Longform

Carnival's Bruise Cruise Lets Loose 400 Garage Rock Fans Onto a Cruise Ship

By Reed Fischer

Spitting distance from several massive, gleaming-white ships docked in Nassau, a couple of hundred people squeeze inside Señor Frog's Bahamas. The tourist bar is covered with neon-lettered signs like "Rehab Is for Quitters" and "Divorce: Future Tense of Marriage" and barstools that resemble ample women's behinds. It's only slightly larger than an open-air, seaside version of a Burger King. But space is not the issue. The two distinct groups that pack the room aren't mixing as cleanly as the mojitos.

One-half of the crowd wears crisp outfits from Old Navy or Ed Hardy; many are aging and sunburnt and $15 lighter in the wallet from Señor Frog's cover charge. From the second that Nashville's scuzzily dressed Turbo Fruits begin spewing fast, noisy rock from the small stage, all hope for a typical spring break experience is dashed. An MC reminds them that "You don't have to go to work tomorrow!" — but it isn't enough to erase this racket.

The other half of the room is made up of young revelers wearing well-tailored striped and floral dresses, vintage suits, neon sunglasses, handlebar mustaches, and eye patches. They've come to this mainstream outpost expressly to hear the Black Lips' garage rock, low-fi twang from the Strange Boys, and adorable indie rock via the Vivian Girls.

This skinny-jeaned contingent comes courtesy of the inaugural Bruise Cruise, Carnival Cruise Lines' first themed trip aimed at a set of travelers previously deemed either too hip or too poor.

For Carnival, there's more on the line than just the happiness of 380 trendsetters. If successful, the Bruise Cruise will join the ranks of themed excursions hosted by far-more-popular yet far-less-relevant acts like Lynyrd Skynyrd, John Mayer, and 311. Only a fifth of Americans have taken a cruise, and the average cruiser is 46 years old. Indie rock would become viable seafaring entertainment, tapping into a young, desirable demographic that would otherwise never set foot in a cruise ship's buffet line.

The Bruise Cruise was an idea brought to Carnival by New York booking agent Michelle Cable and Turbo Fruits frontman Jonas Stein, who was inspired by his experiences on Vince Neil's Mötley Cruise. Cable and Stein helped recruit record store associates, promoters, pals, and fans to fill 380 of the approximately 2,000 slots on the Carnival Imagination. Dubbed "bruisers," each paid $615 to catch a lineup of nine indie-rock acts in a setting with clean bathrooms, waiters, and no Pabst Blue Ribbon in sight.

This night at Señor Frog's, a spot more apt to host a swimsuit competition than a music showcase, comes halfway through the weekend cruise and is arguably the trip's primo event. Near the shallow stage, the tattooed masses of bruisers stumble, neck, and a few even dance while sneering as the Black Eyed Peas' "Boom Boom Pow" vibrates from the speakers. Some are game to take part in the conga line and the "Electric Slide" between bands, but there's a clear disconnect between the bruisers hoping for high-seas rock bliss and those just gunning to get drunk and grind.

Following Turbo Fruits and a rollicking set by the Strange Boys, plucky Brooklyn trio the Vivian Girls plays the only song that both segments of the crowd have heard before: a distortion-heavy cover of Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On." A song from Titanic — a movie about an epic cruise gone horribly wrong — hopefully isn't foreshadowing.

As midnight looms, the night's last band, the Black Lips, begins unpacking its guitars. The Atlanta quartet — known for beer-spraying, urinating, and bringing a live chicken onstage — sets up as a Señor Frog's MC runs a dance competition between two halfhearted bruisers. The nonbruiser faction in the room has diminished — either sleepy or fed up — but a few of them take in this "look at the hipsters dance ironically" sideshow. With no proper dressing room, backstage area, or even curtains to hide behind, all four members of the Black Lips are exposed to the obvious unrest churning in the room.

Without hesitation, Black Lips frontman Jared Swilley suddenly grabs an open microphone.

"Can we play now?" he yells defiantly. The dance-off slows to a dead halt. The short, broad-shouldered MC is not pleased, but he maintains a forced smile. "You had your time," a somewhat red-faced Swilley continues, unrepentant. "Let it be our time now."

There's more than just control of Senor Frog's on the line. From here, Carnival must figure out if it can balance the needs of its middle-aged cruisers while catering to younger, hyperdiscerning bruisers.

Hours of woefully unwelcoming music dot the afternoon before Carnival Imagination embarks from the Port of Miami on Friday. Like an airport but taller, the window-walled port terminal blasts jazz flute fit for Ron Burgundy in Anchorman. Entrance to the 855-foot ship is soundtracked by a pianist playing soft, garish melodies in the glass-ceilinged Atrium Bar. Performers are tucked into alcoves in the neon- and gold-decorated walkways on the Promenade level, and a DJ bumps the "Cha Cha Slide" up on the open-air Lido deck, which leads to the Horizon Bar & Grill, an indoor buffet restaurant with more stations than any Ponderosa. Remember the redheaded jazz singer that Bill Murray's character unceremoniously bangs in Lost in Translation? She might be here too.

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Reed Fischer
Contact: Reed Fischer