Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Brad Hodge
Full review below photo gallery!
We awoke on our first full day to sunshine, cooling breezes and nothing but water as far as the eye could see. The striking contrast to the previous night's jubilant clatter and costumed hordes in the morning hours spotlighted how much the mood on the ship can change in the blink of an eye. While many slept off their revels and dawn-greeting antics, others enjoyed the quietude over a breakfast served by white jacketed waiters or baked happily by the pool beneath a robin's egg blue sky. Shortly before noon, we were served a crisp wake-up slap from George Porter Jr. and The Runnin' Pardners on the main pool deck stage, where folks gathered on the plexiglass covered, drained pool - a real sight at night when the lights beneath the temporary floor fire up and folks get into serious dancing - or lounged in the raised hot tubs, which provide some of the best views of the stage. The immediate power and push of the Runnin' Pardners was apparent, their smiling leader drawing us in with a charm that's nigh irresistible. On Jam Cruise, George Porter Jr. is royalty, and rightfully so given his instrumental place in the evolution of American popular music. Backed by an absolutely stellar band, particularly lead singer-guitarist Brint Anderson who consistently brought things into sharp focus with his husky, powerhouse voice and stinging, rough blues guitar work, this was rock-infused groove that stirred one's tired limbs to life. It was a blast to see them reclaim two iconic tunes - "Sailin' Shoes" and "Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley" - that Porter had helped craft into classics with Robert Palmer in the 70s with renditions that could serve as a guide mark for future versions.
The music rolled on almost continuously into the next morning as the boat trucked towards Haiti, much of the day spent moving along Cuba's coastline. One of the pleasures of full days at sea is the chance to focus on individual sets since during daylight hours, which bounce between the main stage, full band performances and the tiny elevated solar stage, which mostly showcases singer-songwriter style fare (with some DJ action thrown in), this day marked by a quite nice Fat Mannequin (an acoustic flavored Heavy Pets side project) set and a subtle, heart-tugging Nathan Moore set that included a gorgeous "When A Woman Cuts Your Hair" and "The Boat Song," a short, sprightly ditty he penned last year on his first Jam Cruise that begins, "Look, ma, no hands, I'm on a boat far from land," and ends up daydreaming in a sailboat in the yard at home about the pleasures of this journey.
The rest of the afternoon saw a warming, swaying performance from Keller & The Keels - a serious bunch of musicians who don't take themselves too seriously – with the first of several boffo sit-ins from artist-at-large Anders Beck, dobro wizard of Greensky Bluegrass. Later it was a kick-up-the-dust Bruce Hornsby & The Noisemakers set that played up Hornsby's New Orleans streak and generated grins with every tune, especially on a crowd pleasing "Mandolin Rain," which retains its oomph despite its radio omnipresence. The high winds of the previous night returned later in the day as we began to round Haiti, and with them rain that began with a few drops and swiftly turned into a sky blurring haze of wetness that cut short the satisfying Sly & The Family Stone tribute lead by Ivan Neville with a band that included all of Soulive, most of Dumpstaphunk, guest turns from John Oates, Jessica Lurie and Orgone's comely lead singer. What surprised and worked really well was how tight and not jammed out the Sly songs were executed, the musicians largely pulling off the thick sonic feel and vocal layering of the originals, especially impressive given the single rehearsal that preceded the set.
Worries about the rest of the evening's outdoor music persisted for a little while, pushing back the start of Jam Cruise ultra-veterans Galactic, one of the only bands to have played all ten cruises. With a tighter time limit, the band hit hard and never stopped hitting during their guest filled set after the rain subsided.
Indoors, the manic, inspired madness of the Dead Kenny Gs, which, true to form, freaked out first-timers unfamiliar with their punk-addled, jazz-chops bouillabaisse (for my part, I vibe on a logic defying level with the utterly original, utterly unpredictable mojo of Skerik, Brad Houser and Mike Dillon and did some herky-jerky rug cutting dressed appropriately strange in a chicken head mask, a t-shirt celebrating GILFS and an Armani jacket). Further highlighting the huge mood/vibe swings on Jam Cruise, a few hundred feet away from the Gs, Railroad Earth offered up music of great tenderness for traveling souls punctuated by a two song guest turn by Anders Beck where they whipped up an acoustic-electric whirl akin to Zeppelin III, and finally landed in a hymn for peace on earth that made everyone but the most cynical feel like maybe that prayer will find fruition one day.
Wildly different options filled the sonic menu until the predawn light shimmered over Haiti, with Orgone picking up new fans in the Zebra Lounge with their modern take on the sort of variety one encountered in landmark artists like War and 70s Santana, EOTO improvising a colorful new wave shindig on the deck, and Umphrey's McGee - who offered up nicely evolved versions of recent gems "Domino Theory" (with a smooth, bubbling tangent sandwiched between the nasty bite of the studio arrangement) and rollerskating jam "Booth Love" featuring a John Oates sit-in. As several spun diehards noted with swirly-eyed, apostolic passion, UM were "killin' it so hard" in the theatre, which featured best-yet this year lighting work from the continually impressive Jefferson Waful, who'd earlier in the day held an insightful, well attended workshop on lighting design with fellow illumination sorcerer Chris Kuroda - just one cool teaching, Q&A opportunity for those aspiring to create their own magic in this realm. This aspect of Jam Cruise's makeup is positive inducement to move from being a spectator to a creator, and one picks up on fantastic new ideas being born all around them amongst all the traditional festival aspects. People leave this boat with new alliances, fresh inspiration and a feeling that dreaming can be made into reality if one rolls up their sleeves and hitches themselves to the right allies.
The pool deck stage closing set from The New Mastersounds confirmed their status as top-tier modern funkateers with one of the largest crowds of this year's JC, while The New Deal played their next-to-last set in the theatre, reminding us that, as ever, they are a truly unique animal, the sound of a classic piano trio given sparking, delightfully puzzling new form, an undulating inquiry into future forward groove that made one a bit sad that their days are almost done. Over in the Zebra Bar, Surprise Me Mr. Davis made their Jam Cruise debut, kicking off with some of the most aggressive playing this SMMD longtime fan had ever witnessed. With the wide musical smorgasbord on this cruise bands can't wait to make an impression, and their attack made one sit up and take note immediately. Perhaps the greatest rock band few people know, SMMD – comprised of Nathan Moore, The Slip and Marco Benevento - drew a small but enthusiastic and engaged crowd, many drawn to the more obvious party feel of bands with New in their name. Amongst those getting knocked out by tremendous tunes like "Sisyphus" (with an inspired electric piano guest turn from birthday boy Neal Evans, and an electrified "When A Woman Cuts Your Hair." During this set, Railroad's Tim Carbone told me SMMD is one of his favorite bands, and Greensky's Paul Hoffman, a Davis newbie, repeatedly expressed how impressed he was with every aspect of this band, calling them "the sleeper of this year's Jam Cruise." Hard to argue with that assessment given the diverse, beautifully constructed songs, in-the-moment daring-do, emotional honesty and blinding great chops displayed this night. And if you got there early you got a free tie from the suited up fellas. For what it's worth, Surprise Me Mr. Davis has all the elements that critics and mainstream listeners praise in Wilco or Dr. Dog but given a beautiful, humanizing spin.
For the hardcore party people the festivities continued in the disco, where the real weird streak of Jam Cruise flagrantly emerges, with Paper Diamond spinning body twisting inspiration, and in the Jam Room, where Eric Krasno dipped into funk, reggae and more, shifting organically as members of Toubab Krewe and countless other gifted musicians wandered in to get a taste. For many, bed beckoned to rest up before stepping into the sands of Labadee in the morning, drifting off blearily, vaguely amazed that this trip was only two-thirds along its arc.