Reflections on The Rock Boat

Music Reviews
Reflections on The Rock Boat

Day 1

It was an hour before scheduled boarding began, but already a line had formed on Docks 9 and 10 at the Port of Miami. Until I saw the ship, I had a hard time believing The Rock Boat actually existed. It seemed too good to be true—30 artists brought together with 2,000 fans for over 60 concerts and four days at sea on the Carnival cruise ship Imagination. As if that weren’t enough, there’d be a Mexican excursion halfway into the trip. But staring up at the towering boat, ticket in hand, I started believing.

I hopped in line with my high school buddy, Kristen, who flew from Wisconsin to accompany me on the trip. We were herded through line after line, as if in some over-crowded theme park. So to make the best of the situation, we conversed with the other Rock Boaters. Each had a favorite artist that took top priority for the festivities. There were the die-hard Sister Hazel fans (yes, the “Hazelnuts”) and Louisiana band Cowboy Mouth attracted what seemed like a horde of perennial Mardi Gras visitors. The dark horse of The Rock Boat was Gaelic Storm. Though few knew much about the band, it was already generating a huge buzz in the boarding line.

With a list of performers as crowded as the boat itself, it wasn’t long before we had our first sighting—New York-based rocker Gavin DeGraw. Unlike DeGraw fans I’ve encountered at previous shows—mostly screaming, hormonal teenage girls—no one in line attempted to maul him or even request an autograph.

When Kristen, myself and our new Rock Boat friends finally made it onto the ship it was just in time for the emergency drill. Hundreds filed into one of the ship’s lounge areas wearing their emergency vests. While we all sat through the drill looking exceedingly unfashionable (except, of course, for the super-cool cowboy hats Kristen and I were sporting), I couldn’t help but think this was an appropriate start to the weekend. In that one moment, everyone was equal—artists, management, fans and staff. Any egos were quickly overwhelmed by those boxy, orange vests. We all looked equally ridiculous as we set off on this surreal encounter.

Kristen and I were assigned to the 5:45 dinner, which meant eating before we were actually hungry enough to shovel down a four-course meal. But this seating time dictated which of the two evening shows we’d attend each night, so we headed to the dining room regardless. There we met four young professionals from Cleveland, who’d befriended each other during their college years. As was the case for many passengers, The Rock Boat was a chance to meet with old friends and escape the working world. Over dinner our new acquaintances were quick to educate us about The Clarks—popular Pittsburgh rockers who had a room across the hall from the Clevelanders.

I explored the ship after dinner, trying to figure out its labyrinth of staircases and hallways. In one of the side bathrooms I caught the end of a conversation between two girls in the stalls. “We look hot and he’ll definitely want to hang out with us,” one of the girls declared. “Besides, it’s not like he can go anywhere. We’re stuck on the boat, so he’ll have to talk to us eventually.” A bit perplexed and concerned by this scheming, I made a mental note to avoid all stalker-aggressive females on the boat, especially at Gavin DeGraw shows.

I met Kristen and our dinner-table buddies in the Dynasty Lounge, where longtime Rock Boat veterans, Cowboy Mouth, kicked off the evening. The performance confirmed all I’d heard about the band. “It’s nuts,” a friend warned me before I left for Miami. “People will throw things… weird things.” Even with the advance warning I didn’t expect to see fans hurling plastic red spoons at the band during “Everybody Loves Jill” when the utensil was mentioned in the song. And it wasn’t just a few red spoons—the stage was covered with them. “Is that a good thing?” I asked the woman next to me. She just laughed. Next, Tootsie Rolls rained down on the band as it broke into “Hurricane Party,” which spins yarns of eating the tiny chocolate candies in a gutter. It all made perfect sense to longtime fans, but for first-timers like me it was slightly cultish. I reasoned that I just missed the memo.

Drummer and lead singer Fred LeBlanc set the tone for the evening and our entire journey by announcing from behind his drum kit: “Ladies and gentlemen, life is short. If you want something, you have to go out and get it.” Without warning, he leaped off the stage and bolted up the stairs into the lounge’s upper level. “Stand up! Get off your asses!” he screamed.

The performance intensified as the crowd turned the lounge into a musical Fat Tuesday, complete with beer, beads and masks, though thankfully, everyone kept their clothing in place. Strangers were kissing strangers, though, and LeBlanc instructed the crowd members to turn to the person on their left and give them a hug and kiss. A fan of personal space, I pretended to not hear this command, but nevertheless witnessed my friend Kristen being grabbed and lip-locked by a man twice her age. As if that weren’t enough of a finale, the show ended with the crowd chanting, “I kick ass!” as the band ripped through “Jenny Said.”

The weekend of rock had begun.

(Pictured at top: Friday night headliners, Tonic)

With bits of Tootsie Roll stuck to the cuffs of my pants, I wandered onto the Lido Deck, where David Ryan Harris was performing on the open-air stage. Harris’s blues-infused acoustic set was a sharp contrast to the Cowboy Mouth show but attracted a strong crowd of fans and curious ears.

Marc Broussard, one of the artists I was most interested to catch, followed Harris. But instead of his usual backing band, he took the stage with his father Ted, a Louisiana Music Hall of Fame guitarist. And with Broussard’s mother in the audience, it was quite a family affair. The Broussards performed material from Marc’s debut, Carencro, in addition to some James Taylor and Kenny Loggins tunes. With the more stripped-down approach, Marc’s talents were amplified in comparison to his polished album—especially his husky voice, more mature than you’d expect from a 22-year-old.

After Broussard’s performance I stumbled into an impromptu show on the tiny stage at The Dream Bar, located in the middle of the Express Deck’s corridor. Leading the show was Atlanta songwriter Francisco Vidal, described by many as “the hardest working man on the boat” for the staggering amount of performance time he logged during the cruise. The crowd spilled into the hallways as it sang along to jukebox favorites. Vidal was joined by up-and-comer Sam Thacker for three rounds of “Jack and Diane,” the crowd gleefully belting out the chorus each time around.

I saw a handful of other performances throughout the evening, most of which were unscheduled, but I called it quits at 2:30 a.m. (early and entirely too sober by the standards of other Rock Boaters) knowing there was much more to come.

Day 2

One thing that distinguishes The Rock Boat from other festivals is the interaction between artists and fans, friends and families. There are no yellow-shirted security guards standing in the way at this festival. We can thank Sister Hazel for that. In 2001 the band and its management company, Sixthman, developed The Rock Boat with the goal of creating a fan experience in a festival atmosphere. Unlike other floating festivals, the artists stay on the ship for the entire journey.

It was also unique to see artists performing with their friends on The Rock Boat, since touring schedules often put artists in different parts of the country at any given time. During his Friday afternoon show, Nashville songwriter Dave Barnes called up friend and frequent touring partner Matt Wertz to perform some of his blue-eyed soul. The two played through Barnes’ single, “Until You,” which was recently featured on The WB. It was an actor though, not Barnes, who performed it on the show What I Like About You . Barnes was just as much a storyteller as a singer as he recalled the numerous phone calls he received from WB-watching friends saying, “Hey Barnes, some dude stole your song!”

Following this intimate performance in the Xanadu Lounge, Kristen and I headed to The Lido Deck pool to tan with other sun-hungry sojourners. After some quality exposure, we grabbed lunch. John Thomas Griffith of Cowboy Mouth unexpectedly joined us, which led to some stories about past Rock Boats and the Atlanta music scene. He recalled Cowboy Mouth’s first experience on The Rock Boat in 2002—the first year the cruise was entirely reserved for the festival—and how it had grown over the years.

Tonic headlined on this night, adding a jolt of rock to an otherwise mellow Friday lineup. If you didn’t know better, it’d be easy to assume this was an entirely different crowd than at Cowboy Mouth’s show, but as noted by the stalker girls in the bathroom, there is no way off The Rock Boat. Same folks, different mood, all because of the music. Friday evening also brought some difficult decision making, with many overlapping performances scheduled. After the Tonic show I ran back and forth between the Ingram Hill set on the Lido Deck and Gaelic Storm’s show in the Xanadu Lounge. It only took a few seconds of listening to Gaelic Storm’s spirited tunes before my feet started tapping along. I was shocked to learn that lead singer, Patrick Murphy, is the only member of Gaelic Storm who is actually from the Emerald Isle.

The band captured the audience with its eclectic blend of fiddle, guitar, bongos and didgeridoo. To top things off, Murphy bought out the ship’s entire supply of Guinness for the audience, using his $1,000 casino earnings. I took my can happily to the stateroom and put it on ice for later, but not without first spotting a life-size Sponge Bob running around the Express Deck with a bottle of wine.

I regrouped with Kristen on the Lido Deck for Wertz’s show. Even people who’d never heard him could sing along when he mixed Michael Jackson hits with his acoustic grooves. Barnes joined Wertz onstage for a performance of “Sweetness In Starlight,” set appropriately underneath the brilliant night sky. It was enough to make the women in the crowd swoon. I kept an eye out for the mysterious schemers from the bathroom, just in case they were planning an attack.

After Wertz’s show, Kristen and I made our way to the Dynasty Lounge to secure a good seat for the late-night Gavin DeGraw set. Tonic was still playing well into the night and we arrived just in time for a crowd-pleasing rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “You Can Go Your Own Way.” Even though half the audience (myself included) wasn’t around for the Fleetwood Mac’s heyday, fans of all ages joined together, belting out the lyrics over Tonic’s squealing guitars.

After the curtain fell, I moved to the front row and staked out a spot against the stage for DeGraw’s anticipated performance. With his family and friends in the crowd and brother Joey joining the band, DeGraw launched into two hours of nonstop music, announcing “The boat is a-rockin’.”

In addition to his own material, DeGraw delivered tasteful renditions of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” and “Let’s Get It On,” songs that were also covered during the weekend by other artists. But DeGraw tweaked these classics making them his own with his strong, soulful voice. During “Let’s Get It On,” Degraw stood on his swiveling piano stool, put the mic down, and crooned over the crowd until the boat started swaying so much that I lost my balance.

When he was told to end his set and clear the stage at 3:00 a.m., DeGraw announced he and his band would move the show to the Xanadu Lounge for late-night jams. I’d already outlasted all my friends, so I decided to finally call it a night. With a handful of songs stuck in my head, I wandered back to my cabin.

Day 3

When I awoke Saturday, the boat had stopped moving. We were at port in Cozumel, Mexico. Kristen and I took a cab to the shopping district and spotted a swell of Rock Boaters heading into Carlos ’n’ Charlie’s. We opted instead for some time in the sun at San Francisco Beach then took a taxi back to port. When the cab driver realized we were Americans, he popped in what must have been his “American Music EP,” and pumped up the volume to blast some Usher, Ludacris and some otherwise indistinguishable flavor-of-the-month rappers.

Following an unavoidable trek through the half mile of Duty Free stores, we boarded the ship again. It was time for the Battle on the Boat, which brought five unsigned artists together from across the country to showcase their talents. There could not have been five more disparate artists to choose from, each bringing a unique sound. U-Phonik, Ben’s Bones, Zac Brown and Thacker impressed the judges, but not as much as Free Sol’s energetic blend of rap and hip-hop. I described it as “skip-hop.” Kristen preferred “skrap.”

Dexter Freebish—part of The Rock Boat scene since its inception—rocked the Dynasty Lounge in the evening, followed by The Clarks. After catching half of The Clarks’ fast-paced set, Kristen and I ran out to catch the Virginia Coalition show.

A few of my first concert memories are of the Virginia Coalition’s performances at the 9:30 Club with O.A.R, the best band to ever emerge from my Maryland high school. I was excited to find VACO on The Rock Boat roster, but hadn’t seen its members all weekend. As it turned out, the band boarded in Cozumel. But it made its presence known immediately with an energized show that intensified when LeBlanc joined in to play percussion for a few songs. VACO had the crowd up and moving to its music like no other band, especially with “Bumpin’ Fresh,” an ode to public-school Pizza Day, bobos and surviving the social hell of junior high.

By the time we wound up at the Dynasty Lounge that evening, the Pat McGee Band was already well into its Saturday evening set—at least I thought so. After two hours of performing its own songs, the band launched into a jam session involving Sister Hazel, Chuck Carrier, Michael Tolcher and others. I soon lost track of who was who. A line of artists formed at the edge of the stage, all of whom were eager to join in for a cover song or two. I asked one artist sitting in a booth near us why he wasn’t getting in on the action. The musician looked at the stage for a moment and said, “Maybe I will.” Without any hesitation, he put his beer down, wandered to the stage and grabbed an instrument.

At 5:30 a.m. Kristen and our Cleveland friends decided to take a stroll through the casino, where some of the artists were still gambling. As I passed the roulette table I remembered the Guinness from Murphy’s casino winnings—in all likelihood, the last Guinness on the boat. It was still on ice in my stateroom, and something told me I should hold on to it.

Day 4

Sunday rolled around all too early, until I heard Pat McGee Band and company played until 9:00 a.m. I’m sure all who braved the sunrise after all-night partying were more exhausted than I was. But time is of no matter on The Rock Boat. The only schedule to abide by is the concert timetable.

After happily wasting away the day poolside and at the last round of artist meet-and-greet, Kristen and I popped our heads into Xanadu where Gavin DeGraw was about to play an hour-long set. There were more people there than the lounge could accommodate, so I forced my way into a spot on the floor behind a couch. I couldn’t see much of anything, so—for the first time on the trip—I just listened to the music.

Kristen and I parted ways for dinner. That’s the added bonus of being on a cruise ship—there’s plenty of food to choose from. I enjoyed my last dinner with the folks from Cleveland, talking about music and the world that waited off the boat. The real world.

We waited for the Sister Hazel show in one of our staterooms as parties broke out on the hall. By evening’s end, many Rock Boaters had no liquor left to declare at customs.

In the mix of people that passed our stateroom were Murphy and Steve Twigger of Gaelic Storm. I figured it was as good a time as any to grab that Guinness, so I went back for it and found Murphy on the Express Deck. He looked thirsty, so I handed him the Guinness. And he took it gladly, sick of the “water” that was left at the bars. I considered it a “thank you” for Gaelic Storm’s rousing performance. By Sunday, the Rock Boaters drank the boat completely out of sponsor beer, Icehouse—30,000 Icehouses to be exact. The bars were out of most every beer, actually.

Sister Hazel was the last big show of the weekend, and the Hazelnuts were out in full force. The band that brought us all together on the boat delivered a strong set of their new work, including “Green (Welcome to My World),” written around the birth of a new child, and “Champagne High.” As the audience launched into the chorus of Sister Hazel’s hit, “All for You,” it was refreshing to look around and see so many people smiling and singing along.

The night was still young, despite Sister Hazel’s finale. My new friends and I found our way into the Icehouse Lounge where unsigned acts were eager to showcase their talents. Battle on the Boat contestant, Ben’s Bones, was jamming for a large crowd in a very small space. A bartender dressed in full pirate regalia helped me onto the bar, where I spent the evening sitting above the crowd watching one artist after another play the makeshift stage.

Late into the evening (or early into the morning) I checked out the Dream Bar, where the Francisco Vidal Band had grown significantly since its first show. With the likes of Georgia-based artists Shawn Mullins, Scott Munns, Tolcher, Thacker and Brown, Vidal took over the stage for an impromptu show and vowed to play until it was time to disembark. The careless atmosphere, raw music, random people and beer-drenched floor brought back nostalgic memories of college parties past.

With only an hour until we were scheduled to go through customs, Kristen and I started packing and rolled our suitcases to the Dynasty Lounge. With our cowboy hats on and passports in hand, we took a last look around and departed the Imagination.

On the cab ride from the port, I pulled my sunglasses over my tired eyes. The sleep deprivation was beginning to take its toll, as did depressing thoughts about the transition to reality. “How was it?” the cab driver asked. I thought of how I might explain the experience, but decided he wouldn’t properly receive the transmission.

Sixthman set out to create “a fan experience,” but this doesn’t quite describe it. The weekend offered plenty of simple, assuring and inspiring lyrics; Sister Hazel reminded us that “We are the possibilities as endless as our imagination.” After experiencing their idea-turned-reality, I believe it. The Rock Boat renewed my faith in the state of mainstream music (at least until Britney secured another Billboard chart-topper). It’s the type of experience that rarely comes around when you’re all grown up. But when it does, you’ll feel like a rock ’n’ roll loving kid all over again—and you wonder why you ever let it go.

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