Cruise to the Edge 2018: Review
Four of the figureheads of progressive rock have all died within the past three years: Greg Lake, Keith Emerson, John Wetton and Chris Squire. During that span, Yes' annual floating retreat, Cruise to the Edge, has been a vehicle for both celebration and mourning – as much a memorial service as a music festival.
Last year, the wound from Wetton's death was still painfully fresh: The singer-bassist – a veteran of King Crimson, Asia, and U.K. – was originally booked as a co-headliner but withdrew to worsening health issues. He died on Jan. 31, 2016, a handful of days before the event. On board, numerous artists – including an emotional Steve Hackett –spoke in reverence of the musical journeyman. For the 2018 event, they staged a formal goodbye, with Wetton's former Asia co-founders (Yes' Steve Howe and Geoff Downes, Carl Palmer) reflecting on his personal charm and musical dexterity.
"John was a bottomless well of creative ideas," Howe recalled during a poignant tribute on the ship's pool stage, laughing at the memory of Wetton's disinterest in rehearsals. Carl Palmer, meanwhile, shared a hilarious story about Asia's "Only Time Will Tell" video shoot. Wetton, thinking he'd filmed all of his individual scenes, started to shave. But directors Godley & Creme needed more footage, so in order to maintain beard continuity, they cut hair from his neck and pasted it on the bassist's face.
Downes also honored his former bandmate with a solo keyboard piece during one of Yes' marquee slots on the theater stage – a moment of raw emotion in a career-spanning set that teetered between majesty and outright chaos. The band struggled to lock in a tempo on "Survival," the centerpiece of the self-titled 1968 debut; the dense vocal harmonies of "I've Seen All Good People" were mostly out-of-tune; and Billy Sherwood's bass awkwardly malfunctioned before the acoustic section of prog-folk masterpiece "And You and I." No one seemed to care: Gazing out at the mostly sixtysomething crowd, you couldn't spot a sour face. (Sample reaction: the adorably dorky, middle-aged man in wrinkly khakis, clapping halfway in time in the aisles during "Machine Messiah.")
The nostalgia was even thicker than usual: Co-founding keyboardist Tony Kaye – who played on Yes' first three LPs – came onstage for their encore, laying down his trademark organ for "Yours Is No Disgrace" and "Roundabout." (Drummer Alan White, still recovering from back surgery, also joined for the final songs, subbing in for his temporary replacement, Jay Schellen.)
Sure, nostalgia is part of the reason Cruise to the Edge exists. And most of it, as always, was utilized skillfully: Former Jethro Tull guitarist Martin Barre dusted off classics like "Hunting Girl," "Teacher," "Fat Man" and "Locomotive Breath" with ageless vigor. (His punchline game was also on-point: "[This next song was voted] worst cover of the year, two years over. It's really shit," he cracked, introducing a bluesy version of the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby.") And the cruise's sleeper champions for the second straight year were Dutch prog icons Focus – led by the goofy and impeccably side-burned Thijs van Leer, whose soulful Hammond organ and jazzy flute highlighted the epic, multi-part "Eruption" and signature yodel-fest "Hocus Pocus."
Other bands more evenly mingled the past and present, either through their set lists or their approach to the classic material. Palmer, still perhaps the most powerful live drummer on the planet at age 67, recruited his two young bandmates – guitarist Paul Bielatowicz and bassist Simon Fitzpatrick – to reinvent the Emerson, Lake & Palmer discography with ELP Legacy, adding more of a metallic edge to tunes like "Knife-Edge," "Canario" (from the oft-maligned Love Beach) and a full rendition of Pictures at an Exhibition.
Stick Men – led by two active King Crimson members, bassist Tony Levin and drummer Pat Mastelotto – took a unique approach to their sets, collaborating with early '70s Crimson violinist David Cross for a set of improvisational dissonance and blistering funk-prog. Dudes flocked to the club show an hour early, gleefully smiling during their soundcheck, posing for selfies by the stage, and shouting with delight as passerby (and former Crimson bandmate) Adrian Belew dropped by to surprise Levin with a pre-show hug. For Crim-heads, it was a trip witnessing multiple generations of the band coalesce – like on a wild voyage through 1982 instrumental "Satori in Tangier," with Cross' violin howling over the funky gallop of Levin and Markus Reuter's Chapman Sticks.
Belew, on board with his long-running Power Trio, also looked back to '80s Crimson during his two thunderous pool sets, nailing the requisite guitar theatrics of "Thela Hun Ginjeet" and "Frame by Frame." He also looked to the band's underrated '90s work ("Dinosaur," "One Time") between reinvigorated takes on solo cuts like "Young Lions" and "Madness." (Alas, despite all signs pointing to an obvious stage union between Belew, Levin and Mastelotto, it didn't happen. There's always next year.)
Hackett similarly blended his solo material ("Every Day," "El Niño") with proggy deep cuts from the almighty Genesis ("The Fountain of Salmacis," "One for the Vine"). The guitarist's live band, as always, offered these sacred tracks a vital spark – like Rob Townsend's elegant soprano sax solo on "Firth of Fifth." (Hackett may have provided the biggest "Oh, shit" moment of the entire cruise during his fascinating Q&A. One bold fan took a new approach to the most-asked prog question of the past decade: Would his former Genesis bandmates have "chops and energy" for a reunion tour? Hackett's response? "I plead the Fifth.")
And so we float on until 2019, when we'll geek out and gossip and get our minds blown on the high seas. And if we need to grieve, we'll do that too.