Jam Cruise 10 Chronicles: Day Three

Words by: Dennis Cook

More photos from Wednesday and Thursday coming tomorrow!

Wednesday was a day no one wanted to end. As the main action died down, a strange gravity pulled many towards the Jam Room and the informal picking party just outside on the deck that’s come to be known as “The Spot” since it began last year when Nathan Moore joined the Jam Cruise family. While a ragin’ range of high energy music prevailed in the Jam Room – more on that in a minute – Moore, Greensky Bluegrass‘ mandolinist Paul Hoffman and a rotating cast of pros and passengers sat on the deck, pulled tunes, often delivered with a sloppy, one-toke-over-the-line bravura, from the ether, many Moore originals that uniformly charmed ears new and old, but also ditties from the Great American Songbook (“Fly Me To The Moon,” “Salty Dog,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”). Makeshift rhythm devices, acoustic guitars, kazoos and more added their homespun charm as folks talked softly, laughed loudly or sat quietly in a close circle with the musicians, a feeling so happy and natural and unspeakably beautiful washing over us as the MSC Poesia stirred up white water en route to Falmouth, Jamaica.

George Porter Jr. by Brad Hodge
Inside, an undulating, revitalizing groove that began at midnight was going strong as 6 am approached, a living thing spun into being by gutbucket sage Col. Bruce Hampton, who long ago had turned in for the night, safe in the knowledge that potent torchbearers like George Porter Jr. would carry on the breathing, cavorting history lesson he’d started. For anyone who may have thought this jam thing was a relatively recent thing, this ever-shifting room of seasoned vets and excited, promising newcomers threw lines back to jump blues, hot jazz, backwater blues, and the initial 60s rise of contemporary rock. In its early stages, the Colonel guided and coaxed a group of ultra pros that included Brad Houser, a good chunk of the Runnin’ Pardners, and RRE’s Tim Carbone, who showed off his Sugarcane Harris side standing shoulder to shoulder with a constantly fluctuating horn section featuring Jessica Lurie (a powerhouse superb additive all week in her artist-at-large role) and loads of unfamiliar faces that played so damn well it made one want to track them down to find out their story. The launch pad sequence for this seven hour marathon offered us an assortment only the wired-different-than-the-rest Colonel could come up with dotted by spontaneous interjections by the players. Cream’s “Glad” was inter-cut with a bit of Creedence’s “Fortunate Son,” which then led into “Smokestack Lightning” mingled with Sun Ra’s “Rocket No. 9” and “Space Is The Place” (which had a roomful of folks pointing skyward and pondering the planets). Only the Colonel seemed to know the “Compared To What” he got started but after a tiny meander – something essential and right about these unrehearsed convocations – things banged into place again as Hampton introduced George Porter Jr. with, “The King has arrived.” His majesty then interpolated improvised lines about Jam Cruise, “Caledonia, Sly’s “Dance To The Music” and a teeny weeny bit of love. The sound was massive and gracious and full of surprises to their fellow musicians, many of whom whispered their new regard after a segment ended AND then introduced themselves. This history lesson with a fast pulse would later morph into the more traditional funk and soul based Jam Room vibe, though spiced up by new Cruiser Brad Barr, who left a ton of stunned new fans in his wake, a true original on guitar that made a strong impression last night, including a guest spot with the Dead Kenny Gs.

Jam Cruisers by Brad Hodge
These two spaces – “The Spot” and the Jam Room – were an encapsulation of why this experience is different than any other festival. Cruising the high seas, well fed, and blessed with one of the greatest pools of talent on God’s green earth, this bit of shipboard geography was an endless stream of one-time-only moments, music dancing in recombinant splendor, mash-ups of players that will never happen again. While a tiny amount of premeditation informs the early stages of the Jam Room and “The Spot” – a cover considered, a pairing or two conjectured – what actually happens cannot be planned. Better still, it is driven by a love of music and playing it for people eager to hear it. Nothing else is behind what one encounters, and divorced from the omnipresent commercial nature of most contemporary music, one comes face-to-face with a pure thing, hearts and spirits let fly in the open air, the musicians unafraid to be so exposed – at least after getting their toes in the warm water – and reconnected with what stirred them to pick up an instrument or let voice fly in the first place. And we lucky co-conspirators, too, find our own appreciation for all of music’s potentials and purposes is reawakened and prompted to soft shoe giddily amongst the notes. It made one happy to be alive, and happy beyond words that this experience exists at all – this vessel of adventure, generator of tales, builder of bonds, lifter of spirits.

All this high-minded reverie was preceded by a toes in the sand beach party with Zach Deputy and Toubab Krewe and relief efforts and charitable outreach in Haiti. Even though the ports are mostly pure cruise ship culture where passengers are regarded as friendly ATM machines, Jam Cruise’s organizers make a real effort to do some good for places we visit, acknowledging that the bounteous blessings we possess on board are not the reality for most of the world. It speaks to the extremes of care and love that hover over this journey like holy spirits.

Jam Cruisers by Brad Hodge
Come nightfall, steaming over wobbly seas, the tribe adorned themselves in every manner of green one could imagine for this evening’s “Go Green” theme. Emerald haired Oompa Loompas boogied with giant bunches of grapes with human beings inside them, and one was struck by how normal this manner of free-form play becomes after three days of nothing else. One doesn’t even blink as Sasquatch or Popeye and Olive Oil shimmy by, and the longer one does this the more one feels compelled to add their own beneficent madness, a hopping cavalcade of non sequiturs that makes the world larger and more colorful. It’s a visible sign of the way many, if not most, attending Jam Cruise tap into wells of childlike wonder, a readiness for amusement and adventure that the working week lives we left ashore simply cannot allow.

Cover tunes are a huge part of the musical makeup of Jam Cruise – a common watering hole for the musicians to gather around that’s valuable given the spontaneity of so many pairings – and yesterday was especially satisfying example of this aspect. Amongst the standouts was the closing section of The Omega Moos‘ set, where John Oates joined The New Deal‘s Darren Shearer and Jamie Shields and Umphrey’s McGee‘s Brendan Bayliss and Ryan Stasik for their 80s pop celebration. Cynicism was set aside as a packed pool deck sang-along to “Maneater,” “Out of Touch,” and “I Can’t Go For That” with non-ironic gusto. Oates thanked us during his sit-in and said he was having one of the times of his life. Even superstars recognize this isn’t like anything else they’ve ever been involved in.

Late night, Perpetual Groove showed off future forward momentum with one of the most sonically fascinating and interesting sets of the cruise so far. Where PGroove seems to be headed with the recent return of keyboardist Matt McDonald is a darker place, and for my own tastes, it’s a positive move, making the band seem not only contemporary but highlighting the visionary tendencies of this group that’s way more than a “jam band,” a dumb soundbite that ignores what strong songwriting and modern rock awareness this band has always possessed. A thick, growling cover of the David Bowie/Trent Reznor dark horse “I’m Afraid of Americans” early in the set reminded one how much deeper into the collective song bag Brock Butler and his mates dig, and many of the instrumental sections of the set reflected a denser atmosphere than the Pgroove of old, who ultimately surfaced in the final numbers asking “Where Are Your Friends Tonight?” (a perfect marriage of place and song) and pouring us a shot of sweet oblivious cheer before sending us out into the night. I may be wrong about where this band wants to go, and moreover, it may not be where some core fans want them to go, but my instincts say that if they pull off this evolution we’re in for the best music yet from them.

Jam Cruisers by Brad Hodge
The crowning glory for cover tunes has to go to Soulive, whose theatre set included a centerpiece, trio-only Beatles section that was unbelievably good. In ever single instance, Eric Krasno, Neal and Alan Evans offered tasty, insightful and downright original new spins on “Come Together,” “Something,” “Eleanor Rigby,” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” respecting the original melodies just enough for easy recognition but presenting us with takes that made the tunes seem new. For all the funk and soul-jazz grounded music on Jam Cruise this year (and every year), Soulive was the strongest, coolest set of it I’ve seen this year. Every note these cats laid down was worth one’s attention, and that didn’t change even when they integrated The Shady Horns, who clearly vibed off the indestructible flow at work – a feeling that existed in both the fast paced ragers and the quiet interludes they were brave enough to include in an environment that loves its shock ‘n’ awe. Personally, it was the keyboard sublimity of Neal Evans that left me most floored with his ability to lay down THE illest bass lines and paint with such expressive color simultaneously. Take note, Soulive is on fire right now, kids.

Some of the most powerful emotions conjured up this night happened on the pool deck with 7 Walkers, who served up a healthier share than usual dose of the Grateful Dead material that was clearly hungered for by the massive crowd. A tear-stirring guest turn by Papa Mali‘s son Miles, some of the most animated Steve Kimock playing I’ve ever witnessed, and a set closing “Eyes of the World” that made one feel they might just be the song that the morning sings were but a few of the highlights.

It was a day no here could have expected and won’t likely ever be forgotten. Magic – a word I use with real caution – of this kind is rare indeed, and one shuffled off at day’s end feeling grateful and slightly stuffed with joy, weary for all the right reasons and ready for the next chapter with barely contained anticipation.