as derivative or repetitious. And they rock; the first of the two gigs we caught found them offering up a rocking rendition of Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Going My Way” and a credible read of “Layla” a few songs along. On Monday at midnight they played the final set of the cruise and knocked it out of the park with a take on “The Weight” that was simply stunning. “We play a few covers to grab the passerbys, lead singer James Trimble told me earlier, but the truth is, their new album, Hearts On Fire, which is due out next month, is such a killer, they can easily stand on their own songs.
1) Matt Nathanson: Nathanson’s got it all – great songs, a compelling presence, a heightened sense of drama and dynamics, and a self-effacing sense of humor that could qualify him as the Don Rickles of Rock. That is, if he didn’t already come across like a young Bruce Springsteen. He’s got the cool and charisma, and the showmanship was disarming. To a shirtless man observing the poolside show: “Sir, you have nipples like projectiles…” To another: “You look like Carmen Appice. He was Rod Stewart’s drummer in the ‘80s. How do you like living there?” His admonishment to encourage people to sing along: “Only the sexy and confident people need to participate.” And while some of his comments seemed on the fringe of good prudence – particularly when he discussed the joys of soaping up one’s nether regions while taking a shower, and his anecdote about visiting some critically ill kids in a hospital and singing “Staying Alive” (groan) – his spellbinding performances (I caught two) may have been the most mesmerizing of all.