Wednesday, January 5
There may be no better spot for people watching than Jam Cruise. Nightfall brings out the capes and wings and clowns, and the days at sea bring out the sunbathers in droves. Every shape and color is represented, and all seem comfortable unlike the more body conscious world on shore. Things are just chill, aided by fruity rum drinks, an expertly planned musical lineup, sailor outfits of every stripe, rollerskaters, hula-hoopers and women so lovely they make one understand how Salome could ask for a man’s head and get it. We’re invited to relax and play in the sunshine while the many Oompa-Loompas behind the scenes keep everything running with clockwork efficiency. This last point is worth emphasis – this entire cruise/fest runs SO well. All but a few sets started right on time, and given the endless sit-ins and instruments that need to be worked into the mix, the sound and tech folks are wizards. I try to step back from my revels from time to time to applaud the staff of Jam Cruise and the MSC Poesia, who together made us feel so cared for and well tended for five days.
|Belly Dancers by Chad Smith|
Cornmeal :: 11:45 AM-1:00 PM :: Pool Deck
|Sailor Gals by Dave Vann|
Such a reliably excellent band, and a perfect start to the first full day at sea. Cornmeal came at the music with gusto, chasing down possibilities and grinning in their interactions with one another. Their chemistry is a big part of their appeal, and it’s a pleasure to watch Wavy Dave Burlingame (banjo) and Allie Kral (violin) chase down the music in their heads. They also have a real knack for nailing classic rock on top of their twangier material, exemplified by a note-perfect take on Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets” that made one feel warmer than the orb in the sky.
Brock Butler :: 1:00-1:45 PM :: Solar Stage
The largely acoustic sets on the opposite end of the pool deck on sailing days are almost always a treat. These intimate sets are often revelations of under-appreciated talents, and Brock Butler certainly fits this bill. With echoes of Paul Simon and Richard Thompson, Butler has a charming voice with the universal appeal of, say, young Jackson Browne, drenched with feeling but still pop-ready. His grasp of popular music from the past 50 years is staggering, leaping from LCD Soundsystem to The Beatles and making it all make sense. He commanded our attention single-handed, finishing his brief set with spot-on covers of Dawes’ “Love Me Foolishly” and Simon’s “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes.” His knack for reading a crowd and giving them what they need is not to be underestimated, and he further showed off this skill in three unofficial sunrise sets on the deck with a small, smiling audience the next three mornings. As he told me in one conversation, “I feel like it’s part of my responsibility to help make special moments for people when I’m on this boat.”
Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars :: 1:45-3:00 PM :: Pool Deck
Entering off-stage in a drum line, the All Stars, dressed in colorful prints and exuding a profound joy in making music, made an immediate splash. Once assembled onstage, they hit like thunder, a sound with scraps of African High Life, roots reggae, Motown, dancehall, Nyabinghi and more. Even if one didn’t couldn’t understand the words the intent and soul of what they do permeated into one’s flesh and mind. Their leader remarked, “Music is therapy. Dance and you will get well. Dance and you will be happy. Are you happy?” The boat shook with our collective affirmation and shuffling steps.
Jennifer Hartswick :: 3:00-3:45 PM :: Solar Stage
|Jen Hartswich Set by Chad Smith|
Really a semi-acoustic version of Van Ghost with pals Brock Butler (guitar) and Allie Kral (violin) joining them, this set was winning from end-to-end. Hartswick is a powerhouse vocalist and sultry trumpeter with the brass oomph of past greats like Blue Mitchell, but the takeaway from this set was how great Van Ghost’s songs are and how beautifully she and Michael Harrison Berg sing together – an inviting soar akin to a silkier Emmylou and Gram. At one point the rhythm team from The New Mastersounds came out to create a full band sound, and like Butler’s set, they drew inspiration from Dawes on a churchy run through “When My Time Comes.” Van Ghost is classically minded singer-songwriter stuff delivered with great care and class, and this set made me hungry to know more about their work.
Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk :: 3:45-5:15 PM :: Pool Deck
“Dumpstaphunk is here. Can you smell it?” asked Tony Hall (bass, guitar, vocals). One thing Dumpstaphunk doesn’t lack is confidence, and they appeared ready to knock heads together from the first notes of this set. While many funk acts allow things to be loose, playing up the jam aspects, Ivan’s bunch are tight and edgy, showing more rock ‘n’ roll soul all the time with Ivan and Tony Hall doing more guitar work. Their songs also strike deeper than most, keepers all that add to the canon rather than simply regurgitating crowd-pleasers. This set kept things grimy and a little nasty, dappled by double bass battles and swerving vocal turns. Oh yeah, boys, we can smell ya!
Some Cat From Japan :: 6:00-8:00 PM :: Pool Deck
|Nigel Hall by Dave Vann|
This Hendrix tribute was a mess but a glorious one. Loose and fun, the Cats - Will Bernard and Scott Metzger (guitars), Nigel Hall (keys, vocals), Ron Johnson (bass) and Eric Bolivar (drums) – took an open approach to Jimi’s oeuvre, enjoying the freedom and inspiration that clings to his compositions and legacy but rarely sounding a lot like the man himself. Various folks jumped in to play, notably Eric McFadden on “Little Wing,” but the superstar in this bunch was Nigel Hall, whose sexy singing and engaging keyboard work surprisingly often generated more heat than all the guitar antics. It’s also worth noting how freakin’ excellent Ron Johnson’s playing is in this band, where his rubbery invention is more exposed and in-your-face than KDTU. Repeatedly I found myself following Johnson’s pulse and letting the rest hit me on the edges, and never did he steer me wrong.
Nathan Moore :: 8:00-8:45 PM :: Zebra Bar
A small crowd was blessed by Moore’s intoxicating songs and sleight-of-hand finesse at this intimate set. Engaging us in acts of soft hypnosis and prying away some of our armor with his humanizing tunes, Moore was his right & true bohemian Buddha self, showing us that the folk singer shtick can be evolved, beautifully, and introducing us to his Virginia partner in crime Bryan Elijah Smith, who accompanied him as a guest and left with his own new fans this year. The short set ended with a rousing audience fueled “I’m Good Company,” which highlighted Moore’s gift for getting people involved and away from being mere spectators.
ALO :: 9:00-10:30 PM :: Zebra Bar
|Zebra by Chad Smith|
Good lord, their music is catchy. I kept thinking this as ALO pumped out one audience snaggin, foot lifting number after another, and all without having to resort to their funk repertoire. Instead killers like “The Champ” just walloped one with feel-good energy, and throughout their musicianship, as always, proved some of the tautest and tastiest around. These four guys make such an irresistible sound, and it was heartening to see many first-timers bowled over alongside avowed Animal Lib fans like myself. For ALO, pop isn’t a dirty word and the notion of mass appeal loses its icky, industry taint in their hands.
God Street Wine :: 1:00-3:00 AM :: Teatro Carlo Felice
Without a doubt, this was one of the finest sets on Jam Cruise 9. After recently reuniting after 11 years apart for a handful of special shows, God Street Wine sounded, if anything, better than in their heyday. Often tagged as a “proto-jam-band,” what they really are is a rock band in the broad classic 60s/70s mold but with the instincts and sensibilities of a band that grew up in the 80s/90s.
For many, GSW are an undiscovered country but for a portion of the crowd this was a wildly welcome return to one of the richest, catchiest catalogs to emerge in the 90s. They showed off their gift for reggae – hey, Clapton plays it, too, y’all – and a vocal blend that compares favorably with the Doobie Brothers. Even if you didn’t know their music, the sheer quality of their musicianship, singing and song craft bowled one over. While many were getting their funk on at Lettuce and Black Joe Lewis, the hundred or so in the theater were treated to a set that moved with quicksilver grace, rising to great heights and dipping down into satisfying lows. Towards the end of this set I found myself wondering how they hadn’t picked up an audience the size of Phish back when they were really pouring on steam in the 90s. There are surfaces similarities in their jam sensibilities but at the time they made better albums, sang better and had a broader mainstream appeal. However, being diverse and loving elongated live interpretations of one’s catalog isn’t always the best route to an audience, particularly before the internet solidified. On purely musical terms, God Street Wine delivered with every number, offering us fat-free jams that actually went somewhere and worked with the songs instead of outside of them, playing with obvious joy at revisiting a life the band members left behind more than a decade ago. And they got the best out of Bob Weir’s many sit-ins, drawing some out of his 70s fieriness on “Book of Rules,” “The Race Is On,” “Dark Hollow” and “Dear Prudence.”
|Jamcruiser by Chris Monaghan|
The sea howl and the sea yelp, are different voices
|Teddy Bears by Chad Smith|
Often together heard: the whine in the rigging,
The menace and caress of wave that breaks on water,
The tolling bell
Measures time not our time, rung by the unhurried
Ground swell, a time
Older than the time of chronometers, older
Than time counted by anxious worried women
Lying awake, calculating the future,
Trying to unweave, unwind, unravel
And piece together the past and the future.
-T.S. Eliot – The Dry Salvages
For all the hubbub and chatter, there are still plenty of spots to be on one’s own on Jam Cruise. Wander away from the stages and you’ll find causeways and crannies where one can be alone with the sea, only the wind and waves and your thoughts. For all the crew and staff, there’s still a sense of the patients running the asylum, so to speak, which makes for a giddy pleasure when one finds themselves the only person along a long stretch of deck. It’s kind of amazing this is possible on such a bumptious, lively excursion but I think this opportunity for elemental quietude is also a key ingredient to Jam Cruise. With the breeze tousling one’s hair, the hiss of spray below as the boat cuts way, one hears a silent call to toss their troubles into the dark water below. Like the previous year, this feeling hit the second day of the trip after I’d been away from the gnat-like buzz of emails, texts and calls for a bit. It comes upon me suddenly, jumped by something primal and true that opens me up with a pleasant violence – a force beyond normal comprehension but tangible as any human hand. And in a moment, I feel my spirit ease, the weight slipping away, a freedom felt rather than discussed in abstracts. It’s an experience that leaves my psychic baggage a touch lighter when I return home, and I hardly think I’m the only one who experiences this sensation during this voyage.
Continue reading for Day Three of Jam Cruise 9...