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I recently had the pleasure of sailing on The Rock Boat XX , a cruise that sailed from January 24-29, 2020 out of Miami.  In it's simplest form, The Rock Boat is a music festival featured entirely on a cruise ship.  Thousands of people from around the world congregate with a handful of killer bands and enjoy unbelievable musical performances day and night.  Few things bring people together like live music, and this event did that and more over a magical five-day event.

But The Rock Boat is so much more than that to so many people.  Hosted by Sister Hazel, this cruise it is now celebrating its 20 year anniversary and by the looks of it won't be slowing down any time soon.  My first Rock Boat was in 2001, and I wasn’t sure what to expect when I embarked that fateful day.  Sister Hazel had always been a favorite band of mine during my formidable high school years, and I knew a cruise headlined by these rock and roll legends would take their live experience to a whole new level.  I was floored from the moment I walked the gangplank and have been a member of the Rock Boat family ever since. 

Nowadays,  music themed cruises are all the rage and there is one to suit almost any taste in music (in fact many of these cruises are operated and run by the same company that hosts The Rock Boat - Sixthman out of Atlanta, GA).  However, I learned over the years that Rock Boat was special as it truly stood out from others in the crowd.  From the minute my wife and I boarded our first cruise,  we looked at each other and knew we were “home”.   We have been on every Rock Boat since (This was year number ten for us).  To say that this cruise has shaped my musical tastes and cultivated some of the greatest friendships of my life over the last decade would be an understatement. 

There are acts every year that the average person would recognize and consider to be a “headliner”.  Past cruises have hosted acts such as Tonic, Edwin McCain, Matt Nathanson, Better Than Ezra, Reel Big Fish, Collective Soul, Barenaked Ladies, Michael Franti & Spearhead, & Andrew McMahon in The Wilderness, and this year Switchfoot and NEEDTOBREATHE.  In addition to well-known acts, there are also smaller and lesser known bands that are just breaking onto the scene.  Ever heard of an up and coming country artist named Zac Brown?  He played multiple Rock Boats prior to being signed.   I hear he’s doing pretty well for himself these days.

The best part for me (at least from the music perspective) are the carefully picked acts that are not quite as well known or just starting out that join this festival.  These are acts that I’ve fallen in love with over the years and dominate my playlists from festival to festival.  My favorites over years include Red Wanting Blue, Welshly Arms, Stephen Kellogg, Will Hoge,  Melodime, Andy Frasco & The UN, The Alternate Routes, Carbon Leaf, and Magic Giant (I could literally go on for hours and am sure you get the point). 

Scott Terry of Red Wanting Blue calls TRB, “Summer Camp for Bands”,  (and this is where The Rock Boat really becomes special).  Many of these acts are friends or fans of other bands and with touring and the "musician life",  they never get to spend much time together.  When they get together on TRB its like a family reunion.  Collaborations that you would never see anywhere else take place in real time, popping up all over the ship.   Whether it’s sitting in on each other’s songs or participating in one of the various theme nights (roaring 20’s, glow night, or epic movie night), you can tell how much these bands love playing with one another.  In addition, these band genuinely take the time to meet fans, hang out, and get to know them over the five day event.  Egos are left at the port and what is left is just people connecting over the love of music.

One of the highlights of this trip every year is listening to “The Sixthman Sessions”Sixthman carefully chooses a handful of artists every year and brings them on a separate cruise.  In this case it was the Brantley Gilbert Cruise . The concept of this project every year is that they bring together artists who meet each other and with the help of producer extraordinaire Brian Fechino meet, write, and record an entire album over the course of 3 days in a cruise ship cabin.  The result is pure magic.  This year’s standout songs include “Top Shelf” and “Ready to Go”.  The album can also be streamed via Spotify.

Again, it is very hard to sum up in words what The Rock Boat is and what it means to people. I will leave you with some quotes from both artists and cruisers trying to explain this amazing experience:


  • Ken Block of Sister Hazel“If you’re on the outside looking in, it’s hard to understand. If you’re on the inside looking out, it’s hard to explain."


  • Cruiser Brooklyn Magill: “This place, the rock boat, is a found family, and sanctuary in the truest form of the world. Ive met some of the best friends Ive had on this cruise- people Ive spent maybe a handful of days together in real life”,  but somehow know me better than I know myself. 9 boats."


  • Cruiser Ian Kent: “Pure Joy!  It feels more like home than home does.  I've done 8 and it's almost impossible to think about TRB without smiling and missing everyone.  Anyone that has been on it agrees that there is no possible way to truly convey what you feel to those that haven't been on it.”


  • Cruiser (And TRB “Virgin”) Susan Richards: "TRBXX was my virgin cruise and I immediately felt like I had found my tribe. It was 5 days and nights of pure joy. The music and the Rock Boat Family freed me from way too many years of taking life and myself too seriously. What an amazing way to start a new decade and a new chapter of my life!"


  • And finally TRB first-time artist, Brett Newski“Hi Fam, it is official. The Rock Boat is the least pretentious festival on the planet: unity before the individual. Music before scene cred”. Friendship before Hipster-dom. In fact, the eco-system of the boat naturally weeds out ego, so there are no patrons or bands that are too cool” or above their environment. That is extremely rare in the music industry, and Im grateful to have been a part of it.  You cant really explain the boat to people. I didnt fully understand it until we actually played on it. It feels very cozy to us, like were gathering for an off-kilter thanksgiving and you are our sisters, bros, cousins, aunts and uncles (or if youre from Wisconsin, our drunk uncles.)  Over the past 8 years of touring, weve met a plethora of sweet beautiful weirdos, but the cohesion, friendship and family-system that the Rock Boat brings is unmatched by anything weve seen in our 1400 shows. I can say that because of this cruise I have family all over the world. I can travel almost anywhere in the country and have a place to stay just because we are “Rock Boat Family”. No other credentials needed."


If this sounds like something you need in your life (and trust me, it is) you can sign up for the presale for TRB XXI at  Currently announced acts include Sister Hazel, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, The Trews, Red Wanting Blue, Meaghan Farrell, and Andrew Leahey and the Homestead with many more to be added throughout the year.


Full 2020 TRB XX Lineup (Scroll Down for Picture Gallery):

  • Sister Hazel
  • Switchfoot
  • Needtobreathe
  • Tonic
  • Allen, Mack, Meyers & Moore
  • The Alternate Routes
  • Amy Gerhartz
  • Animal Years
  • The Bones of JR Jones
  • Brett Newski & The No Tomorrow
  • The Brevett
  • Brian Fechino
  • Carbon Leaf
  • Carly Burress
  • Emily Wolfe
  • Gaelic Storm
  • Hero The Band
  • JR Moore
  • Lawrence
  • Meaghan Farrell
  • Melodime
  • Motherfolk
  • Red Wanting Blue
  • Sammie Rae & The Friends
  • SCR
  • Stephen Kellogg (Unannounced Stowaway)
  • Tall Heights
  • Tony Lucca
  • Welshly Arms
  • The Whiskey Treaty Road Show
  • Wideawake Featuring The Kin
  • Will Hope (Unannounced Stowaway)



Chris Moran

Photojournalist - Chicago

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