Martina McBride Dazzles with Hits, R&B Standards During Carnival Cruise Concert Series

Martina McBride

“How lucky are we that we get to be here together?” Martina McBride asked the sold-out crowd on board the Carnival Ecstasy this week, where she was performing the first of two shows in Cozumel, Mexico, as part of the cruise line’s new Carnival Live concert series.

“This has been a new experience for me and I’ve loved every second of it,” McBride told the audience, and continued to rave about the it backstage after the show.

“It appealed to me because people are here to have a good time,” she continued. “It’s a beautiful ship and we’ve been treated like royalty. It’s been such a great experience for us and I love that they are bringing all kinds of music to the passengers on the ship.”

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Though Carnival ships have long been used for music-themed cruises, Carnival Live is a different animal.

“[Theme cruises] are done typically by independent [companies], but this is something that is put on, paid for and presented by Carnival Cruise Lines,” says Bernie Dillon, director of Carnival Live. “We’re not theming the entire cruise. We’re just putting on a presentation that hopefully will fit the market the cruise is emanating from.”

“Coming out of Miami, it was maybe a little bit of a stretch to look at country artists, but it’s working well,” Dillon continued. “We did a little bit with KISS Country, the local country radio station in the market. And coming out of Tampa on the Paradise is a grand slam because Tampa is a much bigger country market than South Florida.”

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In 2014, Carnival Live will present 49 shows by 15 different acts, including Foreigner, Lady Antebellum, REO Speedwagon, Gavin DeGraw, Daughtry, Chicago, Trace Adkins and Jennifer Hudson. Dillon says they are in the process of booking talent for next year.

“We certainly did our research. We polled a lot of our customers and found out what they like,” he says. “We learned so much about them and we think what we’re presenting really targets our core customer. These artists have all had a ton of hits and they’re all well established.”

The artists are not on the ship for the duration of the voyage. Instead, they come on board and do a show, then exit the ship before it sails to the next port.

McBride performed on the Carnival Ecstasy Wednesday night (May 14), remained in Cozumel and then did a second show on the Carnival ship Paradise the next night.

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“It’s appealing to me,” McBride says of Carnival Live. “Even though I would love to take a cruise, as a mom of three girls, it’s just easier for me to come on the ship and do a show and  not take a whole week. It’s a win-win for me and hopefully for them too. It was an amazing experience”

The fact that the artists don’t have to be on the boat for the entire cruise makes the Carnival Live dates easier to work into their schedule than being gone for a week. For multiple reasons, it works best for the artists to remain in port and have the ship come to them.

“The artists like this set up,” Dillon says. “Tommy Shaw from Styx said, ‘Hey this is so great because when I go on a theme cruise and we’re the headliners, I can’t go out of my cabin during the day. I can’t go out and have fun with everybody else.”

Dillon worked with Creative Artists Agency’s Rod Essig to book the artists.

“It’s a win for us, a win for our customers and a win for the artists,” Dillon says. “When you see the shows themselves and see the personal relationships the artists can have with the guests in that environment, it’s been tremendous.”

McBride performed in the 855-seat Blue Sapphire Lounge and her 18-song set included such hits as “Independence Day,” “Broken Wing” and “Wild Angels,” as well as leaning heavily on material from her new album, “Everlasting,” a collection of vintage pop and R&B tunes.

“A few years go I did a record called ‘Timeless,’ which was basically a record of my favorite classic country songs and it was such a joy that I really wanted to have that experience again, but I didn’t want to do the same thing over again, so I decided to do an album that harkened back to the time when there weren’t such strict music boundaries,” she explained. “We had Ray Charles, an R&B artist who had a top 10 pop hit with a Hank Williams song. It was a much different time.”

McBride continued, “I wanted to explore that possibility and make a record that would stretch my experience. I made a decision when we put together the new tour to lean heavily on that record. With most normal records I would do a couple of new songs and the hits. I’m really asking a lot f my audience in a way, even though these are familiar songs. It’s a little risky, but I’ve found  the audiences are surprised at first. Then they really get into the musicality of the show and the visual. By the sixth song, they are really into it and that’s so gratifying for me. So this show on the ship is the same show we’re doing now.”

The Carnival Live concerts are not included in the price of the cruise, but are sold separately. General admission seats range from $20-$40 and fans can purchase a VIP package that include tickets and a meet-and-greet with the artist. That  VIP experience ranges from $100-$150.

“There’s a big viral campaign” Dillon says of creating awareness of Carnival Live. “We’re sending out email blasts and we have an enormous list of previous sailing customers. We did a big press conference in New York and artists are putting out their own tweets, email blasts and postings on their websites.”

McBride enjoyed the experience and hopes to do it again.

“My whole goal any time I’m on stage whether it’s an arena crowd, a stadium crowd or an intimate crowd like tonight is to make a connection,” she says. “When you look at people and make a connection, you are sharing a memory. The live experience is really the last experience that we have to show up. You can’t download that experience. You can watch it on YouTube, but it’s not the same thing. We’re there for one night and we’re sharing that moment and making a memory. I treat every concert the same way. The only difference is with an intimate crowd like this, you can play a few more ballads. I love it.”