An Exceptional Excursion

The On the Blue cruise puts its passengers in the groove

On The Blue concert poster

So there I was, sitting at a table in the promenade of the magnificent cruise ship the Mariner of the Seas, chatting with my buddy Mark Stein, the original vocalist and keyboard player of the seminal prog pop band Vanilla Fudge, and the band’s bass player, Pete Bremy, when who should approach our table but Dave Mason. Yes, that Dave Mason, seminal member of Traffic, successful solo artist and a man who’s played with a veritable who’s who of rock and roll greats, from members of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to Jimi Hendrix and Crosby, Stills and Nash. We spent the next two hours chatting away about matters big and small — party times in the past and infirmities of the present, sharing some history, snapping some selfies, but mainly just shooting the breeze as if we were longtime pals.

Except of course, I can’t consider myself a longtime pal. Yet, in this casual setting, it clearly felt like I was all the same.

If you have any objections to name dropping, then be forewarned. A bunch more will follow. It was the very nature of this particular cruise — dubbed “On the Blue” due to the fact that it was ostensibly hosted by Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues — because it boasted a line-up consisting of several prime players in the realm of classic rock, the Zombies, Procol Harum, the Alan Parsons Project, Todd Rundgren, Al Stewart, Strawbs, Dave Mason, Steve Hackett, Rick Derringer, Wishbone Ash, Vanilla Fudge, Stephen Bishop, Poco, Bill Champlin, and Ambrosia’s David Pack, among them. In addition, some who weren’t there were well represented. The Orchestra features two early members of Electric Light Orchestra, and, with a host of exceptional stand-ins in tow, pay tribute to Jeff Lynne’s seminal ELO. Ace guitarist Randy Hansen mimics an obvious idol, Jimi Hendrix, while oldies outfit Mellow Yellow replays the innumerable oldies provide a soundtrack for those who still yearn for their youth.

Dave Mason in Studio B of Mariner of The Seas during On The Blue Cruise, February 10, 2019 / Photo by Alisa B. Cherry

Rock stars are everywhere. And while there are multiple formal gatherings in the form  of concerts, Q&As and photo opportunities, it’s the informal encounters that break down any barrier between artists and audience. After all, they’re all on the ship together, which means everyone shares the same dining areas, the same recreational environs and in many cases, the same decks where they find their staterooms. No one is exempt from the emergency drill and everyone is bound to the same boarding and disembarking regimen. Consequently, running into rock stars is a fairly common occurrence, and though the mystique is maintained, the feeling is something akin to a family reunion. Past and present come together as decades of happy memories exceed expectation.

Cue the Bad Company classic “Rock and Roll Fantasy.”

Justin Hayward in the Royal Theater of Mariner of The Seas during On The Blue Cruise, February 14, 2019 / Photo by Alisa B. Cherry

These days, there are theme cruises of every persuasion, be it oldies, Americana, blues, funk, disco, Celtic or a variety of styles in between. Fans flock to them to share time with artists that they’ve long admired, while immersing themselves in music that’s proven so pertinent to both age and experience. Granted, the audiences are older now; in my younger days, I never would have imagined senior citizens with expanding waist lines and thinning hair would still be so enthused about sounds and songs that once represented the rebelliousness of youth. Indeed, there was as much shuffling and stumbling as there was dancing and making merry, particularly when rougher seas would cause the ship to sway. Still, that communal feel and the populist appeal were the things that made this particular cruise a singular experience, even when one’s rock and roll icons prove to be as earthbound as the rest of us.

How so, you ask? Consider the fact that while waiting in line for group shots with some of the musicians, progress was frequently delayed when one or more of the band members begged out for a potty break. Or seen when some artists chose to sit rather than stand when performing onstage. Indeed, one performer revealed that his preferred mode of transportation when getting off an airplane these days was not a limousine, but rather a wheelchair that could take him from gate to gate.

Colin Blunstone of The Zombies in the Royal Theater of Mariner of The Seas during On The Blue Cruise, February 12, 2019 / Photo by Alisa B. Cherry

For music enthusiasts, the cruise is like a floating festival, although it has the added advantage of providing luxury accommodations, transport to desirable destinations and food. Lots of food. Fine food, comfort food, desserts and delicacies with a variety of dining options. Likewise, having people whose single mission is to provide every comfort and convenience only adds to the allure.

Still, like most festivals, there are choices to be made. Many of the events run concurrently, meaning that a certain strategy has to be followed in order to eventually see every act. Although certain concerts have assigned seating and are designated for particular passengers — those that belong to either the red or the blue group — most offer open seating, which means that unless you’ve paid extra to upgrade yourself to VIP status, you wait in line and hope to secure the best seating once you’re in the venue.

However, that’s a small inconvenience at best. On the Blue was on the money as far as providing a memorable experience and creating the kind of bucket list adventure one rarely has an opportunity to enjoy. And hey, if you’re reading this, Messers Mason or Stein, suffice it to say I hope we can continue our conversation again soon.

Todd Rundgren on the Pool Deck of Mariner of The Seas during On The Blue Cruise, February 11, 2019 / Photo by Alisa B. Cherry




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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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