In a surreal moment under a drizzling sky just south of Los Angeles earlier this month, a few dozen fans of the veteran rock act FireHouse sing along passionately during the group's performance of their 1995 power ballad, “I Live My Life For You.”
The fans don't stand out just since they're wearing white, a stark contrast from the sea of black T-shirts in front of the stage. It's also not only because they're from Indonesia and the Philippines, where the band inexplicably maintains large followings more than two decades after their last Billboard chart appearance.
No, these vocal FireHouse fans are conspicuous because they're all uniform-wearing crew members of the Norwegian Pearl, where more than 2,000 enthusiasts of '80s rock have congregated for the Monsters of Rock Cruise's inaugural West Coast charter, Monsterwood. This particular performance — one of 68 sets by 38 artists across six stages during the four-day cruise to Catalina and Ensenada — takes place on the 93,000-ton ship's 12th floor pool deck, right around the corner from its all-you-can-eat buffet.
Much like the EDM-focused Groove Cruise, which originated from the Port of Los Angeles for the past three years before moving to San Diego this year, the glam-metal and hard rock-themed Monsterwood is a rarity in Southern California, where multi-day music charters are nowhere near as common as they are in Miami, Tampa and New Orleans.
That appears to be slowly changing, however. Monsters of Rock producer Larry Morand says a follow-up to the sold-out Monsterwood will take place in 2018; a local collective called the Port Town Group has announced plans for “Rendezvous @ Sea,” which it says will offer two- and three-night music cruises year-round beginning in 2017; and Sublime With Rome was tapped to headline a three-night cruise out of Long Beach on the same weekend as Monsterwood, although that charter was canceled soon after it was announced. (Neither the cruise's promoter nor Sublime With Rome's manager responded to requests for comment.)
According to Alan Koenig of ASK4 Entertainment, producers of the annual ShipRocked cruise, one major reason why most music charters depart from Florida is because cruise liners position the majority of their fleets there. (Much like someone renting a car, organizers of music cruises are limited to the ships that are available in a certain port at a certain time.) “There are just not as many sailings available as compared to the East Coast,” Koenig says. “Fewer sailings means fewer ships that may be simpatico with the type of larger festival cruises we do.”
In addition, not every cruise liner is a good fit for a traveling music festival, which is why the Pearl — which, according to Norwegian's Lisette Martinez, has undergone numerous enhancements, “including the installation of upgraded sound and staging capabilities and a customized pool cover that can be brought out to create a larger concert area” — serves as a frequent host vessel. (After Monsterwood returned to port, the Pearl departed for Miami, where next month it will set sail as the KISS Kruise.)
During Monsterwood's port call in Ensenada, Montana music store owner Christie Bury — herself a veteran of three KISS Kruises — explained that while she, her husband and two daughters were happy to learn they'd be back aboard the Pearl, the ship itself wasn't a factor when they decided to purchase tickets for the cruise. She said it's more about getting a good bang for the buck. “If you had to pay to see all of these bands and enjoy food all the time and the whole atmosphere, there's no price comparison,” she says.
Drummer Mike Portnoy — who performed with The Winery Dogs on Monsterwood, his eighth music cruise in the last three years — agrees. “These cruise ships are a great way for people to get both kinds of R&R — they can get their rock & roll, and they can get their rest and relaxation all in one,” he says.
Port of Los Angeles marketing manager Christopher Chase says he'd love for more music charters to originate here, especially since he estimates an average of $1 million is pumped into the local economy every time a cruise comes into port. One problem, however, is the Jones Act, a 1920 law that restricts how and where non-U.S.-flagged cruise ships (which includes most of them) can sail. “We have to go to foreign ports with these ships, and Mexico is our only close foreign country,” Chase says.
Roger Naber, CEO of the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, says that's a main reason why he hasn't run charters from the West Coast in several years. “We noticed that our California clientele on the West Coast cruises had all been to these ports in Mexico numerous times,” he says, noting that the upcoming 27th Blues Cruise will visit Grenada and Barbados in the southeast Caribbean, “places that are not so Americanized, not so cookie-cutter.”
In addition, Naber says, the Pacific Ocean provides its own unique set of challenges. “The Pacific has really gotten more lively with storms over the last few years,” he says. “We've had harmonica players like Kim Wilson of The Fabulous Thunderbirds hold his harmonica up in the air, and you can hear the harmonica blow just from the wind hitting the stage.”
Still, perhaps L.A.'s best potential selling point for music charters is its status as an entertainment and tourism capital. Anthony Diaz, CEO/CMO of Sixthman, which produces cruises for the likes of Paramore, 311 and Train as well as the KISS Kruise, says surveys show that many cruisers cash in additional vacation days immediately before or after ships set sail. Accordingly, he says, “I would love to see if Sixthman could do something special out of L.A. It certainly is a mecca of entertainment and music, so it adds that value of fans taking a couple of days before and after to explore all that the area has to offer.”
Based on the success of Monsterwood — which Morand says sold out a month after cabins went on sale, with another 1,000 names on a waiting list — that seems like a wise move. And even though Monsters of Rock, which is also eyeing opportunities in Europe and Asia, won't return to the West Coast until 2018, Morand and his colleagues will start working on the cruise soon. “From concept, to budgeting, to reaching out to the artists, you're well into it for about a year or year-and-a-half,” he explains. “There's a lot of moving pieces to it.”
For Monsterwood, one of those moving pieces was drummer Portnoy, who performed in New Jersey with Twisted Sister on the same night the Pearl left port. (Morand booked him a charter flight to Ensenada so he could board the ship there.) Another was the unannounced partial reunion of Ratt, performing under the name The Stowaways, which was arguably the cruise's highlight.
“I grew up in the L.A. scene,” Morand says, “and to have an event representing the Sunset Strip come off as well as it did makes me a proud papa.”
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