By Lee Zimmerman
Key West, February 26 - March 1 — There are other bands better known for their populist appeal. The Grateful Dead, of course. The band Phish. The Allman Brothers, perhaps. But the band that may best epitomize that lasting bond with their fans is none other than The Moody Blues, the group whose music and poetry lent an upward gaze to many a dorm room gathering in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and whose wistful refrains continue to spawn nostalgic memories for those once wide-eyed youngsters even today.
That fact was borne out in full aboard the cruise ship that provided home base for the third Moodies Blues Cruise, subtitled, appropriately, “Lovely To See You.” A floating oldies festival of sorts, its passenger roster consisted of folks in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and in some cases, well beyond, all celebrating a more innocent time in their lives when albums such as "Days of Future Passed," "In Search of the Lost Chord," "On the Threshold of a Dream" and other Moody Blues classics helped create a musical arc for their lives, and every note, every verse, every chord, lost or otherwise, resonated with cosmic meaning. That devotion, that constant tug of memory and meaning, was clearly present throughout the four-day journey, resonating in each concert and every encounter. The emotion was so close to the surface in fact, that during Graeme Edge’s individual storytelling session, at least one man weeped openly and unashamedly while explaining to the amiable 75-year-old drummer that his poetry had served as a mantra of sorts for his life as a whole. Indeed, there were several lips quivering whist sharing adoring testimonials, and all in attendance, including Edge himself, seemed profoundly moved by the experience.
Still, overall, the festivities aboard the Norwegian Pearl — now the unofficial flagship of sorts for any number of musically-themed excursions — was anything but somber. A veritable who’s who of classic rockers served up performances in every one of the ship’s far flung venues — The Zombies, Christopher Cross, ex-Grand Funk Railroad kingpin Mark Farner, British prog folkies the Strawbs, former Three Dog Night vocalist Chuck Negron, The Ides of March, Rare Earth, John Waite, Vanilla Fudge, Renaissance and other once revered icons of similar stature. At the same time, there were an equal number of acts that offered tributes to those who weren’t in attendance, either due to death or design. They included the Nelson twins, who offered an incredibly moving musical bow to their dad, Ricky Nelson; the Orchestra, an assuming super group in its own right, who replayed ELO classics sans Jeff Lynne; singer Brian Howe who took the liberty of recapping Bad Company’s greatest hits, culled from his tenure as the band’s vocalist following the departure of Paul Rodgers; Randy Hansen, a remarkable personification of Jimi Hendrix, down to vintage costuming, pose and posture, and the cruise’s resident cover band, Mellow Yellow, whose repertoire of golden oldies gave the ‘60s vibe an air of authenticity.
For those wanting more insight into the music making, question and answer sessions were as plentiful as the performances, although there were times when one of the cruise’s designated interviewers monopolized the conversations by offering his own reflections at the expense of the audience. That was particularly true on the final night of the cruise when the Nelson twins held court while hopeful fans of their father waited patiently to offer their questions and comments. However, the audience was forced to take a back seat to the closed conversation between the band and the aforementioned British moderator, who seemed oblivious to the fact that there were others also in attendance. Fortunately, that was a minor glitch. The Moodies’ storytelling session was full of rare insights and anecdotes, and when the crowd was invited, a couple of dozen at at time, to snake their way onstage for group photos, the opportunity to get up close and personal was a moment to relish indeed.
Mostly though, the Moodies stayed sequestered throughout the cruise, well aware that any spontaneous appearance would find them besieged by fans. The private sessions host by Edge and the band’s other two stalwarts, Justin Hayward and John Lodge, offered the best opportunity for interaction for those willing to pay a bit extra for the experience. When they did they appear publicly, their affection for their fans was always in evidence. The three seem remarkably centered and down to earth, and even though they have the trappings of superstardom, their affable personalities make them appear as appreciative of the fans as the fans are of them. They do possess a mystical aura to be sure; when Lodge was spotted at the famous Key West watering hole Sloppy Joe’s during Saturday’s stopover, he was clad entirely in white, his carefully coiffed hair making him the epitome of celestial stardom. One could imagine the odor of incense that might have been left in his wake.
Happily, the musical performances were everything the celebratory setting demanded. The Moodies were, of course, the essence of perfection, recapping the oft-sung classics “Nights in White Satin,” “Tuesday Afternoon,” “Ride My Seesaw,” “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere” and the like, as freshly and superbly as they did when the songs were in their prime. Some commented on the fact that the fair-complexioned Hayward seemed somewhat paler than usual, due, some said, to a bout with a cold. It was ironic then that during the storytelling session he related a tale about the time the band were caricatured on “The Simpsons,” with each of the three key members represented by a cartoon character of Matt Groening’s creation. “What did I look like?” Hayward said he asked his daughter who had seen the show. “Very yellow,” she was said to reply. The audience laughed along knowingly.
Other performances of note came from Farner, Waite, Rare Earth, the Ides of March, Hansen, the Nelsons, Vanilla Fudge and the Strawbs, whose leader Dave Cousins complained of being ill as well even as he attempted to soldier on. Still, the act that very nearly stole the show was The Zombies, whose recent album "Still Got That Hunger" has given the reformed band a second lease on life. Singer Colin Blunstone has literally never sounded better at any point in the band’s 50-year career, and keyboardist and lynchpin Rod Argent is not only a wiz on the keys but a perpetually agreeable individual offstage as well. Truth be told, the same could be said of most of the musicians who circulated among the crowd, all of whom were willing to accept the complements of their fellow passengers and offer an autograph, selfie or moment of reflection in return.
Given the horrible toll this still young year has taken on so many musical icons — Bowie, Frey, Paul Kantner, Maurice White, Signe Anderson,George Martin and now, horribly, Keith Emerson — any opportunity to celebrate one’s musical heroes is an excursion worth taking. Appreciation is always best served when it can be done in the present, and not as a sad reflection on the past. The Moodies are already looking forward to reconvening on the sea next year, and fans would be well advised to make their plans to join them. Here’s wishing them — and us — smooth sailing until then.