Monday and Thursday were spent trucking through the sea and were the only full days of music programming, with Tuesday daytime spent in Jamaica and Wednesday daytime in Georgetown, Grand Cayman Island (or perhaps aboard ship recovering from one's frolics on the deck with prodigious amounts of coffee and sliced fruit). Boarding and disembarking took several hours each on either end of the trip, though if one relaxed and didn't let the waiting get to them they probably found some fun with their compatriots waiting in line next to them. The spacing out of options, including a civilized two-hour dinner break most nights, helped set a reasonable pace. Like the gluttony available at the buffet, one could be tempted to take in too much, push and push to miss as little as possible OR you could enjoy simply "being" in an environment designed to stimulate one's pleasure centers, kicking back with musicians over a three-course meal and some wine or watching college football on the satellite TV in your cabin. While one could "rage" for days on end, there was another constituency that embraced idleness and atmosphere, perhaps choosing a perch somewhat away from the front of the stages and people watching over cocktails, maybe while floating in the pool or hot tubs while colorful creatures raced past, howling at the moon that peeked in and out from behind the running clouds.
|Zach Deputy :: Jam Cruise 8 by Smith|
Monday's offerings began around noon with Vote-To-The-Boat winners the Ryan Montbleau Band on the pool deck easing into the day with violin and textural keys massaging Montbleau's warm voice and radio-friendly pop-singer-songwriter fare. With tunes about breakfast and populist lyrics like, "I've never broken a bone in my life/ Let alone a heart or hip replaced," these guys were a pleasant if conventional way to wake up.
Inside, a Slide Guitar Workshop in the Zebra Bar led by Steve Kimock, Luther Dickinson and Robert Randolph was both educational and a hoot. "One word of advice is put the pick down. Just listen to what's in your heart and play that," said Dickinson. Kimock added a moment later, "Please use your fingers," which Dickinson rejoindered, "Just pretend you're with your girlfriend," to mass laughter.
|Toubab Krewe with Ivan Neville :: Jam Cruise 8 by Flanigan|
Back on deck at the Solar Stage, Zach Deputy made me not hate acoustic guitar based, loop-driven music – it's really all getting a bit cliché, eh? Deputy, a regular pinch-hitter in the Jam Room, oozed charm and reminded one very strongly of prime Bill Withers, both in his singing style and fluid picking. A big man with a sunshine sound, Deputy was a nifty discovery for me and many others.
Toubab Krewe played the first of two stunning, original sets on Monday. They've refined and tightened up their already unique sound. There are blurrier lines between the genre blending now, resulting in the sense one was witnessing something new and powerful being born, Africa and America in a bold conversation that takes one into ancestral streams too strong to be ignored. You can dance to it, too, especially when Ivan Neville hops up to get a piece of it, fighting off the buffeting winds to find his own place inside Toubab's world.
The winds kicked up even more boldly during Railroad Earth's deck set, but instead of being cowed by the elements RRE danced with them, pulling out solos that flew and flittered with the breeze, Todd Sheaffer's Del McCoury-esque voice cutting the current like a dexterous bird. Between this set and the Tuesday Teatro set – likely the most tender, lovely, emotionally exposed set on Jam Cruise 8 – Railroad Earth showed that every element of this band is top-notch and fabulously dovetailed. It all works like great folk music given new clothes and saucier intentions. For all the philosophizing, it's not hippy-dippy shit – it's actually thoughtful! Like fellow unsung modern songwriter Nathan Moore, Sheaffer is a contemporary classic, this generation's answer to Dylan, Neil Young, et al. and the more one delves into their catalog the richer the experience becomes. Brave enough to be delicate and smart enough to never be pussies, RRE played two of the best sets I've ever seen them do, and this with guest bassist Keith Moseley (SCI) filling in for the recently retired Johnny Grubb and showing incredible feel for what they do. Unless one is prone to nitpicking, it would have been hard to find fault with his playing, which offered mostly continuity with Grubb's work, though a few jerks in the crowd on Tuesday actually booed Moseley when he was introduced.
|Railroad Earth :: Jam Cruise 8 by Vann|
Two one-off performances also stood out on Monday, namely the heavy-rock-meets-prog-jazz of OHMphrey - which seemed to scare the more delicate flowers off the pool deck but delighted strange, thick noise loving weirdos like myself, totally living up to their introduction, which claimed, "It's like a combination of Bitches Brew and metal. They will melt your face." While most of the band jumped off at Jamaica, keyboardist extraordinaire Joel Cummins stuck around and added intuitive magic to a number of sets, including an especially hot Everyone Orchestra gathering on Thursday. The other Monday standout was The Motet Plays Talking Heads barnburner, with Deep Banana Blackout shredder Fuzz, two boffo female singers and Kyle Hollingsworth (keys, vocals) creating a loving, sort-of-giddy salute to the Heads and really lighting up the packed crowd. While perhaps over-praised in their retirement, the Talking Heads are a touchstone, especially for younger fans introduced to them by Phish's fabled Halloween performance of Remain In Light, and the high feeling and sense of well being permeating the pool area during this set was hard to match the rest of the voyage. A genuine homage, The Motet-plus set did the job it set out to do and skirted being a simple recreation by gently stretching the songs and injecting a lil' jamminess the Heads would likely never abide.
My Monday came to a close with one of the best STS9 shows I've caught in some time. I'm fully aware that the rollers and tweakers miss the band's earlier sound, but standing on the upper deck looking down on the undulating swarm on the deck below, I kept thinking, "Where did this music come from?" It makes no sense on paper - a sometimes jarring intersection of instrumental rock, electronica, African textures, lounge music and more. What I appreciated about this set – and today's STS9 in general – is their bravery in embracing gorgeous, slower moods. There's something highly vulnerable in this engagement with pure beauty, and it's only going to expand their emotional range, particularly since they work in instrumental music, to work with the full range of tempos and feelings on top of bass-heavy, dance stuff. As they've evolved as musicians and composers it makes sense that they'd change and this set was a fine example of the band today.
|The Motet w/ Kyle Hollingsworth :: Jam Cruise 8 by Vann|
Thursday's day at sea culminated in Mike Dillon's Go-Go Jungle in the Zebra Bar, which was a delirious period to place on the music for my first Jam Cruise. As usual, I wanted to illustrate Fleischer style black and white cartoons full of anthropomorphic objects and wise talking animals set to the mayhem unleashed by Mike D. and his cohorts, who brought some much needed agro-energy into our collective bloodstream. The slipstream of this music is breakneck and asks a fair amount of listeners, but go with it enthusiastically and there's not much more exciting or rewarding out there. This is the kind of band, augmented by omnipresent saxophonics expert Skerik and others, that could nail The Dead Kennedys' "Too Drunk To Fuck" and then seamlessly ease into Ellington's "Caravan" and out into hip hop reminiscent of primo Schooly D. That they make such disparate elements swing mightily is a greater achievement still. I relish any session with such delightfully misbehaved musicians, and this particularly gnarly-sweet shindig left me with a head full of fucked-up dreams and a smile that made my jaw hurt.
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