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Thursday, May 23

The Handsome Family Go Cruising with Barenaked Ladies

From the vaults ca. January 2008:

by Rennie Sparks

Photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/peterj1977/2245375024/

 My husband and I have a band called The Handsome Family. Over the years we've played our share of far-flung venues: a lesbian death metal bar in Oslo, the Sydney Opera House, a Belgian festival where everyone dressed in medieval garb (tights, pointed slippers, daggers), a funeral full of sobbing people... But still even we were surprised to be invited to play Ships And Dip III: The Barenaked Ladies Cruise.

 Our songs are about haunted basements and stray dogs, shipwrecks and cannibalism. We're not exactly a band from Margaritaville. We're not even the kind of people who dream of going on a cruise. Sometimes on a day off in Paris we'll do our laundry and I have spent a weekend in Rome with the black-out curtains pulled across my hotel window. But there were a bunch of other acts already scheduled to play the cruise, all hand-picked by The Barenaked Ladies - Sarah Harmer, Guster, Jason Plumb, Gaellic Storm, Oakhurst, Carbon Leaf to name a few -  and we'd only have to play three shows during the five-day cruise. January is cold where we live in Albuquerque and so, after a few weeks mulling it over, we packed our sunscreen and flew to Miami. Two planes, three taxis and a shuttle bus later we boarded the Carnival Victory.

 DAY ONE: The ship is enormous. Eleven stories of maze-like corridors and almost 2,000 BNL fans running around in Hawaiian shirts and funny hats. There are people packed into the glass elevators and lining up at the waterslide and the buffet. There are bars decorated with sea horses and mermaids, bars that look like libraries, bars with Greek columns, bars between the slot machines, bars by the buffet and the mini golf and the health spa... Where there are no bars there are men in blue shorts circling with trays of tropical drinks and screaming "refreshments!"

 Everyone is roaring drunk and whooping wildly as BNL come out on the Lido Deck and play a welcome-aboard set. I order the first of many martinis served in a plastic cup. Everything is plastic on the ship from the chandeliers to the mermaids entwined between the dining-room tables. The line for the buffet stretches half the length of the ship and there are long lines at the sushi cart, the pizza grill, the oriental wok station and the soft-serve ice cream machine. I order another drink.

 The ship's horn blasts as we pull from port and I stumble from bar to bar, up the spiral staircase and round the green-carpeted corridors. We bump into Kevin from BNL, as the ship lurches to and fro. I spot Tyler (their drummer) running towards an elevator and Ed (their guitarist) pushing through a crowd near the gelato bar. These guys induce head-turning and nervous giggles wherever they go on-board and so it seems like they're always moving (else risk being cornered by crowds of gregarious drunks). The only place I will see them together is onstage or on the TV in my stateroom. There's a 24 hour BNL TV channel broadcasted aboard ship, endlessly looping BNL videos, interviews, and live performances. Other channels on TV include, inexplicably, the local news from Denver as well as a video message from the Captain asking us to wash our hands thoroughly and use Kleenex to open doors in public areas.

 DAY TWO: This morning is the naked photo on the Lido deck. The Barenaked Ladies live up to their name and pose naked with their fans. Only those who sign a waiver and get equally unclothed can participate (and have the option later to buy the photo for $29.95). Hundreds of eager people stream out into the sunshine wearing only bathrobes. I briefly consider getting naked in the interest of this story, but I am uncomfortable enough just being out in the sunlight on a deck chair surrounded by beautiful blue water. I am pushed back with the other wanna-be gawkers so that we can not view the proceedings.

 Alas, this is just the first of many activities that I don't take part in.
 I don't sign up for juggling lessons or for the Guitar Hero contest or the BNL trivia quiz. I don't sign up for yoga or wine-tasting or parasailing, scuba diving or sail-boating. I've already spent over a hundred dollars on cocktails as it is. I sit in the sun and read a book on Ozark folk magic and try not to think about the fact that the ship is now gliding past Guantánamo Bay.

 Tonight is our first show in the Black and Red Seas Lounge. It's a small room but still only about 20 people come. Most of the audience is made up of tired drunks who are drawn to the empty seats. Afterwards someone hands me a post-it note that says, "I love your music." It's amazing how much this little gesture cheers me up. The other nice surprise is that Kevin plays mandolin and accordion with us. This, I come to realize, is the norm for The Barenaked Ladies. BNL perform almost every night but the band members also make time to perform several times with their own side projects as well as make guest appearances with the other bands. After our show I, on the other hand, dump my banjo and head to the buffet. The most appetizing thing left under the heat lamps at 1am is a tray of powdered eggs.

 DAY THREE: I check in at the merchandise shop where they are doing a brisk business selling BNL beach towels, DVDs, CDs and shirts, but nothing sold by The Handsome Family. The ship is docked at Grand Cayman Island so we get off the boat and wander away from the stalls selling fake dread locks and Cuban cigars to find ourselves an empty stretch of beach. The hour I spend floating in the turquoise waves is actually so wonderful that I don't mind the next hour I spend waiting on line to get back on the ship.

 Tonight we play the main stage, the Caribbean Lounge. Ushers with flashlights are seating people as we play because BNL are scheduled to play after us. Gradually the room fills and people start to clap. Turns out we don't have the right wristbands to get into the BNL's show - sold out naturally - so we take our guitars down to our stateroom and watch it live on our TV. Afterwards we watch the Captain run through his hand-washing technique again. It's snowing hard in Denver.

 DAY FOUR: We awake docked in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. I have a bad feeling as we pass the armed guards and the barbed-wire security gates on our way into town. The broken sidewalk that leads down the main street is lined with people. They gather around us as we approach and everybody wants something. They want to be my taxi driver, to lead me to secret waterfalls, to sell me necklaces, to braid my hair, to sell me pot and cigars. These are desperately poor people. A man leaning against a palm tree holds his hat out to us and begs for change. He has two wooden legs that seem to be constructed from pieces of old driftwood and a filthy crutch under one arm. My husband empties his wallet and we head back to the ship. Everyone else has paid to be taken away on shuttle buses to snorkel or jet ski or swim with dolphins. I wish I'd paid for an outing and didn't know about life in Ocho Rios.

 That night we play again in the Black and Red Seas Lounge. There are more people this time and they clap loudly after each song. I decide that I don't care if I ever jet-ski or parasail. All I want is this: to sing songs that make people feel something.

 Tonight is pajama night and everyone is walking around in satiny nightwear and slippers. I, of course, am dressed like a cross between a vampire and Loretta Lynn. After our show an enthusiastic fan follows us into the elevator and across the decks. She is wearing checkered pajamas and huge slippers that look like fuzzy lion heads and is talking a mile a minute about how much she liked our show.

 "You all are different!" She cries, but when we thank her some-what hesitantly she insists again, drunkenly. "No, I mean it. Listen to me! You all are really different!"

 We dump our equipment in our stateroom and go see the band Harvey Danger in the Adriatic Lounge. I stumble in the dark, trying to find a seat in the crowded bar and realize the strange, writhing lump on the floor is actually a passed-out drunk who I have woken by spilling half a martini on his head. Later, out on the Lido Deck in search of powdered eggs, two women grab me and try to force me to dance with them.

 "Come on," they scream, giggling madly as they gyrate to the sound of Gaellic Storm. "Let's Party!"

 DAY FIVE: I hide in my stateroom most of the day, listening to revelers running up and down the hallways on this last day of the cruise, feeling slightly guilty about lying in an air-conditioned stateroom on an enormous ship plowing needlessly through the ocean, scattering sea creatures and leaving a trail of pollution.

 Still, I admit to myself that being in a touring band is always about planes and buses and, at the very least, a pile of plastic jewel cases. The ship's entertainment director gets on the intercom to announce that the health spa is selling seaweed facials at a reduced price. I decide to get a roll of quarters at the casino and do laundry. Later at the sit-down dinner while I am eating my scoop of vanilla ice cream, the wait-staff gathers to sing the BNL hit, "If I had a $10000000." It's actually pretty sweet. I wish I could write a song that people gathered to sing in the dining room of a cruise ship, but I know, given that one of my greatest passions is collecting news stories about animals attacking humans, it's doubtful.

 DAY SIX: We dock in Miami and trudge down the gangway with our guitars and our heavy suitcases. Other passengers stop us as we pass and tell us how much they enjoyed our performances. Our carry-on bags are full of unsold CDs, but we have made a few new fans.

 There is a new blanket of snow covering Albuquerque. I wheel my suitcases up the icy driveway and think of the smiling drunks on the ship, all of them now returning to grey skies and office cubicles. Maybe it isn't such a bad thing to have a week in the sun with your favorite band. Still, if The Handsome Family ever organized a gathering like this it would probably be held in a flaming dirigible or 10,000 leagues under the sea.

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