Cloud 9 press

AHEAD | Music Cruises; Rocking the Waters

NEW YORK TIMES - August 18, 2006

WHY get your music fix at a no-frills rock festival, with bands bellowing lyrics across muddy fields of revelers, when you can listen in comfort and get close to your idols on a cruise ship?

Dozens of music cruises year-round now connect bands with their fans on multiday sailings. Often an entire ship is themed around a music genre or headlined by one artist for a weekend or longer. A wide range of cruise ships sail in warm, tropical waters, and the audience is an elevator away from hot showers and unlimited buffets.

“Everybody has a backstage pass,” said Mark Brown, organizer of the annual Jam Cruise.

The musicians also hold workshops, eat in dining rooms with thousands of their devotees, and even participate in traditional cruise activities with the passengers. “These are people that wouldn’t normally play bingo,” Mr. Brown said of the typical passengers. “But their favorite artist is calling it out.”

The Jam Cruise sails out of Fort Lauderdale in January on a five-day “jam band” festival aboard the MSC Opera, a 2,100-passenger cruise ship. The Derek Trucks Band and Bassnectar will be among the bands performing open-air shows on a stage built over the pools and in the ship’s theaters. They also participate in jam sessions with other artists. Music cruises typically cost as much as regular sailings, which include all meals but not air fare or beverages.

Emerson Hart, the lead singer of Tonic, has performed twice on the Rock Boat, an annual music cruise of alternative rock musicians that sells out far ahead of the sailing date. (Tickets for January 2008 go on sale soon on; the 2007 cruise sold out Feb. 25.) Mr. Hart said he had doubts at first about spending three days in close company with fans, but once on a ship, quickly came to enjoy it. “In our jobs we usually have maybe a half-hour to talk to fans,” Mr. Hart said. “It’s great to have conversations with people that love your music. You sit down for dinner and everybody’s there and you share experiences. It’s very unique.”

The Rock Boat organizer, Andy Levine of Sixthman Entertainment in Atlanta, said several of his cruises for early 2007 still have tickets available.

A cruise called Gimme Three Days, featuring Lynyrd Skynyrd, is scheduled to go to the Bahamas from Miami on Jan. 5 on the 2,052-passenger Carnival Fascination. A more intimate and upscale four-day voyage with the acoustic guitarist Earl Klugh on SeaDream Yacht Club’s 200-passenger SeaDream I leaves from San Juan, P.R., on April 12.

Coming sooner, and for music fans who prefer calmer waters, the Delta Queen Steamboat Company is running seven-night riverboat cruises with a country music theme in August and September from Nashville to Chattanooga, Tenn., and from Chattanooga to Memphis. The musicians will include Little Jimmy Dickens and Whisperin’ Bill Anderson. Delta Queen also runs Bluegrass and Dixieland music cruises.

Some of the first musicians to take their sounds out onto the water were jazz artists. The Jazz Cruise, with David Benoit, Wayman Tisdale and more than 70 other musicians, is scheduled to leave San Diego this October on the Holland America Line’s 1,848-passenger Oosterdam for a cruise that includes stops at ports in Yucatán.

Michael Lazaroff, the president of Jazz Cruises, said the entire ship would be reprogrammed for the cruise. Drinks will have jazz-themed names, artists will hold workshops like Sax Academy, and gifts like compact discs replace the traditional chocolates on guests’ pillows. This cruise is not for children, Mr. Lazaroff said, and that means more fun for the adults.

“Guests say it’s like going to camp,” he said. “They see their friends, they dance in their pajamas. It’s adult fun.”

For the artists on music cruises, it’s not such a bad deal either.

“I don’t consider performing work,” Mr. Hart said. “And spending a few days on a boat eating and drinking, that’s a vacation in my opinion.”