You’re Going To Have The BEST Time! — Jam Cruise 18 Highlights From A 1st-Timer

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“This is your first Jam Cruise? You’re going to have the BEST time!”

I was told that no fewer than 20 times in the early days of Jam Cruise 18, which set sail from Miami on January 7, with stops at a private Bahamian island and Costa Maya, Mexico before returning to the U.S. on January 12.

Rather than dig deep into the musical highlights — indeed, they were tremendous and my colleague Scott Bernstein did a wonderful job of laying out what went down (check out highlights from day one, two, three, the day four outstanding moe. set and days four and five) — my intention instead is to give an idea of what to expect when coming aboard Jam Cruise.

As a long-time jammer, but a first-time cruiser I’d heard for years Jam Cruise was a festival at sea, yet that doesn’t quite capture it. It’s an extravagant experiential event – a wonderfully orchestrated nautical affair – concentrated around musical interplay not found in a similar setting anywhere.

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There were moments where I felt true wonderment at my surroundings, where the lines between performer and audience were deliciously blurred. There’s always a symbiotic relationship in live music and it felt particularly true within the intimate settings that make up Jam Cruise.

The ‘Cruise set are committed to the experience and frequently dress to impress, both on official and unofficial theme nights. With highly inventive outfits, often sequined to the gills, this audience and their visual eye candy were ready to give the artists on stage everything they’d brought.

The artists on board, in turn, each played top-notch, creative sets riddled with sit-ins and playfully unique moments. Hours later at another set, you’d find yourself standing next to the performers who’d recently blown your mind as they watched their colleagues throw down. That cycle continued all the entire voyage.

The challenge, of course, is that there are simultaneous amazing sets happening nonstop – by my estimation roughly 100 musical acts over the five days. Trying to approach with any rationality the prioritization of one act over any other became mostly futile. It was like pitting artists in a mental cage match. So, I stopped planning and just went with the flow. There were some acts I didn’t want to miss, and those shows became my anchors as I just floated from venue to venue – or not – as the spirit moved me.

Going in, some of my must-see acts were The Claypool Lennon Delirium and Les Claypool’s Bastard Jazz, Circles Around the Sun with Eric Krasno, OG Garage A Trois, Robert Walter’s 20th Congress, Ivan Neville, moe., Lotus, Karina Rykman, Joe Marcinek, Cory Wong and Charlie Hunter. Though some of these artists played two sets, I realize now how ambitious my plan was given the number of artists I discovered along the way.

One of my favorite discoveries was Tank and the Bangas. Serious wow factor, folks. They’re a big band with lots going on: theatrics, tremendous vocals and complex instrumentation. Ditto with Samantha Fish. She’s like lightning in a bottle and her band is hot on her heels. I also really enjoyed Mihali’ solo set, and Aron Magner’s piano set as well as SPAGA. I loved the high energy the-Soul-Rebels and, on the final night, couldn’t be torn away from Electron.

The Divina houses six official venues ranging in capacity from the balconied Pantheon Theatre and Pool Deck, each topping 1,500+, to the Golden Jazz Bar at around 100+. Scheduled bands started around 3 p.m. each day, however, on the two days at sea, music started a bit earlier. Other scheduled activities included those around wellness (yoga, nutrition, meditation, etc.), beer tasting with the Brews at Sea crew, autograph signings and intimate Q&A-type activities.

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There was also an abundance of pop-up musical gatherings: duos in hallways, impromptu congregations in elevator bank landings and Nathan Moore’s nightly acoustic jam session in The Spot.

Each “night” the music wrapped up around 6 a.m., with the highly anticipated and music-you’ll-never-hear-anywhere-else nightly jam sessions in the Black & White Lounge or with DJs on the dancefloor at the top of the ship in the Galaxy Disco. Catch a few hours of sleep: rinse, lather, repeat.

My favorite venue ended up being the Atrium, a three-story funnel with artists on the ground floor and fans wrapped around them and extending upward two more stories. Fans also chose to watch Atrium sets from within the bubble of the twin Disco Express elevators, again blurring the line between performer and fans.

The Pool Deck of the Divina was home to two venues facing one another, the other being the smaller Brews at Sea Stage, which allowed the audience to simply pivot 180 degrees when select performances ended. With a semi-circular balcony one deck up, the dual venues – exposed to the elements – hosted some of the weekend’s wildest, windy, rollicking sets.

While immersion into the music was its own joy, the rest of the experience provided by Cloud 9 Adventures exceeded every single perception I had. Their commitment to excellence – shows’ production value and scheduling of other activities, decoration of the boat each night, customized souvenirs, their agility to move entire sets to different venues due to weather on a moment’s notice – absolutely remarkable. Also, shout out to the photographers who covered this event. Those guys were hustling!

I feel, too, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the boat herself, MSC’s Divina. With chrome, mirrors, pools, glass, dazzling lights, muted carpets, and massive Swarovski crystal staircases, the eyes were enticed at every turn. One couldn’t help running a finger along expansive velour banquettes, draping oneself over a polished railing, or tumbling into soft leather couches with a frosty cocktail.

The Divina’s crew was friendly and playful and kept the boat and cabins – despite feathers, glitter, and lagniappe dotting most surfaces – spotless. Many staff mentioned that we were far more fun than their typical guests. Happy to oblige!

I’m extremely grateful for having had the opportunity to get on the boat. I joked to Scott that I felt like I’d been training for Jam Cruise my entire life, and the people I spoke to at the start of the journey weren’t wrong: it literally was one of the best times I’ve had seeing multiple days of live music.

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Someone gave me a magnet at one point that perfectly sums up the Jam Cruise experience. It read: Outrageous? Always. Out rage us? Never.

I couldn’t agree more. Happy cruisin’!