“Setting sail on the high seas with punk rock’s finest scallywags!” | By Jon Coen
It’s Friday night, and NOFX just took the stage, minus founding member and rhythm guitarist Eric Melvin. In his place is Roger Lima, Less Than Jake’s bassist. “Of all the people who could have played guitar this weekend, we chose Roger, because he’s got dreadlocks,” frontman Fat Mike announces to the crowd. It’s his first time not having Melvin on his left since the band formed in ‘83.
The Orpheum Theatre is an odd venue, with lounge couches in the back and full theater-style seating without any kind of pit area. But odd setups and missing axemen aren’t even the strangest thing about this show—it’s happening on a boat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
It’s Flogging Molly’s annual sea-bound sojourn through The Bahamas, better known as The Salty Dog Cruise, packed with their favorite bands and 2,500 other scurvy rats.
Earlier, esteemed headliners Flogging Molly—led by legendary frontman Dave King—welcomed everyone onboard the MS Enchantment of the Seas with a rowdy show on the pool deck. It doesn’t take Fat Mike long to insult his host. “I was just up in Dave King’s suite,” he tells the crowd. “He actually has a piano and a leprechaun up there.”
Flogging Molly are a professional outfit with classically trained musicians, a gifted violin player, and roots in world music. NOFX can’t remember where they left their drinks. One must wonder how that crack is going to go over?
Even three years in, the event is still a novelty. A cruise might seem to be the most mindless form of travel—a cultureless packaged experience for pleated-pant tourists shuffling to Jimmy Buffett—and possibly the least punk way to spend a weekend. But each year, the floating fest features artists that tell a story of musical heritage.
“If you know your history, it’s fascinating. How the cultures all thread together is important to me,” says Flogging Molly bassist Nathen Maxwell, who takes pride in curating the ship’s lineup each year. “Ska evolved into rocksteady, which evolved into reggae, which evolved into dancehall, and it keeps moving.”
At the heart of it was the tradition of 1970s London DJs who spun reggae records between bands at punk shows—that Kingston, London, New York, Dublin, Southern California sonic lineage, a confluence of Celtic heritage, punk, rocksteady, folk music, and all three waves of ska. For three nights, Flogging Molly, The English Beat, NOFX, Less Than Jake, The Skatalites, The Bouncing Souls, and CJ Ramone play multiple sets. When they aren’t playing, they are amongst the sea dogs. Because when you’re on a boat, what the hell else are you going to do?
Then there are Maxwell’s side band, The Bunny Gang, playing their own version of revolution reggae; The Cherry Coke$’ Irish folk punk from Japan, Allison Wolfe’s Sex Stains; hardcore Mexican ska from Voodoo Glow Skulls; Chicago’s Celtic crushers, Flatfoot 56; Miami’s Askultura playing punk-ska-rumba; DeVotchKa; West Lindy; Jon Gazi; Dylan Walshe; The Attack; Pasadena; The Potato Pirates; Captains Of The Head; Brogue Wave; and The Fuckin’ Godoys. They even included Boston’s Mickey Rickshaw, whose hooligan fiddle player was a stowaway on the first cruise, playing naked in the hot tub in order to get his band an official slot.
Throw in DJ sets and Flogging Molly’s accordionist Matt Hensley’s old friends all crushing a mini ramp on deck, and it is everything a rude boy could ask for… on a boat. It’s 24/7 punk rock: pinup girls poolside, mohawks at the breakfast buffet, and Doc Martens stomping across a tropical beach.
On Saturday, the Enchantment anchors up at CocoCay, where everyone takes trips to the tiny tropical isle surrounded by coral and fish. The Mollys rip up the beach with their second set of the trip. King offers some polite banter back to NOFX, noting that “Michael” hadn’t even made it to the island.
“It’s all rebel music,” Maxwell explains under the swaying palms. “I think that’s the common thread throughout. The thing about folk music, punk music, and reggae music—they all deal with themes that are universal, this consciousness that we’re all on this planet together. That doesn’t mean we should become homogenized and join some new world order. It’s the opposite: celebrating diversity. It’s what I was drawn to. When I met Dave King and Flogging Molly as a kid, I wasn’t looking to join an Irish folk punk band. I was genuinely looking to be in something I believe in. I was a young punk rocker.”
“I still identify with that,” he continues. “It was always about something real. I saw Zander Schloss last night. He’s one of my favorites, and he unapologetically calls it ‘spirit music.’ There’s no one dogma or religion here. Yet, I genuinely feel the spirit flowing through the music. It’s more than just tones and time.”
On the third night, there are few formalities left, as rum and Guinness—and ice cream—turn shipmates into the best of friends. Maxwell and The Bunny Gang lift anchor, setting the tone for another evening of high-seas skanking and deck-side debauchery.
Things kick into high gear when New Jersey’s favorite sons, The Bouncing Souls, take the helm, ripping through multiple classics before asking for requests. The crew wants to hear “Shark Attack,” but drummer George Rebelo doesn’t know the 1997 classic. To avoid mutiny, they agree to play it, with Mickey Rickshaw’s Chris Campbell volunteering on drums and two fans acting out the skit. It goes off without a hitch.
“I was scared shitless,” Campbell admits, “but I’ve listened to The Souls my whole life. I love that song.”
Flogging Molly guitarist Dennis Casey lends a hand on “True Believers,” while a tuned-up King adds his voice to the swashbuckling chorus.
Sailing under a full moon, The English Beat rock the Orpheum with 2 Tone songs that stretch back 40 years. “Punk is like the white boy Rasta,” says King Schascha, the toaster who plays alongside frontman Dave Wakeling, founder of the original English Beat. “We go against the norm, against the politics and the government. So, the majority of the time, unless you come to the islands, you don’t see the white boy Rastafarians too much. But punk came from reggae, being an outlaw, being able to stand up—the rude boy thing.”
Schascha admits he’s the rare Trinidadian native who favors hardcore reggae over calypso music. He is thoroughly enjoying the cruise and this first deep experience with punk. “In California, if you’re on the freeway for 30 minutes, you have 100 cars that drive by and 100 of them have NOFX on the back of it,” he explains. “So, that’s pretty much the band I want to see. And I’m going to check out Voodoo Glow Skulls.”
NOFX play their second set of the weekend on the pool deck, powering out songs ranging from 1992’s White Trash, Two Heebs and a Bean to last year’s First Ditched Effort, rocking the whole vessel with Dance Hall Crashers’ Karina Denike on keys.
And if there was any worry about how the distinguished King was taking the bantering jabs from NOFX, they are laid to rest when he is caught in front of the stage, outfitted as a captain and poking a mic stand up Fat Mike’s skirt.
For as sea captain Sir Francis Drake once said, “It is not that life ashore is distasteful to me. But life at sea is better.”