The first official act of the Bruise Cruise happened when cruise director Ian Svenonius (Nation of Ulysses, The Make-Up, Chain and The Gang) took the stage in an immaculate sherbet-orange suit to open the festivities by invoking the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. “Never before had a rock band taken its fans on such a journey,” he announced dramatically. “Until now.” Then, while 3,000 miles away from his hometown of San Francisco, which was preparing for its first snowfall in 35 years, Ty Segall stepped onstage and tore into his first song. Before his set concluded, the Bruise Cruise had seen its first official marriage proposal (She said yes.) and the 400 Bruisers who had each coughed up an average month’s rent plus airfare to Miami knew that this was going to be a weekend to remember.
The idea was ingeniously simple. If 311, Train, Mötley Crüe, Barenaked Ladies and the Flaming Lips can all break into the lucrative cruise market, why not garage punks like the Black Lips, Vivian Girls and Thee Oh Sees? And so it was that those rockers along with likeminded acts like the Jacuzzi Boys, Ty Segall and Quintron and Miss Pussycat, set sail on a Carnival Cruise ship with 400 of their biggest fans, some of which traveled as far as England, France and Australia to have their seasick stomachs pounded by waves and riffs. Co-organized by Turbo Fruits frontman Jonas Stein, the Bruise Cruise sent nine bands total on a three-day tour from Miami to the Bahamas and back from Feb. 25-28. There were any number of reasons why it could have been a disaster or an international incident, but the result was a bizarre bacchanal of fuzzed-out guitars, free food and good old fashioned drunken revelry. With two days at sea and one day in the Bahamas, there was room on the schedule for more than one set by most bands, as well as a lecture by Svenonius and one of Miss Pussycat’s legendary puppet shows (over Sunday brunch in the Shangri La Lounge, it was billed as “Puppets and Pancakes”.).
The first day kicked off at sea with Segall’s gritty set, which was then followed by fellow San Franciscans Thee Oh Sees, who delivered a sweaty batch of their high-energy, groove-oriented psych rock. Former Coachwhips member John Dwyer’s latest outfit manages to bridge the gap between Can and The Monks in one swirling, experimental miasma of foot-stomping grooves, high-pitched yelling and earsplitting guitar noise. Placed front and center among Thee Oh Sees’ stage lineup, drummer Petey Dammit treated the crowd to a shambling solo and generally appeared to be trying to murder his kit with the sort of bulging-eyed, gritted-teeth determination seen only on the faces of certain Olympic athletes and combat fighter pilots. Closing things out with the ten-plus minute title track from their latest, Warm Slime, Dwyer and vocalist Brigid Dawson managed to whip the crowd into a frenzy with the chanting chorus, “all we need is the summertime.” On a 70-ton party boat making 10 knots through crystal clear Caribbean waters, it was more than just idle talk.
The ship’s Xanadu Lounge, which hosted most of the concerts, had to be periodically cleared out to make way for cruise-ship comics and karaoke shows, and when the Bruisers poured out into the rest of the ship, the lion’s share of them headed straight up to the boat’s topside Lido Deck where the pool and hot tubs were located. It was here that the Bruisers stripped down and offered up the highest ratio of tattoos per square foot that the Carnival Imagination crew has surely ever seen. This was also one of the only spots on the ship where you could find Bruisers actually mingling with other 1500 or so civilians on board, all to the sounds of reggae muzak and synth-steel drums. Although there was initially some concern about how the crew of rowdy rockers might interact with the more family-oriented passengers onboard, an uneasy truce was generally maintained between the punks and other passengers, who for the most part were occupied enough with their own novelty cocktails and free buffets to bat much of an eye at the inked-up chainsmokers in their midst. The Lido Deck was also where you saw the occasional brave Bruiser step up onstage to enter any one of the of myriad poolside games run by the cruise director, including Segall, who gamely entered the Hairy Chest Contest. He lost.
Aside from the bands, other notables on the passenger manifest included former MTV News anchor John Norris, who was covering the event for Noisevox, and superstar WFMU DJs Tom Scharpling and Terre T, who were apparently enjoying some much-needed relaxation before kicking off their legendary station’s annual two-week fundraising marathon.
In the evening of Day Two, the scene made landfall at Senor Frogs, a Nassau tourist trap with a $35 cover every other day of the year, and whose usual patrons had no idea what they were in for. Featuring a ceiling covered in punny one-liners and a MC who jumped up onstage in between acts to spray vodka into patrons’ mouths out of a red squeeze bottle, it was probably the weekend’s only legitimate instance of culture clash. Vacationing dudes in Ed Hardy tees and their high-heeled ladyfriends who had come to Senor Frogs to enjoy some good-natured binge drinking and grind to techno music were instead overrun by several hundred pigeon-chested hipsters in cutoff jean shorts, neon sunglasses and kooky ironic mustaches. Things came to a head when the Black Lips, who were onstage and ready to play, ended up shutting down the Senor Frogs MC after he refused to relinquish the mic and curtail his vodka-spraying antics so they could begin their set. If he thought he still needed to get the crowd pumped up, he had no idea who he was dealing with.
Having just finished recording a new album with Mark Ronson, headlining a tropical cruise vacation seemed a fitting next logical step for the Black Lips. Although their famously shocking—and frankly, overhyped—stage antics were nowhere in sight at Senor Frogs, the Atlanta foursome was more than eager to play the part of decadent, room-trashing rock stars when offstage. The group was hard to miss whenever they were around, with members variously stumbling through the halls in their underwear, jumping onto tables, stomping glassware in the dining room and celebrating the end of the cruise by flinging a bass guitar off the back of the ship into the ocean. They spent a significant portion of the weekend getting interviewed and photographed, and were all too happy to spit beer and act out for any lens that was pointed in their direction.
But onstage at Senor Frogs, it was all business as they ripped through a generous set that included new material (including a jangly future classic called “New Direction”) and road-tested live classics like “MIA” and “O Katrina”. Although some non-Bruising vacationers in the back of the bar may have been scratching their heads or covering their ears, in the front of the house it was all moshing, fist-pumping, crowd surfing chaos. By the time they ripped into their set-closing anthem “Bad Kids,” the Black Lips had wrung every last drop of energy from the eager crowd.
Right before the Black Lips, the Vivian Girls provided one of the weekend’s musical high points by bookending their set with a wry, fuzzed out, Vivianized version of “My Heart Will Go On” from the movie about that other ship full of doomed maniacs. The girls were relaxed and all-smiles onstage, cracking jokes and obviously enjoying their weekend in paradise. Bassist Katy Goodman complained about finding a shredded Snickers wrapper in her margarita, but even that didn’t seem to spoil her fun. Critics who complained about their amateurish playing and one-note solos back in 2008 would have been surprised to hear the Vivians playing new songs that actually featured a few extended breaks by guitarist Cassie Ramone. After a quick reprise of the Titanic theme, they left the crowd with ear-to-ear smiles that mirrored their own.
The third and final day of the cruise kicked off with Miss Pussycat’s brunch-time puppet show, a surreal David-Lynch-meets-Sesame-Street affair called “The Legend of the Sea Monster,” and ended seven hours later with an encore performance by her and her partner Mr. Quintron. After their late-night performance on Day One concluded with a handful of audience members onstage shaking maracas, Quintron deepthroating a mic and playing spacey solos on his homemade drum machine The Drum Buddy, expectations were understandably high. With Miss Pussycat resplendent in a green leopard print dress that looked like a mob wife’s nightmare and Quintron showing off an impressive neckful of gold chains, the New Orleans duo did not disappoint. Serving alongside Svenonius as the cruise’s de facto elder statespeople, they carried the crowd from peak-to-peak with gut-churning blasts of low-end organ and psychotic grooves that sounded like they were imported direct from an after-hours club run by the Cryptkeeper.
After a baker’s dozen concerts by nine bands over three days on land and at sea, a sunburned crew of journalists, photographers, rock fans and band members could only cheer and catch their breath as Quintron left the stage in a wash of white noise and sweat. Dressed in sailors hats and vintage bathing suits, the Bruisers then shuffled off to their last dinner at sea. We’d thrown guitars into oceans, drank imported beer in piano bars and danced in conga lines with retirees. There had been no fires, no fatalities and nobody had capsized anything. By Monday morning, we’d be back on shore and in the real world of landlocked worries and cares. But on that last night there was already talk of a second-annual Bruise Cruise next year—and whispered rumors that next time, the entire boat would be ours.