Like Woodstock, but with buffets

Fans love the intimacy of rock and roll cruises, even if things sometimes turn weird

Like Woodstock, but with buffets

If history repeats itself, on the morning of Feb. 2, 2009, half a day into the third annual “Ships and Dip” music cruise, the Barenaked Ladies and several hundred of their most dedicated fans will assemble on the deck of the Norwegian Jewel for a group photo in the Caribbean sunshine. Before you ask, yes: they will all be bare naked. “My God, what an icebreaker,” says P.J. Evans, a 36-year-old Web developer from Oxford, England, who’s twice sailed with the Ladies, along with his wife and young son. And while the famously outgoing Toronto band is the only one promising full-on nudity, they’re far from alone in offering an intimate musical experience on the high seas. Sixthman, the Atlanta-based promoter that pioneered the phenomenon, has four other music cruises scheduled this winter, with headliners as diverse as classic southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd, singer-songwriters Lyle Lovett and Emmylou Harris, and pop-rock heartthrob John Mayer (on the appallingly named “Mayercraft Carrier”). As a musical venue, it doesn’t get much less rock and roll than a cruise ship. But in an era where fans expect far more access to their musical heroes, the cruises are proving a perfect fit for artists with devoted, affluent, thirtysomething or older fan bases. “It’s the ultimate place to host a festival,” says Andy Levine, Sixthman’s owner.

Those fans aren’t getting what they need from the traditional concert experience, says Levine, to which Evans can testify. “I’ve been going to gigs . . . since my early teens,” he says, “and I’d say 90 per cent of the time the experience sucks.” You find yourself either in “dirty little venues” or in cavernous, acoustically challenged arenas, he complains; VIPs and season ticket holders score all the best seats; and bands are forced to play the same assortment of classics or risk cheesing off their more casual fans. “On the cruise, the setlist gets torn up,” he enthuses, in favour of B-sides, obscure material and unpredictable covers. While each fan gets tickets to one headlining show in the ship’s main theatre, jam sessions, impromptu poolside shows and collaborations with the dozen-or-so other bands along for the ride are perhaps even more memorable. On online message boards, including one Evans runs for Ships and Dip, fans reminisce over the performances, exchange embarrassing photos and compare sunburns and hangovers. Levine says almost 60 per cent rebook for the following year.

A month before the Ladies’ inaugural cruise, lead singer Steven Page said he worried that five days at sea “with our biggest fans . . . could be a little claustrophobic.” If passenger reports from the second cruise are any indication, his guard soon came down. (He apparently felt comfortable enough to publicly canoodle with a new girlfriend, to the surprise of fans who assumed he was still married.) Clearly the price of admission—anywhere from $599 to $3,499 per person for Ships and Dip, exclusive of airfare, booze and tips—weeds out a good percentage of the rowdies.

Every boat is different, naturally. The Lynyrd Skynyrd fans “like to drink their Jack Daniel’s and pound their Budweiser and raise a little more hell,” recalls A.P. Hill, lead singer of Oakhurst, a rock/bluegrass outfit from Denver that played all five Sixthman cruises last winter. And he confirms widespread reports that younger fans on the Mayercraft Carrier would often “freak out” at the sight of Mayer, as if “the Beatles [had] walked into a room all at once.” Ladies’ drummer Tyler Stewart lightheartedly proposed six “etiquette rules” for fan interaction in a recent online Q & A, and stressed the band doesn’t consider the cruise a matter of “pay[ing] to have guaranteed personal access to us.”

But any artist unwilling to risk the odd uncomfortable conversation or unflattering photo wouldn’t be an ideal candidate for a rock cruise anyway; Levine insists they must “walk the walk” with their fans. And to Hill, it was clear on each boat that everybody was “there for the same reason: to enjoy music with like-minded people” and generally have a good time. Even Mayer, easily the biggest name in Sixthman’s roster, obliged some amateur paparazzi by donning a replica of the neon-green “mankini” from Borat and prancing around his private deck like a peacock. “Yes, folks, I witnessed John Mayer in a man thong,” wrote one blogger, whose photos quickly made the rounds of the celebrity websites. “It pretty much made my life.” The odds of, say, Lyle Lovett pulling a similar stunt are blessedly remote. But what kind of fan would you be if he did and you missed it?