As they cut the ropes to the ship in Ft. Lauderdale on Sunday, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Ave. broke into a viciously funky, breathless set that harbingered the flood of New Orleans rooted music to come in the days ahead. One of the finest soul trombonist since Fred Wesley first cracked skulls, Shorty and his blazing band – especially his lead guitarist, Pete Murano, who went after and captured that extra something every time he stepped up – set off the festivities properly with a sound as lean, charismatic and focused as their bandleader himself. Looking around the pool deck, there were visibly joyous people hoisting drink after drink and pushing their internal amps up to "11" from the very start of the voyage. Amateurs might well be taken aback by the gusto and open throttle of this crowd but it felt quite natural to jump rather than ease into things with Shorty's bouncing groove ensnaring one's limbs.
|Trombone Shorty & Orleans Ave. :: Jam Cruise 8 by Vann|
The "Sail Away Party" was truly unifying, a centralized gathering that reminded us we were in this thing together. It made me wish more small festivals would hold something similar to create a general sense of togetherness, and the same collective vibe cropped up at each of the two subsequent Sail Away sets as we left Ocho Rios and Georgetown.
"When they told us we'd be playing the pool stage as we sailed away from Jamaica I had a very different idea of how it would be," said John Brown's Body's lead singer Elliot Martin on Tuesday as wind and steady rain pounded the still enthusiastic though sparser than expected audience. JBB infuse reggae with a soulful lilt, faster rhythms and choice live dub effects. Using patient builds, lover's rock vocal sweetness and rebel rock toughness, John Brown's Body honored their ancestors from the island disappearing in our wake by treating reggae not as canonical but alive and ready for remolding. Plus, they have excellent songs, which is the ultimate litmus test of any band working primarily in a single genre. Like pals and sometime JBB touring partners The Black Seeds, John Brown's Body offered up genuinely modern reggae that incorporated a plethora of strains rather than another tired-ass recreation of what Bob Marley wrought.
|Karl Denson - Sexual Chocolate :: Jam Cruise 8 by Smith|
On Wednesday, JJ Grey & Mofro took us out of the Grand Cayman Island with a rockin', honestly soulful performance that showed off as tight and interesting a bunch as Grey has ever gathered around him. Otis Redding would have loved JJ and his songs redolent of Southern culture, family and an aching worldview with enough heart to weep for fallen trees and lost wilderness. Four days in, some of us, myself included, were feeling a little homesick – as sailors will – and Mofro's set hit our guts like amazing home cooking. "Is this a big party?" asked Grey. "We been going every night but we still got a ways to go. If this is a big party then everybody dance!" And we did – hard – and we chuckled at his impression and translation of Yellowman and got suitably wistful singing about life on the wrong side of the tracks. Like JBB and Shorty (and many other artists on the cruise), Mofro isn't an imitator but a vibrant evolution of the sound of their ancestors. I have no problem imaging Ray Charles and the cream of '60s/70s Muscle Shoals studio killers absolutely loving what this band is laying down today.
Besides Orleans Ave.'s party starter, the evening we set out contained some of the strongest music at Jam Cruise 8, though no day's fare was weak or anything beyond most expectations – a testament to the quality programming and band choices of the organizers. In fact, it became swiftly apparent that premeditating one's Jam Cruise experience too much was a fool's errand. Sure, one could intend to hit this or that set, but more than likely one was jostled about by more immediate, serendipitous influences, overtaken by a Skerik or Ivan Neville sit-in, or just enraptured with the fresh sea air and good company on deck, regardless of who was playing. It's a point I've made before but it bears repeating: Things that situate us in the moment are a blessing. We are so often caught up in our past and future that we miss the pleasures of right now, and Jam Cruise planted one in that wonderful present tense right away.
|Stanton Moore & Skerik :: Jam Cruise 8 by Smith|
Dark Star Orchestra's nighttime pool deck set made it clear that DSO has as much a claim on the Grateful Dead legacy at this point as any of the surviving members of the Dead. With fans' hearts and an under-appreciated level of technical skill, DSO reconnects with the source vibe of Dead music, that thing that makes us listen to countless bootlegs of every era, that thing that made us fall for this strange American music in the first place, particularly when they do original setlists, as they did both performances on Jam Cruise. "The Music Never Stopped" kicked this set off and seemed a purposeful anthem for this cruise. Swaying in the inky blackness of open water, cell phones dying off and the mainland a fast fading memory, Dark Star wove music that knitted us together and made one glad to be part of this adventure – not unlike when Garcia was still leading the Dead and made many of us feel we'd run away to some fantastical circus. Any doubts about new lead guitarist-singer Jeff Mattson (i.e. DSO's new "Jerry") were erased by a breathtaking "Eyes of the World" that rivaled the arguably definitive version on the So Many Roads box set. Overflowing with beauty and common man's spirituality, "Eyes" made one glad to be nowhere else at that moment, and Mattson continually proved a real prize in his new role, bringing all his years in The Zen Tricksters to bear and then upping the ante a bit more. Though heresy to many John Kadlecik purists, I personally dug Mattson more in DSO and suspect he's only gonna prove a better and better fit as time goes by.
In the Teatro Carlo Felice, the well-appointed, tiered seating indoor space, Maceo Parker was the definition of class and style, neither of which took one damn thing away from his sheer funky, jazzy essence. I was reminded of Maceo's guest spotlight with De La Soul years ago, where the track begins with him saying, "I'm Maceo. I be blowin' the soul out of this horn." He sure is, and he's nearly the powerhouse of his youth even in his golden years. With a ridiculously together band, all dressed in suits like Parker, this set and the subsequent pool deck set on Wednesday were just wonderful. This cat helped birth funk music and has only added great complications and tweaks as he's grown older, like having his British manager come out to recite Shakespeare's "To be or not to be" soliloquy as the band cooked softly behind her. Not sure what I expected going in but Maceo kept flipping the script, revealing a more well rounded musician than even his many admirers – including every horn player on the boat who watched and played with Parker with kid-like enthusiasm – might have suspected.
|Maceo Parker :: Jam Cruise 8 by Flanigan|
Another surprise to many Jam Cruisers was Bay Area faves The Mother Hips, who hypnotized many new listeners with their sinewy, muscular rockin', stopping folks in their tracks in the Zebra Bar (and again Tuesday in the Teatro) as they sang, "This is the sound/ Let it bring you down." One of the few truly rock 'n' roll acts this year – if there's one quibble with the programming it's maybe a hunger for just a little more hard-toned rock music amongst the many funk/soul/jam ensembles – the Hips offered a welcome spot of danger and sex onstage. Loose but never limp, the quartet played a solid cross-section of their catalog with an emphasis on recent Pacific Dust material as they worked on their sea legs. This was an ongoing challenge for the musicians, especially during a few turbulent, white water splashing nights, and all of them deserve an extra measure of respect and appreciation for working through wobbly tummies and jelly legs to keep the music flowing.
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