Words by: Scott Bernstein
Images by: Joshua Timmermans
Jam Cruise 15 – Day One :: 01.20.17 :: Norwegian Pearl
Jam Cruise 15 set sail from the Port Of Miami on Thursday evening just in the nick of time. While America was in the midst of the first day of a new regime, Jam Cruisers said farewell to the U.S. to embark on an unparalleled musical adventure. After more than eight years on the MSC Cruise Line, this time around the trip is taking place aboard NCL Cruise Line’s Norweigan Pearl. The boat is only about two-thirds as big as the ship that hosted the last three installments and the more intimate feeling was well appreciated.
In the past few years I’d go days without seeing some friends due to the massive size of the boat, but it seems much easier to run into them this time around. The food was also a vast improvement over our former home and the venues around the boat fit Jam Cruise’s needs better. The embarkation process was a breeze as within 20 minutes I was in my cabin. I boarded around 2 p.m. which gave me approximately five hours to get settled before the music started. I love these pre-departure hours filled with friends from around the globe reacquainting themselves with each other. As in past years, big groups of friends often dress in similar garb whether it’s the Pittsburgh crew with their yearly “Fuck Yinz Face” t-shirts or a group of perhaps two dozen from Chicago each with custom-made Blackhawks sweaters.
The weather on Friday was absolutely perfect and hopefully is a harbinger of what’s to come. It was nice to get away from a chilly New York City to the tropical climate. Up first on the Pool Deck was the “Sail Away Party” featuring Brooklyn’s own Turkuaz. I first saw the band a few years ago and thought “generic funk.” However, over the past few years they have developed a signature “party funk” sound and have become incredibly tight. They were a fine choice for the party atmosphere of the first set of the trip, which starts as the boat pulls away from the Port Of Miami. Turkuaz focused on songs from their most recent album, Digitonium, and treated cruisers to their powerful cover of The Band’s “The Shape I’m In.” Jam Cruise is known for its collaborations and it didn’t take long for our first one as The Motet keyboardist Joey Porter sat-in on Turkuaz’s third song of their set.
Down in a part of the Pearl dubbed “Bar City” a piano was set up for Jam Cruise’s trademark solo piano sets. On Friday Todd Stoops had the honors of performing a 45-minute set. He did well by mixing such RAQ classics as “Mollie’s Cule” and “Tumbling Down” with a bevy of covers such as The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black,” Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” and my personal favorite, Christopher Cross’ “Sailing.” Stoops welcomed a handful of friends at points of the set including Twiddle frontman Mihali Savoulidis. The pair did a fantastic job with 2Pac’s “Changes”/Bruce Hornsby’s “The Way It Is” with Mihali absolutely nailing the 2Pac raps.
The Soul Rebels christened the theater, which was set up a little differently than the one of past ships. The balcony was split into four sections including a pair of “Owner’s Sections” that almost sat on top of the stage. These sections were open to everyone and at no point in the evening did I ever have an issue finding a fantastic place to sit or dance with a great vantage point. Cruisers were boogieing throughout the New Orleans’ brass bands set especially during a cover of “Move On Up.”
By the time 9:30 p.m. struck Jam Cruise 15 was in full swing. Four sets were going on at once and there were hard to decisions to be made. While I checked in on The Revivalists’ barn-burning set on the Pool Deck a coupe times to find David Shaw & Co. showing off their signature blend of rock and soul, I spent most of the 10 p.m. hour in the Spinaker Lounge for Lebo & Friends. ALO guitarist Dan “Lebo” Lebowitz put together a ridiculously talented band that included vocalist Leslie Grant, drummer Jay Lane, bassist Garrett Sayers and keyboardist Robert Walter. It was unlike any other Lebo-fronted project I’d heard before as there were elements of funk and jazz within. Walter and Sayers are beasts and each showed off their impressive musicality throughout a set that featured an upbeat “A Hard’s Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” which needs to be heard to be believed and a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Have A Cigar” that nearly made by head explode.
One of the highlights of Friday was saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s set in the theater. Word clearly got around about the man behind The Epic and Kendrick Lamar’s collaborator as the theater was more packed than at any other point in the night. Thankfully, as mentioned before, there was never a point where it was so packed you couldn’t find a vantage point. Washington and his bombastic band delivered a set of hard-hitting jazz filled with jaw-dropping peaks. I can’t wait to see him in the more intimate confines of the jazz lounge tonight.
Now, the music lover in me wanted to say for all of Washington’s set, but the 18-year-old Scotty B who saw 30 moe. shows during my time in college didn’t want to miss the jam-rockers set on the Pool Deck. moe. brought their A Game and also wild outfits as bassist Rob Derhak was dressed as a mouse, drummer Vinnie Amico as a lion and guitarist Al Schnier as a … well some furry animal I couldn’t quite figure out.
My favorite two moe. songs are “Spine Of A Dog” and “Buster,” both of which have special meaning to me as I learned bass in part by working through those two numbers hundreds of times. It felt like moe. had me in mind as they followed “Crab Eyes” with a splendid “Spine Of A Dog” > “Buster” combo. They were having fun and so were the legions of devoted moe.rons lining the front 20 rows or so ahead of the stage. moe. also got in on the guest action by bringing out the Turkuaz horns for “Happy Hour Hero” and then the Turkuaz horns and vocalists for a wonderful take on Talking Heads’ “Naive Melody (This Must Be Place).” Derhak noted he realized he couldn’t sing the song and play bass at the same time, so percussionist Jim Loughlin stepped up to handle bass duties. As a bonus, frequent moe. collaborator and Percy Hill co-founding member Nate Wilson sat-in on “Happy Hour Hero,” “Naive Melody” as well as the “Moth” that followed. “Billy Goat” and “Down Boy” were also strong renditions.
At this point it was approximately 2 a.m. and I was starting to hit a wall. It had been a long day, but I still had one more round in me. I started my post-moe. round by heading to the theater to catch some of Break Science’s set. It’s perhaps a bit too untz-y for my taste, but Adam Deitch is such a talented drummer that I took a seat in the balcony and just watched him work his magic. He has a special relationship with keyboardist Borahm Lee and the pair had nearly all those in the Stardust Theater dancing with passion. BIG Something followed moe. on the Pool Deck and they had a heavy reggae feel to their jam music. They didn’t keep my attention in most part because I was tired, but it wouldn’t be a day on Jam Cruise without ending in the Jam Room.
The Jam Room is a Jam Cruise tradition in which any of the musicians on the boat can participate in an impromptu jam session. A while back the action was a little too impromptu and often turned into a shit show, so organizers Cloud 9 would employ a host to help act as a traffic cop of sorts. Friday guitarist D.J. Williams was the Jam Room host. While I was there he welcomed his KDTU band mates including saxophonist Karl Denson and drummer Alan Evans. Guitarist Cris Jacobs and keyboardist Ivan Neville were among those that joined in the fun before I called it a day around 3:30 a.m. Jam Cruise is a marathon not a sprint and Saturday is a full day of action starting at noon and running through 5 a.m. I love that unlike most festivals I could walk from the Jam Room to my incredibly comfortable cabin in about four minutes. Check back tomorrow for a full report on Saturday.
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