All Funked Up
Funk is pervasive on Jam Cruise. From elder statesmen like Maceo Parker to New Orleans iron men Galactic to one of the ship's pillars, George Porter Jr. - who played like he'd drunk the blood of a young boy, his groove-metronome head a beacon whenever one fell off their good foot – and the seemingly non-stop grooves of the Jam Room, which acted like a go-all-night long, open door cutting session curated by a different musician each night starting at midnight. One just never ran out of music that made one move and love New Orleans and New York and any other oasis of funk. There was simply too much in this vein to catalog but if funk is a primary musical love for you then Jam Cruise delivers in a HUGE way.
|George Porter Jr. :: Jam Cruise 8 by Smith|
And the whole thing felt like one long family affair with most of the players sitting in with their peers and welcoming them into their own sets. However, one of the glues that held Jam Cruise together was keyboard wizard Robert Walter, who shined brightly every single time he touched a B-3 or Rhodes, and he may have played with more people than anyone else on this cruise. He also led the Fantastic 4 on Wednesday, which may have been the crispest, nastiest funk display I heard. Joined by the freaking crushing guitar attack of Eric Krasno, a vaguely possessed George Porter Jr. and brutally tight drummer Adam Deitch, the Fantastic 4 just killed it again and again and again. A couple quality guest turns from Nigel Hall, including a buzz-inducing vocal turn through Stevie Wonder's "Love Having You Around," confirmed that Hall is a major talent, both as an original, appealing keyboardist and strong, engaging singer. I leave the boat with Nigel Hall on my shortlist of dudes to keep a VERY close eye on in the future. The guy is a total pro, even in major party mode, and likely to kick out some of the most engaging soul, funk and jazz we're gonna hear in the near future.
The primary competitors for "funkiest times on the boat" were Krasno's set with Chapter 2, which includes Hall, and the Ivan Neville driven Dragon Smoke throwdown in the Zebra, which pleasantly slowed down for a sultry version of War's "Slippin' Into Darkness" with War's original harmonica champ Lee Oskar, another artist-at-large this year. It's probably a matter of apples and oranges for funk enthusiasts, and I chose to eat the full fruit basket and didn't regret the decision one little bit!
In a very real way, Zappa Plays Zappa, who performed twice, are keeping Frank's music alive and well. Nostalgia is part of the game, and there's a great deal they don't play in Frank's massive catalog, but what they do tackle is done with loving grace and a bluesy edge that's markedly different than Dweezil Zappa's pop. Mostly young players, Zappa Plays Zappa has a real find in Scheila Gonzalez, who sings with a broad, cool range, plays saxophone and keys with flair, and generally uplifts everything she touches. No one else is a slouch either, which may account for the Australians who'd flow out for the cruise prompted by their great love of ZPZ. Frank Zappa's work is a wholly unique creation, and yet it's also one of the largely un-discussed roots of the jam scene in terms of both attitude and composition. Having ZPZ on the boat reminded us of that and helped introduce some of the vast, peculiar catalog of one of the 20th Century's greatest musicians to neophytes. If they maybe didn't repeat so many songs at the two sets I'd give 'em an extra gold star, but that's really a minor quibble when measured against the pleasure and force of what they do.
|Pretty Lights :: Jam Cruise 8 by Smith|
As fine as Dark Star Orchestra's deck set had been, it was the Teatro set on Wednesday that brought me back to the feeling I had seeing the Grateful Dead for the first time in 1984 at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley. And though awash in a warm, familiar and very satisfying feeling, I felt a pull to head up top and see what all the buzz was about with Pretty Lights. I'll say this: The kid and his sleek, hard-knock drummer bring it. His style is heavily informed by straight-up Studio 54 late '70s disco, with string splashes and orchestral sweeps pushing a knack for comforting, crowd stirring samples ("After Midnight," "Midnight Rider"). He's got the balls to bust out Lonely Island's "I'm On A Boat" AND chase it with the unctuous keyboard intro to Europe's "The Final Countdown." He's shameless and fiercely dedicated to stirring up a hands-in-the-air frenzy, which he surely generated by the pool. Pretty Lights is easy to like, and has a wider range of flavors – including bits that reminded me of Kraftwerk's robot rock – than many contemporaries. Not hard to see why this act is blowing up.
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