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Yes, Steve Hackett, Marillion Bring Progressive Rock to the High Seas With ‘Cruise to the Edge’

“All those numbers in 7/8 — can you dance to that?” asked prog-rock guitar master Steve Hackett, chuckling onstage at the MSC Divina’s regal Pantheon Theater, just after his ace band wrapped the jazz-fusion climax of Genesis’ 1976 epic ‘Dance on a Volcano.’

It’s an obviously rhetorical question, of course: Everybody onboard this year’s floating Cruise to the Edge prog fest had already swapped out their dancing shoes for wizardly capes — soaking in five indulgent nights of Moog solos, time-signature shifts, and supergroup jam sessions. All told, it was an incredibly strange experience, but also simply incredible: There were nearly 30 bands, both ancient and infantile, spanning nearly the entire planet, mingling their heady riffs in the Cozumel breeze. Call it ‘The Moonlit Knight’ meets ‘The Love Boat.’

The 2014 edition, held April 7-12 and once again headlined by Yes, was a major upgrade from the previous year: Not only was the cruise’s line-up nearly triple in terms of pure size, the sheer eclecticism — from Italian proggers PFM to metal-leaning mainstays Queensryche to up-and-coming math-rockers Scale the Summit — made the 2013 version look like a rough warm-up. And the non-musical display also amped up the bang-for-buck through various Q&As, storyteller sessions, meet-and-greets, art showcases (from Yes album cover artist Roger Dean and Renaissance vocalist Annie Haslam), and master class events (including UK violinist-keyboardist Eddie Jobson).

The smallest details added to the nerdy giddiness: eating roast duck at a classy sit-down restaurant to a soundtrack of Rush, watching middle-aged men out-prog each other by playing Pink Floyd on the atrium piano, sharing hot tub prog-war stories with a surprisingly insightful dude who kinda looks like Tommy Lee. (One night, during “prog karaoke,” a British gentleman tackled Genesis’ ‘Firth of Fifth.’ Keep in mind, this is a nine-minute song, so he probably could have finished his tax return during the keyboard section.)

Overall, the sprawl was almost too much to take in: The sheer amount of activity (not including the requisite gambling, booze, free food, pools, and on-shore excursions) led to inevitable concert overlaps, with most attendees constantly circling and re-circling their daily schedules, hustling from show to show. But even the occasional frustrations (“OK, so Tangerine Dream ends at 8:45, but the PFM Storyteller starts at 8:30!”) were trumped by the sprawling, visceral rush: In a typical night, fans bounced from lavish theater to cozy, art-deco lounge to poolside stage, watching five or six killer shows (and probably a few bits and pieces of others) per day. Most bands played multiple times to avoid conflict; meanwhile, fans were given color-coded laminates (either pink or blue) for fixed-seat shows played by the four headliners: Yes, Hackett, UK, Marillion.

Here are some selected highlights, presented in chronological order …

Monday, April 7th

After catching a brief tease of Saga’s poolside “Sail Away” show, the Blue Group hustled to the Pantheon for the true kickoff with Hackett. Utilizing the ace band from his Genesis Revisited tour, the guitarist rummaged through his old band’s ’70s vaults for an intense, no-frills, hour-and-15-minute set, including highlights like ‘Firth of Fifth’ (featuring an incredible soprano sax from Rob Townsend) and the ‘Foxtrot’ epic ‘Supper’s Ready’ (with frontman Nad Sylvan echoing Peter Gabriel’s soulful command). (Word has it that during Hackett’s second show, the guitarist was joined onstage by UK bassist John Wetton and Yes bassist Chris Squire for a jam on ‘All Along the Watchtower.’)

Tuesday, April 8th

The cruise’s stormiest day (which led to a cancelled Honduras outing) was salvaged by a busy spread of prog excellence. As strong waves rocked the Divina to and fro, symphonic-rock masters Renaissance stood their ground with a strong afternoon set. Dedicating their show to the late Michael Dunford (the band’s chief songwriter, who passed away in 2012), Haslam maneuvered her operatic voice over keyboard-heavy classics like ‘Mother Russia’ and more recent standouts like the Genesis-styled ‘Symphony of Light.’ They were good sports, too: Haslam introduced ‘Ocean Gypsy’ with a winking joke (“never imagined in a million years we’d be playing this on a cruise ship”) and frequently apologized for nearly falling on her face, as the waves kept jostling the singer around the stage.

Wednesday, April 9th

With the mid-afternoon sun at full-roast, fans lathered their bodies in sunscreen, grabbed their poolside chairs, and soaked in the soothing jazz-fusion strains of Canterbury legends Soft Machine. And the true action on Wednesday kept coming outdoors, including a note-perfect set from Gentle Giant revivalists Three Friends. Led by two original members (guitarist Gary Green and drummer Malcolm Mortimore), the quintet stayed as faithful as possible to the original band’s complex and utterly singular work. Though they were understandably missing a bit of vocal counterpoint, singer Mick Wilson proved versatile. Meanwhile, multi-instrumentalist Charlotte Glasson added dextrous violin work. “We’re literally here all week,” Wilson joked, leading the band through gems like the funky ‘Just the Same’ and the triumphant ‘Advent of Panurge.’ Quite possibly the finest moment of the entire cruise.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Cruise to the Edge at all without Yes. Led by new vocal recruit Jon Davison, the quintet played through the entirety of 1971′s ‘The Yes Album’ and 1972′s ‘Close to the Edge’ (a shortened version of their recent three-album tour), along with a full-throttle take on the new wave-leaning ‘Drama’ album highlight ‘Tempus Fugit’ and an opening journey through ‘America.’ (Naturally, they also played ‘Roundabout’ as a closer — it really wouldn’t be a Yes concert without it, right?) A few minor miscues (including some rhythmic hiccups during ‘Siberian Khatru’) aside, the band still brought their usual symphonic majesty: The three-part harmonies during the ‘I Get Up, I Get Down’ section were spine-tingling.

Thursday, April 10th

Rivaling Three Friends for the fest’s finest performance was PFM, who delivered equal parts subtlety and showmanship in their windy poolside set. (“It’s the wind of god,” noted guitarist Franco Mussida.) Featuring three members from their classic 1970s era (Mussida, drummer-frontman Franz Di Cioccio, bassist Patrick Djivas), the band focused, fittingly, on their beloved early work — from the fusion-based ‘Chocolate Kings’ album highlight ‘Out on the Roundabout’ to a slow-closing sunset sing-along of the beloved ‘Celebration.’

Strawbs, one of the most under-appreciated bands in prog history, found themselves in front of a packed Black and White Lounge for their Thursday night show. Led by the charmingly unhinged voice of frontman Dave Cousins, the quintet playing highlights from their massive discography — including the metallic, riff-heavy ‘Down By the Sea’ and brooding deep cut ‘Burning For Me.’

Meanwhile, the evening’s most star-studded collaboration came after midnight: Bass legend Tony Levin and his Stickmen (touch-guitarist Markus Reuter and drummer Pat Mastelotto) brought their swampy, math-funk mojo to the pool stage, with two cuts (a blistering opener of King Crimson‘s ‘Red’ and a noisy improv piece they dubbed ‘The Cruise Jam’) featuring the eerie electric violin of guest Eddie Jobson. Elsewhere, the band ripped through a debut take on Mike Oldfield‘s ‘Mirage’ and original tunes like the lovably goofy ‘Supercollider,’ and they closed with a hair-raising rip through Crimson’s ‘Larks Tongues in Aspic, Part Two.’ The wind, again, was borderline violent (“When you’re bald, the wind just doesn’t matter,” cracked Levin), a fitting landscape for the trio’s stormy vibes. “We knew (the cruise) would be special,” Levin noted toward the close, “but we didn’t realize how special it would be.”

Friday, April 11th

The only significant scheduling delays came on Friday, with fusion-prog veterans UK taking the Pantheon stage nearly an after late. Nonetheless, their truncated set was spotless, featuring hard-hitting cuts (including the mighty ‘Caesar’s Palace Blues’) from the band’s two decades-old studio albums. Jobson’s textural synths and violins pushed and pulled against the warmth of frontman Wetton — one of the sturdiest singers from the classic prog era.

Later, German electronic visionaries Tangerine Dream transformed the Pantheon into an ethereal palace of swirling synths — despite a depressingly small turn-out. Led by the dual keys of founding member Edgar Froese and Thorsten Quaeschning, the quintet delivered an hour-long version of their ‘Phaedra Farewell’ set, backed by psychedelic, spherical strobe lights that threatened to swallow the audience whole.

Next: Top 10 Yes '70s Songs

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