“Who’s never been on a cruise before?” shouted Father John Misty (aka Joshua Tillman) from the stage. “Whooooooooooo!!!!” went the crowd. “Me neither,” he responded mere moments after the S.S. Coachella set sail, coyly calling “15 minutes into open water” one of the most exotic places he’d ever played.
This artist-fan exchange played out like clockwork as each new act took the stage and it pretty much defines the experience of the S.S. Coachella’s maiden voyage. No one could quite believe that they were there–the majority of passengers and artists openly admitting to being cruise skeptics and this was, in many ways, anathema to their carefully crafted personae–but they were game to see how a music festival at sea would play out.
With a lineup fitting Coachella’s well-established festival brand and a group of perfectly (and insanely) styled twenty- and thirtysomethings, the likes of which the posh Celebrity Silhouette has never seen, S.S. Coachella brought together two diametrically opposed ends of the entertainment spectrum. And it was good.
Though the rock-n-roll cruise is not a brand new concept (in fact the idea came from a Weezer-headlined cruise that someone had described as being as good as Coachella–fighting words that spawned this cruise), the S.S. Coachella certainly took it to the next level. With 22 acts playing over three days (on the Bahamas leg; a second trip to Jamaica spanned four days), including Yeasayer, Hot Chip, Black Lips, Sleigh Bells, Killer Mike, Grimes, James Murphy, DJ Harvey, and headliners Pulp (who are reportedly calling these shows their last), the lineup was a microcosm of the desert counterpart. The biggest and most appealing differences: Drinks were foisted in your face, when you got hot there was a pool, and when you got tired there was a room–with room service–waiting mere steps from wherever you were.
Likely undersubscribed versus Coachella’s initial hopes, the lack of throbbing mobs made shows thoroughly enjoyable, the on-board activities accessible, and the chance of seeing (and meeting) a favored artist while they were checking out another gig or hanging on the pool deck with their family (notable rock star children aboard included the progeny of Hot Chip and The Rapture) as simple as walking up and saying “hey” at the late-night buffet.
As for the cruise side of the surreal equation, having a ship full of like-minded concertgoers meant that no one complained when in the middle of the afternoon the pool deck was hopping during a DJ Harvey set, or when the Black Lips raged until 4 a.m. in the Sky Lounge. And it’s 100% certain that three-tiered, velvet-seated Silhouette Theatre has never hosted on-board entertainment that included a balloon drop, a rush on the stage, automatic toilet paper guns, beach balls, and not two but three rounds of confetti guns. But that’s what happens when Girl Talk is on the bill.
As the days sailed on the sense of gimlet-eyed irony that passengers brought on board quickly melted away. The bands turned in (boat) rocking performances, perhaps surprised themselves by how much fun the whole thing was. There was a sense that something special was happening, making Coachella’s brand-extension gamble seem like a sure winner. Even Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker couldn’t help but seem genuinely excited by the intimacy of the whole affair as he touched out-reached hands and welcomed the leg-pawing of ecstatic fans, noting how unusual it was to be so close to his audience. He then proceeded to prance with great his trademark verve through a setlist that ended with “Common People,” embracing the glaring paradox of singing that song on this ship. It was one of those moments that ensured all the cruise neophytes will indeed remember the first time.