"To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield"
- Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1833

"live deep and suck out all the marrow of life"
- Henry David Thoreau, 1845

"Some guys, they just give up living
And start dying little by little, piece by piece
Some guys come home from work and wash up,
And go racin' in the streets."
- Bruce Springsteen, 1977

"...to the heart, there's no time for you to waste.
You won't find your precious answers now
by staying in one place."
- Frank Turner, 2009

"The best things in life aren't things.
They're living and breathing."
- Michael Franti , 2011

"I owned every second that this world could give,
I saw so many places, the things that I did"
- Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic, 2014

All written content and photos by Rob Fulfer unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, May 2, 2011

VH1 Best Cruise Ever

Thursday, April 28, 2011 - We flew down to Tampa, Florida, this morning in preparation to board the Carnival Inspiration cruise ship which was hosting the VH1 Best Cruise Ever, a 3-day, four night music-laden voyage to Cozumel, Mexico, and back. What really attracted us to this cruise was not the cruise line (Carnival cruises are describable as "OK" at best) or the destination (Cozumel is fine, but we've been there before), but the fact that several of our favorite bands and performers were going to be on board playing multiple shows during the trip. Some acts we have seen before like Train (over ten times now and obviously one of our favorite bands to see live) and Mat Kearney (who we've seen a couple of different times). But also some we haven't seen before, but have really been wanting to check out like Lifehouse, The Script, Alpha Rev, One Eskimo and Ryan Star.

The cruise was quite more expensive than usual with a Carnival cruise thanks to all the talent on board, but we were hoping for the best and to feel like we got our money's worth as we usually have done by paying for the expensive Bonnaroo tickets the last three consecutive years. In fact, this cruise is to serve as a substitute for our Bonnaroo experience this year as we have decided not to attend for the reasons of cost, timeliness and a rather uninspiring line-up. The one thing we did hope for was perhaps a more intimate interaction with the performers since we would all be basically stuck on a ship for several days together. This was the second annual cruise of this type and year one got rave reviews, so we felt good about it, but hoped our expectations weren't too high. The check-in process was easy and by lunch time we were let on board the ship to wander around, grab a drink and some lunch in the buffet area. Our wondering about actual performer interaction abated very fast as we wound up eating lunch at a table right beside the band, Lifehouse. We played it cool and giggled at our situation. This cruise just might be a lot of fun. The guys seemed relaxed and down to Earth. Just after lunch a cover band called The Trailer Park Ninjas played a welcoming set in the huge Atrium area of the ship as other guests arrived before the 4 PM departure.

We were let in our room around 2 PM and another of our questions was happily answered. This was the first time we had ever gotten a completely interior room with no window at all. Did we mention this was an expensive cruise?? In fact, all or our cruises together have been in balcony rooms which we really enjoy, and Ashlee went on a girls-trip cruise once with just a port-hole window, but this room was basically a closet. However, it was roomy and well-lit and gave neither of us any claustrophobic tendencies. It was quiet also, and when the lights were off you were definitely in the dark for some restful sleep. The muster drill was next before we departed and when we arrived at our assigned emergency area we got a kick out of seeing those same Trailer Park Ninjas hanging out as there as well. As least we weren't the only ones slumming it down on "E Deck." The boat pulled out of Tampa Bay right on time and our lunch-mates, Lifehouse, took to the large Lido Deck Stage which faces the pool area to kick off the Embarkation Party (video below). This elevated stage allowed for easy viewing of the performers from just about anywhere on the deck. You could also view the stage from the two levels above the Lido Deck as well, making for a very cool general admission outdoor show vibe. The sound was decent although not pitch perfect, but what could you expect on the deck of ship moving at sea. The weather was perfect. Sunny, but not too hot, with a nice sea breeze blowing. This was definitely feeling better than a humid cow pasture in June out in Manchester, Tennessee where Bonnaroo takes place.

After the Lifehouse show we moved inside to the Candlelight Lounge to check out Alpha Rev. This is a very cozy little cocktail lounge with lots of seating and a small standing area in front of the stage which is where we wound up. We weren't very familiar with Alpha Rev but liked their song, "New Morning" which is played on our local indie radio station back home. Our opinions quickly changed as this seven-piece band from Austin, Texas, just blew us away from the start of their hour-long set. All of their original songs sounded great. Their musical compositions were very complex and orchestral in sound with fiddle and cello as surprise additions. The one song we did know, "New Morning" sounded even better and richer being played live (the short video below does them absolutely no justice). Lead singer, Casey McPherson, has an amazing voice and range. Needless to say, Alpha Rev just earned two more huge fans.

On our way out of the lounge as we headed to our next chosen performance, we ran into Alpha Rev's fiddle player, Brian Batch, who we talked to briefly congratulating him and the band on a great set, and Ashlee got a great self-portrait with him. He was very humble and honored by our praise for his work and seemed like just a really nice guy. (Update: Ashlee has now become Facebook friends with Brian and her obvious crush on him for his talent and looks rages on!) We moved on to the Promenade Stage to catch a few songs from Ryan Star. He is a product of the "American Idol" TV phenomenon which we can't say we are fans of at all. In fact, we did not know who he was when the performers list came out for the cruise. But after a little Internet research we found we were impressed with his vocal talent and energy. The stage was tiny and makeshift and stuck in the corner of basically a hallway on the ship which did not give off great acoustics or sight lines. Ryan was energetic and his vocals were a little less smooth and bombastic as we had heard previously (obviously through good sound engineering and mixing in the studio), but he wasn't bad at all and we enjoyed checking out this budding performer.

We doubled back to the Candlelight Lounge to check out SAFETYSUIT next. We weren't very familiar with this band either although we had heard of them and knew they hailed from Nashville. The took to the stage with the subtly of a hand grenade and roared out a loud, rocking set of original songs that was pretty impressive. The sound mixing wasn't as good as Alpha Rev's but their energy and crowd awareness made for an enjoyable show. Next, we slipped up to the main indoor music venue called the Paris Lounge to catch a few songs from Train. The place was packed and since The Script were about to start a show as well, we had made the tough decision to miss most of this show so we could catch the other. We knew we had other chances to catch all of two other Train sets during the cruise. A show by The Script out on the Lido Deck after dark (photo above) finished our evening for us in grand style. These young rockers from Dublin, Ireland, put out a great debut album a few years ago with several radio hits and have just released their second effort. Similar to Ryan Star, their live show wasn't as polished as some of the other veteran performers on board like Train, Lifehouse and Alpha Rev, but the energy, crowd awareness and enthusiasm was abundant. We think these guys will only get better with time. We got back to the room well after midnight, exhausted from a great day of shows. We couldn't wait to get up tomorrow and do it all over again.

Friday, April 29, 2011 We slept in soundly since the music wasn't scheduled to start until 1 P.M. First up was Crowfield, an Ameircana-style band that we had not heard of before the cruise line-up was announced but liked once we did a little research on them. They played out on the Lido Deck and the coolest thing (literally) about this show is that we watched most of it from in the swimming pool. That was definitely a first in live music for us. We headed back to the room after the show and showered and got dressed up a bit to attend a wine tasting that we had bought tickets for that was being hosted by Jimmy Stafford, the lead guitarist of Train, and self-professed lover of wine. Seats were limited and we were lead to believe that we would be trying some of Jimmy's favorite wines, however, it turned out to be a tasting of six ho-hum, not-real-good regular wines that Carnival offers in their dining rooms. Sigh.

Jimmy couldn't have been nicer at least. He talked a little before the tasting about how he honestly doesn't know that much about wine other than he likes the taste of it and that the "Train Wine Club" wasn't really his idea, but the band's publicist. He said he was trying to learn as much as he could and traveling with the band did allow him to try a lot of different wines from all over the road (some good and some not so good). The band will be soon lending it's name to a wine being produced by a California vineyard. It will be called "Drops of Jupiter" (one of their biggest hits) and Jimmy did have a hand in selecting the blend for it. He was gracious enough to come around to each table and talk with everyone, sign autographs and have his picture made with the guests (photo above). When he got to our table, we told him we were from Nashville knowing that he had moved to the area in the last few years as well. He was very conversational, even asking how the Predators hockey team had done the night before in the playoffs and saying that he planned to go to Game 6 back in Nashville if there was one since the band schedule would allow it. (UPDATE: The Preds did hang on to force a Game 6 against Vancouver back in Nashville - Enjoy the game, Jimmy!)

Afterwards we moved back out to the Lido Deck and got right in front of the stage in anticipation of the Mat Kearney performance coming up. Mat, another Nashville resident, is one of our favorite artists to see live. He put on an amazing show at The Cannery in Nashville a few years ago that we still talk about (see previous blog) and he opened recently for Michael Franti & Spearhead at The Ryman as well. Mat's set started about 15 minutes late due to sound check problems. We have to say that the sound engineering seems to be a bit of a problem with most performances on this cruise which is surprising since it's associated with VH1 and it's not their first rodeo as a music cruise. It's definitely one of the few criticisms we have about this cruise. But, we are also spoiled due to the world-class sound engineering that Bonnaroo always has.

When Mat did get started he was great as usual (video above). His melodic voice and sharp musicianship blended with a great dry sense of humor between songs made for a memorable experience. One of the coolest things he did in this show was a seemingly ad-libbed "rap" about the cruise experience he was having and we, as the audience, were sharing with him. It's was just another reminder of how extremely creative and talented this guy really is. We went back down below and inside for the next show at the Candlelight Lounge. It was One eskimO (that's how they spell it), a four-piece band out of London, England,.....well, make that a three-piece band...it seems their lead singer was not on the trip with them due to "visa problems" with U.S.?? Wow, what a nightmare for them and especially the poor bass player, Jamie Sefton, who had to take over lead vocals. He did a decent job, but the show was really saved when some "friends" of the band helped them out on stage. Alpha Rev fiddler (and our pal), Brian Batch, joined them on stage for three songs. Their biggest hit, "Kandi (All Night Long)" was sung by fellow performer, Matt Wertz, who did a pretty good job. The bass player from The Script (photo above) also helped out on a few songs (photo above) so Sefton could play the horn. And finally Casey McPherson, lead singer of Alpha Rev, lent his vocals to a few songs. So what started out as a bit of bust due to the formalities of international travel turned into an all-star set that was truly unique and we feel blessed to have witnessed it in person. We were heading back out to the Lido Deck when what we will refer to as TRAINCIDENT # 1 occurred. I was headed to the public bathroom as I saw a crowd gathered around a skinny gentlemen and realized it was Pat Monahan, the lead singer of Train. I clapped him on the back and said hello as I headed into the john. Then Pat followed me in there! Yep, it was just me and Pat in the crapper. I played it cool and made sure to zip up and wash my hands before I left. Ashlee was waiting on me outside (or so I thought). She was waiting on Pat. He was nice enough to take a quick self-portrait before heading to the stage. What a nice guy. Of course, we had met him, Jimmy (our wine and Predators pal) and drummer, Scott Underwood, once before after a show at The Ryman last year (see previous blog), but that was an organized meet-and-greet and this was after Pat went to the can....pretty cool. We made it out to the Lido Deck and got fairly close to the stage as the boys took the stage. It was a typical Train concert with great sing-a-longs and hit after hit. It was toward the end of the show when what we will call TRAINCIDENT # 2 occurred. During the song "Marry Me" Pat likes to wander out in the crowd and make self-portraits with people's cameras. I can't prove this, but he seemed to make a bee-line for Ashlee and sure enough got a picture made with her again!! Okay, I handed her my camera to have it done, but that's beside the point! Something's going on here!! Don't you think? Another great day on the boat wrapped up with this show and we collapsed again in our dark, dark room well after midnight. Saturday, April 30, 2011 We arrived in the Cozumel port early that morning (or so we assume since we were asleep). We had once again made arrangements to spend the day at the Nachi Cocom Beach Club which we had visited last time we were here (see previous blog). After a leisurely breakfast on board we headed off the ship to grab a cab to the beach club. As we were walking back through the Cozumel port who should we happen to spy again....yep, that pretty-boy rock star, Pat Monahan....and guess what happened?? you guessed it....TRAINCIDNET # 3. He and Ashlee took their picture together again!!! Ok, this is getting ridiculous. We had a great day at the beach club with good food, lots and lots of beer, great weather and good times. We met a couple of gals from St. Louis on the beach who were on a different Carnival ship. They were a lot of laughs and a shared, giggle-filled ride back to the port with them. HERE'S WHERE THINGS GET FOGGY....we made the mistake of buying some Jim Beam Bourbon to sneak back on board the ship (don't judge us unless you've had seen a cruise ship bar bill before). We wanted Jack Daniels but didn't have enough money. We poured half of it in a hydrogen peroxide bottle (works like a charm, by the way) and SHOULD HAVE thrown the rest of it out...but we didn't...mostly me as I tried to stupidly finish the other half before we got on the ship. We offered it to other people but I don't know why they wouldn't except a half-drank open bottle of whiskey in a Mexican port???? Anywho.......here's what I remember from the rest of the night....... !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! That's "blog-speak" for a blackout. I remember nothing after that half bottle of Jim Beam on top of ump-teen beers. Not getting on the boat, not going to our room, not falling on the carpet and rug-burning my knee, not Ashlee trying to get me to eat something, nothing. She finally left me in the room to sleep through the night. She saw a few shows that night and got her picture made with Mat Kearney in the buffet at least. I am not proud of this night and didn't intend for it to happen. I apologize to my wife for my actions, but it is what happened and I don't intend to act like it didn't. I regret missing the music that night and feel that it is my punishment for such stupid behavior. Here endeth the lesson.... Sunday, May 1, 2011 -- Today was another day at sea as we headed back toward Tampa. I actually felt pretty good despite what happened the night before and was glad of that because we had another full day of music ahead of us. First up back out on the Lido Deck was Colbie Caillet, a cute little songbird with a couple of recent radio hits who didn't do much for us other than sounding a lot like Jewel. We had seen her on Friday up on the jogging track and didn't really know who she was. The Script were up next performing a cool acoustic set (video below). At 3 PM we headed down to the main dining room for a beer tasting hosted by One Eskimo. Much like the the fairly bogus wine tasting on Friday, this event as well was a Carnival Cruise set-up with only beers that they already had available on the ship and which were fairly common. Despite that fact, we still had a good time with a lively table of Continental Airlines stewardesses who attend a lot of music events together. The beer was plentiful and flowing (hair of the dog, I guess) and the One Eskimo guys were happy to snap pictures with us and socialize. Lifehouse had their own acoustic set next back out on the Lido Deck which was excellent. Train closed out the acoustic sets out on the Lido Deck as the sun set to our left. We missed the end of the Train set to catch a new-to-us band called Thriving Ivory back down in the Candlelight Lounge. They were pretty good with a lot of energy but the lead singer's Rascall Flats-like high nasaly voice was a bit much to take over a long period of time. We caught some of Ryan Star again back out in the Atrium next. On our way back to the Candlelight Lounge to finish the evening with Alpha Rev, Mat Kearney and SAFETYSUIT, we met The Script lead singer, Danny O'Donoghue. Between the Mat Kearney and SAFETYSUIT sets we learned (along with the rest of the boat) about the death of Osama Bin Laden, marking an important date in U.S. history. It certainly was nice to be enjoying our freedom as a nation at this great event on such an eventful night. Monday, May 2, 2011 All good things have to come to an end I guess as did the VH1 Best Cruise Ever as well pulled into the Port of Tampa early this morning. We got some leisurely breakfast in the buffet while we waited for our turn to debark the ship. Everything went smooth until amazingly TRAINCIDENT # 4 occurred! As we were schleppng our bags off the boat there he was again, Pat Monahan of Train. We couldn't believe he was just getting off the boat just like we were along wtih drummer, Scott Underwood, and the band's manager. I shook hands with Pat and again expressed how much we enjoyed the trip as did he and the band he replied. They were boarding a bus and then a plane headed for Ft. Myers to play another show that night. Ah, the "glamourous" life of a rock star. We had a bit of a wait at the airport before our 2 PM flight, but it was all good thanks to free wifi in the Tampa airport and a nice lunch at a sports bar there. We got home before 5 PM exhausted but extremely happy with our trip, easily ranking it in the Top 5 vacations we have ever had...and that's saying something when you look at all the places we've been and the things we've done. Addendum: 5/14/11 - Link to a very cool blog entry by Pat Monahan himself about this cruise and the interaction with fans.... http://patblogahan.com/post/5473459366/fans


Craig and Alison said...

I am becoming a fan of Colbie via pandora radio... neat sound, clean and crisp. Doesn't have the quirkiness of Ingrid Michaelson, which I love, but pretty good (and cute too!!)

Rob and Ashlee said...

Ingrid's great live. We saw her last year at Bonnaroo. She's very witty and has a lot of personality on stage. Would love to see her again.