Remember the old show tune from Guys and Dolls that goes, "Sit down, you're rockin' the boat"? These days, the marching orders (or sailing orders) are exactly the opposite. Rockers and pop stars are taking to the sea in droves, on ocean liners substantial enough that swaying and foot-stomping don't pose a problem. And it's not just the tribute acts and has-beens that landlubbers might associate with the cruise business, either. Nowadays, you're as likely to see acts from John Mayer to New Kids On The Block commandeering their own boats to become pirates of the Caribbean for a few days at a time.
The next big name taking thousands of fans out on the water: Kid Rock, whose personalized Carnival cruise leaves the port of Tampa April 29 and returns from the Grand Cayman four days later. And if anyone forgets their Dramamine and happens to toss their dinner...well, it won't be the first time this ever happened at a Kid Rock show.
The bar tabs probably won't reach quite such a mast-high median when the Backstreet Boys set sail on a Carnival Cruise Lines "fan appreciation cruise" December 9-13, with tickets--make that cabins--going on sale to their fan club next week and the general public on March 22. Departing from Miami, the Boys will be back in the towns of Key West and Cozumel before returning. Prices range from $799-1899--so who needs to sell CDs or digital downloads, when you can sell units "based on double occupancy"? Let's just hope there are no requests for their 2001 hit "Drowning."
If this trend had a mascot at ship's mast, it would surely be John Mayer. He legitimized the idea of still-viable superstars offering their own cruises when he took thousands of fans out to sea in early 2008 and again at the beginning of 2009. He was apparently too busy giving incendiary interviews to keep up the pattern in early 2010, but the year is far from over yet. And if he continues to feel the heat from those controversial quotes, spending a few days enjoying a cool sea breeze surrounded by nothing but high-rolling sycophants may seem like an even more appealing idea.
What do fans expect out of these cruises? Expectations can differ. Some Mayer fans complained that they expected their hero to come out and socialize, but anyone expecting the guitarist to sneak out in the middle of the night, sweep them up in his arms, and proclaim, "I'm the king of the world!" went home sorely disappointed. (Well, as far as we know.) By the same token, the lack of personal interaction with Mayer might have been counted a blessing after, famously, he put on a Borat-style "man-kini" and ran around the upper deck of his ship in 2008. What onlooker wouldn't have wished Mayer had stayed locked away in the brig during those traumatizing moments?
When it comes to actual performance, Mayer's pattern is to go an extra mile beyond some other cruise headliners--offering an introductory acoustic set, a mid-cruise Q&A, cameos during other musicians' performances, and then two separate nighttime headlining sets (with attendees ticketed for either one or the other, since a ship's ballroom won't accommodate everyone on board at once). If what you're after with an artist is full immersion, this may be the way to go...man-kini or no.
The gamut of acts headlining their own cruise is as vast as the Pacific and Atlantic put together. At one extreme, you've got Air Supply teaming with Flying Dutchmen Travel to take a boatload of fans out this October, throwing special guests Christopher Cross and John Waite into the extremely soft-rock mix and offering vintage easy-listening buffs the chance to experience "Lost in Love" while lost at sea. At the other end of the scale, alt-rock cult act the Genitorturers will be offering fans "five nights of fun and debauchery in the Caribbean" on a Carnival Cruise Lines ship headed to Jamaica in May. (So far, no one has thought to offer these two cruises together as a package deal.)
Coming up April 15-19: VH1's "Best Cruise Ever," which belies its name by fronting Three Doors Down as hosts and offering, among its dozen-plus other acts, the likes of Lifehouse, Shinedown, and Finger Eleven. This begs the question: What, exactly, would VH1's definition of the "Most Mediocre Cruise Ever" be?
If you want to hear someone sing the oldie that goes "Oo-wee, oo-wee, baby... et me take you on a sea cruise," your best bet is with the "Malt Shop Memories" cruise in May. That one features Frankie Avalon, Lesley Gore, Little Anthony & the Imperials, and numerous other late '50s/early '60s acts. Sock-hop dress is encouraged, because there's nothing more winsome than a sixtysomething in bobby socks wearing opaque sunblock.
But wait, there's more! The Grammy Award-winners for Best New Artist, the Zac Brown Band, will be headlining a Southern-themed cruise in September. A "floating electronic music festival" hosted by mixmaster Paul Oakenfeld discos off to sea later that month. Sister Hazel hosts a rock boat going out next January. Next February will surely bring the return of the popular annual Cayamo cruise, the 2009 edition of which just returned to port two weeks ago with a host of Americana-leaning singer-songwriter types that included Emmylou Harris, John Hiatt, Lyle Lovett, Buddy Miller, and Steve Earle. (Based on that high-credibility bill, it's easy to imagine an entire ship filled with rock critics, or rock-critic types...the horror, the horror.)
If you lack faith that you'll find your sea legs, but still want to encounter your musical heroes in a setting that feels like a Hitchcock movie, maybe you need to forget Lifeboat and instead think Strangers on a Train.
Yes, there are rock 'n' roll railroad excursions now, too. The acts tend not to be as commercial, partly because you can't put a thousand people or more in a train car. But more and more niche acts are enjoying working on the railroad.
Stan Ridgway and Jill Sobule went out on a train excursion last year. In 2010, there'll be a "Kings of California Train" with Tom Russell and Dave Alvin from L.A. to Portland in April, followed by a Flatlanders tour train taking Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore across New Mexico and Colorado in September. The critically acclaimed duo Over the Rhine head out with their fans from L.A. to the Grand Canyon in November.
Dramamine is one thing, but there's no pill to protect from artistic claustrophobia, of course. As Mayer told the crowd on one of his cruises, "You know at one point on this boat, you all went, 'Is this going to last forever?'" That's unlikely; fickle-minded fans are unlikely to shell out hundreds or thousands of dollars for these events. But for any reluctant stowaways who get dragged along, it could be a very short nautical mile from "Oo-wee, oo-wee, baby" to Voyage of the Damned.