Words by: Brian Bavosa | Images by: Dave Vann, Chad Smith, and Casey Flanigan
Jam Cruise 7 :: 01.04.09 – 01.09.09 :: Ft. Lauderdale, FL
Jam Cruise. Just saying the name conjures up images of a traveling circus, a magical cocktail with a lemon slice of vacation and a nonstop, 24-hour-a-day (no, really) party. This is no ordinary music festival, but rather one that lasts twice as long, takes place on the high seas, and is seemingly on some of Barry Bonds' steroids and requires the endurance of a marathon runner. Oh yeah, and it's on the grandest of all cruise ships your mind can possibly imagine. Backstage? Non-existent. Ping pong with John Medeski? You got next. Snorkeling in Belize with Eric Krasno? A reality. An endless supply of world famous hot dog pizza pumped out on the buffet line? Here's the Pepto-Bismol because you'll be wolfing down a slice, with a Pina Colada in tow as you race from the pool deck down to the Jam Room to catch your four favorite musicians onstage for a once in a lifetime set. Dizzy yet? Well, get used to it because that's the nature of this beast. Yep, you've sailed to heaven - the mega-monster festival on the water, where there are no rules but there's more artist collaborations than a Siamese orgy, good vibes are constant and there's enough sleep deprivation to conduct government experiments.
|Jam Cruise 7 by Smith|
Day 1: Setting Sail
With the cobwebs of New Year's Eve still lingering in most minds, fans with a noticeably large line of credit, due to the admission tag ranging in the thousands of dollars, headed south for the winter to Ft. Lauderdale, where the seventh installation of Jam Cruise, now in its sixth year (two cruises were held in the inaugural year) was preparing to set sail with port stops in Belize City, Belize and Costa Maya, Mexico.
With any festival comes a little traffic, and Jam Cruise is no exception. Taking an average of three hours to check in, clear customs and board (other passengers with changes to their reservations waited for up to eight hours this year), it was a small price to pay once aboard the ship. Unlike the past few years that were held on the MSC Opera, JC7 saw a huge upgrade to the ocean line's granddaddy and executive vessel, The Orchestra. Adding room for roughly an additional thousand fans (bringing the total to 3,000), this new vessel boasted the likes of nothing ever before seen on Jam Cruise. With full tennis and basketball courts on the top deck, the grandiose Covent Garden Theater that would make many similar rooms on land put their tails between their legs, three sit-down restaurants, a full-functioning casino with table games and slots, multiple pools and hot tubs, sophisticated art hanging around every corner, an all-night disco and enough bars and booze to supply a small country, The Orchestra left little to be desired, or hell, even be imagined.
|Dumpstaphunk :: Jam Cruise 7 by Vann|
As for the musicians, the main pool (pun intended) of bands and roaming artists - another unique aspect of JC - hailed from the funk and jazz capital of the universe, New Orleans, as well as New York and San Francisco. When speaking about what makes Jam Cruise unique, George Porter Jr. touched on the fact that NOLA is well represented on board: "This time, we've got a lot of the New Orleans boys - the hometown boys - that I don't get to see too often. So, we're getting to hang, you know?"
I'll also be honest, like any festival nowadays, it's simply impossible to see and hear it all. With multiple shows happening at the same time, JC usually finds me "going with the flow," wandering from set to set or wherever my inner, nautical compass seems to guide me. To kick off our voyage, Charles Walker and The Dynamites blasted us with some funky sounds as we left for the trip many patrons wait all year for.
Many of the most prominent acts were all in action on this first night – another sign of how big JC tries to go. The pool deck saw Medeski Martin and Wood play a rather tight, funky set with percussionist Cyro Baptista, while Leftover Salmon simultaneously picked their self-proclaimed "Poly Ethnic Cajun Slamgrass Music" in the Theater. However, my NYC roots found me catching a sliver of both before heading to the Savannah Bar, a lounge with a prominent cheetah theme, for the dirty, raging funk of Lettuce. Consisting of Krasno, Erick "E.D." Coomes, Adam Deitch, Adam "Schmeeans" Smirnoff (whom I later played against in the Texas Hold 'Em Tournament) and the horns of Ryan Zoidis, Sam Kininger and Rashawn Ross with Nigel Hall on vocals, these guys simply bring the heat. For JC, Ivan Neville, who sat in seemingly everywhere I looked, filled in on keys for Neal Evans, who remained home to work on an upcoming project for HBO. Deitch is one of the most amazing, dynamic drummers out there, with hip-hop roots that are strong and deep. Everything he is involved with I've always appreciated, with Lettuce being my favorite of them all. Toss in a version of "Move On Up" with Robert Walter (Greyboy Allstars), Karl Denson (Greyboy, KDTU) and Tony Hall (Dumpstaphunk) and this was the easy early leader for set of the cruise.
|Tony Hall with Lettuce :: Jam Cruise 7 by Vann|
Shortly afterwards in the theater, Les Claypool made his return to JC after several years away, offering his usual goofy/scary antics with a mix of old and new tunes, while I found myself back cooling off on the pool deck before The New Deal played their patented dance and house grooves, much to the delight of everyone. The first night went well past dawn with David Murphy (Sound Tribe Sector 9) and DJ Rootz in the disco, while Brock Butler (Perpetual Groove) played the role of Jam Room stage-rat (held by Steve Kimock in previous years) and led Neville and Claypool through roughly 40 minutes of jamming, featuring Claypool showcasing his rather impressive chops on the drums. Like I said, welcome to Jam Cruise, where anything is possible.
Day 2: At Sea
For the early risers (or those yet to sleep), Day 2 featured a bevy of activities in addition to the musical offerings - find your center with an early Yoga class, learn to drum with a percussion workshop led by Baptista, practice your crossover dribble in the basketball tournament, join the Treasure Hunt run by local South Florida artist David "LEBO" LeBatard or simply step up and have your official JC poster signed by just about every artist on board. Also, taking place for the first of two sessions was Cruise Control, Jam Cruise's TV Talk Show hosted by friends and fellow scribes Benjy Eisen and Mike Greenhaus. The session climaxed in a unique pairing of The New Deal and Leftover Salmon's Vince Herman and Drew Emmitt performing in what Greenhaus told me was dubbed "The Blue Deal."
|ALO :: Jam Cruise 7 by Smith|
Usually a popular day to lounge by the pool, Day 2 saw me doing exactly that, along with some sit-down interviews with the artists on board. San Francisco's loveable freaks, ALO treated my ears to a number of pop-filled jams that rolled deliciously off the ears shortly after I was able to sit down and talk with Tea Leaf Green keyboardist-singer-songwriter Trevor Garrod. "This is kind of like a vacation," Garrod said. "We have to play a couple of sets, but otherwise we're hanging out. On this boat, it's a little bit more like a professional atmosphere. It's like the upper-echelon of festivalgoers."
Followed by Neville's Dumpstaphunk, after only a day on board, it became clear that it would be virtually impossible to see any set that wasn't smothered in New Orleans' funk, much like a small stack of pancakes dripping with strawberry syrup at your local IHOP. Neville and company welcomed seemingly everyone to the stage including Denson, Krasno, Kininger, Skerik, Claypool and all of Bonerama. In fact, this year's JC also found me meeting a much larger portion of fans from NOLA as well as the artists performing.
Meanwhile in the theater, the other main city being represented on board - New York - welcomed Bustle in Your Hedgerow, which is a (largely) instrumental Led Zeppelin cover band consisting of Scott Metzger (RANA, American Babies), Dave Dreiwitz (Ween) and both parts of The Duo, Marco Benevento and Joe Russo. While Zeppelin is considered by many to be the holy grail of rock 'n' roll, these boys not only pay homage but add some fireworks of their own, as was witnessed by Dreiwitz absolutely destroying not one but two separate bass strings during their set. As Metzger, with his charming smile, later told me over a cup of coffee when asked about the strings breaking, "Well, it's Zeppelin, you know? We must have been doing something right."
|Bustle in Your Hedgerow by Smith|
But, by far my musical highlight of the day - and now that I look back on it, the entire cruise - was the first of two solo acoustic sets by Brock Butler. Opening with my second favorite tune of all tune, the Talking Heads' "This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)," while standing atop a circular balcony overlooking the pool deck, only one word came to mind: Heavenly. With, I-shit-you-not, the most glorious sunset I have ever seen happening just off to his side, I listened to Butler pour through his set with unrelenting beauty, even offering a stirring debut of a tune called "Up Again." More than once I saw many patrons walk by and stop dead in their tracks, seemingly asking themselves, "Who is this guy?" while gazing up at Butler as he sang with his authentic simplicity. Butler seems to have that effect on people during his solo sets, offering true beauty through his crystal clear licks, loops and heartfelt vocals that just seem to resonate with everyone who hears them, like a warm feather floating around inside of you, tickling your heart and soul. Mark my words: Butler will continue to rise as a shining star for years to come, winning over fans and critics alike. He is a talented, likable artist, the sort that does not come along very often. He seemingly makes everything he touches a little brighter, much as this first solo set showed. But, Butler is a multi-talented guy and has a nasty side, as you'll read about a little later on.
At sunset we were treated to the all-star lineup of Dan Lebowitz (ALO), Jamie Shields (The New Deal) and Ryan Stasik, Joel Cummins and Kris Myers of Umphrey's McGee performing the highly lauded "Yacht Rock." Focusing on the FM radio hits of 1976-1984, the band had a single practice before donning their hysterically comical retro getups and serenading the masses to such smooth classics as "Kiss On My List" by Hall & Oates, the unofficial Yacht Rock anthem, and appropriately, Christopher Cross' "Sailing," Michael McDonald's "I Keep Forgetting" and a set closing rendition of Steely Dan's "Kid Charlemagne." I'm not sure whether I loved this set because it appealed to my childhood years or I was just laughing at the outfits onstage, but this lineup pulled it off with great professionalism and I would be very surprised to not see some sort of "Yacht Rock" on future Jam Cruises.
|Stasik & Myers - Yacht Rock by Vann|
To close out Day 2 - the day, where after three tours of duty, I have found Jam Cruise seems to fully find its sea legs - Claypool, joined by longtime collaborators Skerik and Mike Dillon, finished out his brief stint on the boat with some more psychedelic weirdness on the pool deck, while Porter Batiste Stoltz rocked the Savannah Bar and continued the steady onslaught of funk. The Savannah Bar also turned in a rather impressive set from 1:15 - 3:15 a.m. by The Lee Boys and guests Big Sam and Trombone Shorty, who leaned heavy on the funk this night, while saving their more reserved gospel numbers for their late morning set on the final day at sea.
For a change of pace, I also dipped into some of the rocking Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, who is as talented as she is charming and pretty, and a final sliver of Garage a Benevento, where they not only touched on classics but also some of Benevento's newer, solo numbers.
Day 3: Belize
With hangovers blaring and sleep a necessity, what better cure than a tropical paradise? Belize City, Belize, which required a 10-minute or so launch ride to the shore from The Orchestra was a charming little port town slathered in typical pastels and the warming colors of the Caribbean. I wish I could say the same for outside of the port, where I elected to simply explore on my own, in lieu of a guided excursion. Reminding me much of last year's stop in Honduras, the city was poor and a bit dirty, with some locals politely trying to sell me their handicrafts while others were a bit more abrasive; not unexpected but still eye-opening, even for a New York City boy such as myself.
|Dave Murphy :: Jam Cruise 7 by Smith|
Also, of note was the first of two excursions over the next few days led by the Greening Team. In addition to helping reduce our carbon footprint on board by making it very easy to place bottles, trash and compost in their proper receptacles, the Green Team held a panel discussion on Day 2. For those willing to commit their full-day to active adventures, some cruisers participated in the excursion to Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary (MBWS), joining the Greening Team for a day of "learning, connection and giving." Participants saw the ecosystems of MBWS and heard from one of Belize's non-profits. Executive Director Rafael Monzanero of Friends for Cultural Development addressed the group before a concert from students at the Maroon Creole Drum School.
Some of my "best" and most candid interviews have occurred aboard Jam Cruise, where artists truly embrace the relaxed atmosphere and open up like blossoming flowers, or in some cases, a cheap prom date. Denson and I spoke at length about the Jam Room.
"I'm going to have to credit myself for that invention," Denson said. "I think that was me running around the first year, trying to stay warmed up for the two days that I play and getting frustrated because there are bands that I didn't want play with or wasn't that interested in. There's a bunch of random musicians hanging around the boat and I thought, 'Man, we need to be playing right now!' It keeps the whole thing alive. Then you got the young guys that come on the boat and maybe they got one set, or maybe they've got half a set or some random, little thing that they are doing, and they can go and play with the guys that they've wanted to play with for years and nobody's going to say anything to them."
|Robert Walter by Smith|
KDTU welcomed the passengers back on board around dinnertime with a horn-blasting set of booty shaking deliciousness. After that, I grabbed a shower before testing my skills in the Texas Hold 'Em poker tourney (where I finished eighth), and rubbed shoulders with the like of "Schmeeans" and Murphy. Taking a chunk out of my evening, I resurfaced after being eliminated just shy of placing in the money (always the bridesmaid...) to hear the opening notes of "Eyes of the World" on the pool deck performed by Keller Williams, guitarist Gibb Droll, former-String Cheese bassist Keith Moseley and drummer Jeff Sipe, who was pulling double-duty as he also played with his longtime band, Leftover Salmon, while on board. Immediately, the perma-grin that JC helps produce returned to my face as I grabbed a cold brew and boogied down to some of Keller's quirky takes on the good 'ol Grateful Dead.
Taking a quick walk downstairs to catch some of the headliners, I popped into the Jam Room, where things were eerily quiet. That wasn't enough to deter Butler from plugging in and treating a handful of fans to covers of Bob Marley's "Stir It Up," Phish's "Gotta Jibboo" and "Dark Star" teases thrown into the middle of a Sublime tune, further solidifying the fact that Butler simply loves to play - anything, anywhere, anytime.
Galactic and The Cruise Krewe, consisting of Trombone Shorty, Big Sam and a number of others, delivered one of the week's strongest efforts. Upon walking into the theater, located at the far front end of the boat, the room was rocking so hard I felt like they should be handing out Dramamine. But, after about two songs, I realized it was the band - not the ocean - that was causing the masses to gyrate uncontrollably. Stanton Moore's relentless onslaught on the kit served as the ever-present anchor as the band tore through a slew of Galactic numbers and choice covers. One highlight was Trombone Shorty stepping out to the front of the stage and sustaining a trumpet solo, without drawing a breath, that seemed to stretch on forever. Speaking of drawing a breath, I needed to catch mine towards the end of this set and simply walked out of the theater a few feet to hear ALO welcoming Jackie Greene (Phil Lesh & Friends) to the stage for a cover of his "Ball & Chain" as well as The Dead's "Sugaree." It served as the perfect bookend to my Dead and funk filled evening before slouching down in the Jam Room, where the eerily quiet scene of earlier had turned into a sweaty session with Porter, Krasno and the Bonerama horns until dawn.
Day 4: Costa Maya, Mexico
After three full days of straight out debauchery, Costa Maya and its gorgeous beaches were just what the doctor ordered. Recently crippled by a hurricane last season, the scenery was a bit crushed, but the land's spirits were not. While some explored Mayan ruins, again, the Greening Team took 50 passengers to meet 50 students from the Limones Primary School for a local beach cleanup and party. Afterwards, they dropped off supplies donated by Jam Cruise and its patrons for not one but four schools it was supporting. This was another moment that just makes you realize how very lucky and fortunate we are to be able to celebrate JC and provide for those less fortunate. Allow me to give props and kudos to the Greening Team and all those involved in these efforts throughout this trip.
|Jam Cruise 7 by Flanigan|
Back on board, there was another round of activities such as Simon Says led by The New Mastersounds' Simon Allen, mock weddings for any couples that dared, a special JAMuary party for cruisers born in January and Rockstar Karaoke, where a band of JC artists backed any cruiser that wanted to live out their ultimate, musical fantasy. I did witness some performances later on, thanks to the 24/7 workings of Jam Cruise TV, broadcasting in every cabin, and was rather impressed by a young woman dressed in a bumble bee outfit performing Blind Melon's "No Rain" and an old timer rocking out to "Hey Joe."
Tired yet? Almost home.
As the rays of a Mexican sunset set upon our shoulders and we prepared for our final day at sea before the harsh realities of home returned, Bonerama was determined to blow the boat right back to where it came from through sheer horn power, including a rousing cover of "Whipping Post." Michael Franti welcomed J. Bowman and Carl Young to the stage to serenade us with his Spearhead catalog. He also invited fans, Captain Toast, Butler, Krasno, Sipe, Myers and others to help on the biggest sing-along of the cruise. No matter what your feelings on Franti, he has an innate ability - especially during the sunshine at festivals - to ignite a crowd and collectively move them in a positive way, and I dig it.
The rest of Day 4 found the rockers on the pool deck and funksters in the bars and theater. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals along with Tea Leaf Green kept the pool patrons rocking from 9 p.m. - 1:15 a.m. Late night posed another tough decision as Lettuce again RAGED! outdoors with Denson, the Bonerama horns and Big Sam, while The New Deal threw down in the theater, welcoming Metzger and Stasik in an absolutely epic battle of late night acts. After two sets of each, I can't declare a winner and instead propose to get both back next year!
|Grace Potter by Flanigan|
After four days confined on a vessel at sea, it's only logical that sit-ins galore would continue to crop up in every direction. The next two nights saw a plethora of head-scratching collaborations, made somehow comfortable on Jam Cruise and culminating in the Jam Room. What transpired down there until nearly 7:15 a.m. was an all-out celebration of life, funk, New Orleans, New York and everything in between. All I can say is that from around 3 or 4 a.m. until close, no less than 20 musicians appeared in the Jam Room before I finally gave up keeping score and caught some shut eye for the final blowout.
Day 5: Final Day At Sea
The last day of Jam Cruise is always bittersweet. The work and bills we left behind are only a day away and your legs are always as loose as a bowl of Jell-O if you've done your job right. The fans seemed to realize this, and after the aforementioned gospel set by The Lee Boys many wounded soldiers rallied for their last battles that evening by soaking in the sun, listening to the likes of an acoustic set by Martin Sexton on the main pool stage. Shortly thereafter, I found myself enamored by the second pool deck stage, or the "hidden gem stage," as I dubbed it. Literally a perfect semi-circle above the crowd below, Butler called it, "The best seat in the house." His solo set this afternoon picked up where he left off a few days earlier, serenading everyone with "Graceland" and "Hesitating Beauty" before putting a rather simple exclamation point on his two, beautiful sets with a tear-jerking version of "Let It Be." Attention Cloud 9 Productions: Under any and all circumstances, please make Butler a constant staple on the boat. His solo sets, mixed with his uncanny ability to freestyle rap, his irresistible likeability and skill at sitting in with anyone and on any tune, make him the perfect act for Jam Cruise - an absolute superstar in the making right before our eyes.
Immediately after Butler we got a nice change up, namely a DJ set on the same stage by DJ Rootz, who took us "around the world" with samplings of Daft Punk and the like. Elsewhere, Greene recruited Tim Bluhm (Mother Hips), and three parts of ALO as his backing band for a perfectly timed session of good old fashion songcraft, including a poignant version of "New Speedway Boogie" as well as Greene's own solo staples. Around the same time as Greene, Robert Walter led the SuperJam, which, let's face it, lost some of its luster since every room was a super jam on this boat. But, it still rocked with Walter and Stanton Moore leading the charge, along with the second installment of Cruise Control hosted by Eisen and Greenhaus as well as a segment called "NOLA to NY."
|Skerik & Eddie Roberts (NMS) :: Jam Cruise 7 by Vann|
On top of that, there was the second costumed night of "Life on Bourbon Street," where the vibe was fucking electric from the moment the sun went down and the freaks came out. Anchored by KDTU and Galactic on the pool deck and the very impressive New Mastersounds in the Savannah Bar, the ship rocked something fierce. Add in the second helping of Bustle in Your Hedgerow in the theater, complete with a bare hand and arm drum solo by Russo during "Moby Dick," and it was clear that all were set on putting the throttle at full speed and slamming this night home into a pile-driver finish.
With DJ Rootz and Murphy spinning in the disco until well past sunrise and the Jam Room being anchored by seemingly everyone, including Brian Jordan (KDTU), Ivan Neville and Butler on freestyle vocals (citing Kanye West, Jay-Z and The Wu Tang Clan), this part of the evening sounded like hip-hop on cocaine, with seemingly everyone dancing as if the ship wouldn't make it back to port without our collective energy - a true "you had to be there" moment. But, my favorite moment, and one that many Jam Cruisers will tell you was the most poignant was still yet to come.
As I stood on the back deck of the cruise ship, outside of the disco with dancers, day-glo freaks and friends old and new, I watched the sun rise over Miami and Southern Florida, and the magic fairy dust that had been sprinkled on us seemed to gently wash away, like the remains of some collective baptism of jam band, NOLA and NYC kids drying as we approached home. Jam Cruise is an event that one should experience at least once, as it is the most unique festival model we have to choose from, and it's worth every penny for the vacation of a lifetime. I, for one, can't wait to get back on board next year.
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