Jam Cruise 9 | Review | Pics

Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Chad Smith, Dave Vann & Chris Monaghan

Jam Cruise 9 :: 01.04.11- :: MSC Poesia :: Ft. Lauderdale, FL – Roatan, Honduras – Costa Maya, Mexico

Jamcruisers by Chad Smith
Ride, captain ride upon your mystery ship
Be amazed at the friends you have here on your trip
Ride captain ride upon your mystery ship
On your way to a world that others might have missed

It’s not uncommon for people to dream about Jam Cruise once they’ve attended it once. Our lives are largely made up of small movements and reliable routines and Jam Cruise is a grand scale experience, a bold and evolving vision that takes one, literally and figuratively, out of the norm and into magic, revelatory spaces. It is a music festival but that sells short the potential of this journey. It hits you as the anchor rises and the first notes slam into you that there’s something profoundly different about a festival that goes places rather than everyone settling into their tents in a stable environment. In just this basic sense, Jam Cruise is another animal from Bonnaroo, High Sierra, etc. The notion of being on an adventure is palpable as the city lights and shoreline drop away and all that’s left are the waves, open sky and the wondrous community that springs up on the ship – a shared dream with myriad faces brought to happy fruition.

All this dreaming becomes manifest even before folks have gotten on the ship, itself a massive floating city full of more nooks & crannies than anyone could possibly explore. Strangers whip up Bloody Marys at the port while people compare costumes and trade stories of cruises past. Newcomers are welcomed with open arms and gently guided through the ins & outs of Jam Cruising. Even though this was only my second time aboard, I found myself eager to make newbies feel at home and do what I could to build their confidence, and this inclination seems the rule for the veterans, who all seem to understand how unique and special Jam Cruise is. Music is the common thread that brings everyone to the ship, but there’s something deeper afoot.

Party People by Chris Monaghan
Where we might never speak to our neighbors at home, we immediately join together as a community and that sense only grows over the five days at sea. One is encouraged to pull as much pleasure and joy as they can from the trip and this goes beyond a mere “good time.” What I’ve experienced and seen happen in many others is the filters and masks we employ out of necessity in the “real world” drop away and one is revealed as they truly are. The conversations, often with folks we’ve met only moments before, dip into every corner of our lives and are met with a compassion and gentle wisdom that simply floors me. Walking around one is greeted with smiles and high-fives, a jovial, living Namaste that warms one to the core over time. The world at home, with rare exceptions, is not nearly so congenial.

It’s incredibly potent and revitalizing to see hundreds of people at perhaps the happiest they will be all year long – and to know at different spots around the ship the same scene is unfolding with different groups. The musicians, too, for the most part dig a bit deeper and open themselves up to this vibe, making themselves available in a way they might avoid elsewhere, and reveling in their own adventures – visiting foreign soil, playing with up & comers and legends, and generally rediscovering why they chose this life in the first place. Taken together, there is SO much positive energy, good will and creativity afloat on Jam Cruise that one’s faith in humanity’s potential is rekindled a bit. If we can do this then why not other great and beautiful and nourishing things?

Continue reading for Day One of Jam Cruise 9…

Tuesday, January 4

Big Sam’s Funky Nation by Dave Vann
Big Sam’s Funky Nation :: 7:00-8:30 PM :: Pool Deck
The Sail Away Party is a wonderful, unifying experience. With raised glasses and whoops, we embark together, unsure of where the next week will take us but certain we’ll be in good company wherever we wind up. The organizers have a knack for picking kick-off bands that blow the doors off the joint, and Big Sam and his tight, tough funk band were true to form. Driving everybody onto the dancefloor and showing off better moves than most of us will ever possess, the Funky Nation were a bouncing, excited tour through popular music, dropping bits of Prince (“Sexy MF”), Gnarls Barkley (“Crazy”) and many others and making time for some primo robot vocals and guest turns from Meters’ guitar legend Leo Nocentelli and JB’s trombonist Fred Wesley, who were regular sit-ins for many acts throughout the week. One left this set churned up and raring to go. Job well done!

Greensky Bluegrass :: 9:15-10:45 PM :: Zebra Bar
While many were on deck getting their Dead on with Bob Weir on the pool deck, a small group received a treat from these Michigan-based pickers, who inspired us to kick the dust up from the zebra print carpet and perhaps more importantly, simmer down to really take in what they’re laying down. Greensky can rattle and skip with the best string bands but where they truly differentiate themselves from the pack is in their meaty original songwriting and ability to work in drones and textures that recall artists like Ravi Shankar and George Harrison melded to sweet harmonies and fierce picking. I was struck by what a full sound they have despite the lack of drums, which frankly might take something away. And put in service of songs barbed with truth and drawn from introspection, their music simply lingers.

Greensky’s Paul Hoffman by Chris Monaghan
There are some downright pretty melodies and swoon-y instrumental runs, too. I also like that their soloing is always in service of the song and not just a chance to showboat. At one point singer-mandolinist Paul Hoffman said, “My only complaint about this Jam Cruise is I can’t remember what day of the week it is. I say we go to a numbers system. Saturday Number One, Saturday Number Two…Who cares what day of the week is it? You’ve got nothing to do and we’re all trapped [laughs].” Their set culminated in a jam out of a cover of the Allmans’ “One Way Out” that was full of coolly controlled power and intense soloing. And their theater set on Thursday was even more thoughtful, textured and streamlined, and included a swell cover of Traffic’s “Light Up Or Leave Me Alone” and fine guest turns from Umphrey’s Joel Cummins and artist-at-large Steve Kimock, who shined brightly on a gorgeous cover of Bruce Hornsby’s “King of the Hill.” After the second set on the Cruise, I can officially say I’m in love with Greensky Bluegrass.

Pimps of Joytime :: 11:30 PM-1:00 AM :: Zebra Bar
Damn, these cats are smooth! The PJTs have a flair and top-notch musicianship that sets them apart, not to mention memorable songwriting and ace showmanship. They’re fun to watch, and the music matches their moves. The band were a hand-in-glove fit in the pimp-ready Zebra Bar, where bodies packed together tight to sweat and grind. An undulating energy swept through the crowd, caught up in their sly smiles and catchy-as-hell choruses like, “People say I need to get my shit together/ They don’t know/ They don’t understand.” Brian J is a natural born leader who oozes buckets of charisma – babies will be made to this music – and he’s also a bloody great guitarist, twisting strings in a really unique way that really separates PJT from the Meters/JB copying hordes.

Anders Osborne Band by Chris Monaghan
Anders Osborne :: 11:45 PM-1:15 AM :: Teatro Carlo Felice
Just the look of Anders Osborne suggests wildness, an untamable spirit, and his music kinda follows suit. He unleashed a lot of gnarly, distortion rich guitar in the classy theater backed by Stanton Moore (drums), Carl Dufrene (bass), Robert Walter (keys) and for a chunk of the set Scott Metzger and Will Bernard (guitars). They produced a dense, rock-oriented noise that steered clear of Osborne’s more New Orleans fare (which he unleashed on the Pool Deck later in the week). This being my first time seeing Osborne, I was knocked sideways by his earthy demeanor, strong songs and lively, unpredictable interplay with some of the best players on the ship. Like many, I left this set determined to learn more about Anders. Can’t pay a bigger compliment than that.

Stockholm Syndrome :: 2:00-4:00 AM :: Teatro Carlo Felice
The term “super group” has been applied to Stockholm Syndrome but “like-minded musicians” may be the better descriptor. Something curious dovetails when Jerry Joseph (lead vocals, guitar), Dave Schools (bass, vocals), Eric McFadden (guitar), Danny Louis (keys) and Wally Ingram (drums) gather.

Stockholm Syndrome by Dave Vann
Different aspects of their musical minds emerge, influences hitherto unseen cropping up in the quietly combative spark with one another. Rock ‘n’ roll is in somewhat short supply on Jam Cruise, so it was a nifty treat to get such a thick dose on the first night. The band jumped off in boogie shoes before hitting the turbo thrusters, with Jerry quickly leaping into preacher mode, snarling lines like, “I’m a killer, baby. That’s what killers do!” McFadden’s use of mandolin is akin to John Paul Jones in Zeppelin, and it’s one of several echoes of Led Zep in Stockholm, who possess a similar range and ballsy density. A spectacular reading of “The Jacob Ladder” threw a bone to the many Panic fans in the audience, but it was new tunes like “Apollo,” a Pink Floyd-y simmer and the title cut from their forthcoming sophomore album, that really snagged one’s attention. However, all was not heaviness and grind with Stockholm showing colors reminiscent of Paul Simon’s African phase and classic roots rock. As usual, it’s the vast potential of this band that smacks one about and makes one curious what might happen if this were their full-time gig. Still, there are worst things than leaving people hungry for more.

Continue reading for Day Two of Jam Cruise 9…

Wednesday, January 5

Belly Dancers by Chad Smith
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.

Sailor Gals by Dave Vann
Cornmeal :: 11:45 AM-1:00 PM :: Pool Deck
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.

Jen Hartswich Set by Chad Smith
Jennifer Hartswick :: 3:00-3:45 PM :: Solar Stage
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!

Nigel Hall by Dave Vann
Some Cat From Japan :: 6:00-8:00 PM :: Pool Deck
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.

Zebra by Chad Smith
ALO :: 9:00-10:30 PM :: Zebra Bar
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.

Jamcruiser by Chris Monaghan
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.”


Teddy Bears by Chad Smith
The sea howl and the sea yelp, are different voices
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…

Thursday, January 6

Honduras by Chris Monaghan
Another heartening difference between Jam Cruise and other cruises is how they treat the ports the ship visits. In Roatan, Honduras this day and the next day in Costa Maya Mexico, the organizers arranged concerts for school children, eco-minded excursions and brought school supplies donated by attendees to those in need. There’s a conscious effort to not be another floating ATM machine full of Westerners that come ashore, pillage goods and services and then jet away. This is still a luxury adventure, particularly for those used to sleeping bags and camp stoves, but there’s a strong infusion of compassion and humanity into what is too often just a celebration of consumption and excess.

This spirit extends to coordinated recycling bins throughout the ship and Jam Cruise’s vigorous attempt to get passengers to invest in carbon offsets with a small donation which came with the reward of a lively Everyone Orchestra performance on the final day, where Matt Butler was in particularly fine form, conducting with telepathic understanding, a true musician’s musician with the ability to draw things out of players they likely didn’t know they had in them.

While it would be easy to just eat, drink and be merry, Jam Cruise makes a real effort to be more, to connect people with the environment and the places it visits in a deeper way that makes those that pitch in better citizens of the world.

Easy Star All-Stars :: 5:30-7:00 PM :: Pool Deck
Once again, sailing away produced a happy, almost mythological churn in my belly as the lush shores of Honduras faded to the utterly on-the-money reggae of Easy Star. While the group has gotten the majority of its attention for laying some irie on Dark Side of the Moon, Sgt. Pepper and OK Computer, the originals they played this set were some of the strongest since the prime days of Marley, Tosh, et al. And their handling of rock classics is a reggae tradition that goes way back, where popular music in the West found new life in Jamaica – there would be no ska without Motown/Stax. Easy Star’s vocal blend is delicious, all the singers filled with warmth and appealing phrasing, and their ongoing presence in the jam scene has brought their individual chops as instrumentalists to the fore in a cool way. Put another way, they solo and shine in ways a lot of contemporary reggae doesn’t, perhaps stirred on by jam’s Cult of the Shredder mentality. Still, it’s the group feel that most captures one with Easy Star and gives fresh life to familiar numbers, exemplified by the yummy run from The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper > I Get By With Some Help From My Friends” into Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” and out into a crushingly sublime take on Radiohead’s “Lucky” that was nearly the equal of the original. This is reggae at its best that honors tradition and expands the genre with skill and style.

Zach Gill by Chad Smith
Zach Gill :: 7:30-8:15 PM :: The Atrium
In the staircase encircled ship’s main lobby sits an acrylic, clear top grand piano. It’s the kind of instrument Liberace might have kept as a backup if one of his ornate babies went out of tune, and each night a different keyboardist took a turn on it during the dinner period – The New Mastersounds’ Joe Tatton on Tuesday, Marco Benevento on Wednesday, Gill on Thursday, Widespread’s JoJo Hermann on Friday and Umphrey’s Joel Cummins on Saturday. Each had VERY different approaches but Gill perhaps captured the Piano Man heart of the instrument best. Emerging a little worse for wear in a hat snatched from M.A.S.H.’s Hawkeye, Gill settled in lackadaisically, asking us what we wanted to hear. What we got was an inviting mixture of songs about childhood, family and hope – some originals, some well-picked covers like Billy Joel’s “My Life” and a sing-along inducing version of Elton John’s “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues.” With a small wooden sailboat on top of the piano, Gill honored piano bar tradition with a touch of modern flair.

Dave Schools by Chad Smith
Stockholm Syndrome :: 9:15-11:00 PM :: Pool Deck
Anyone familiar with Stockholm would likely have been surprised by how cheery and bubbly they were at this set. Most of the dark, grizzled, politically charged material (largely drawn from Jerry Joseph’s catalog) was left aside to reveal a hitherto unknown Latin bent, a saucy cover of the Climax Blues Band’s “Couldn’t Get It Right” and more new songs that show there’s more to this band than their debut and handful of tours previously indicated. Schools looks like he’s having the time of his life, Ingram shows off his big rock drummer chops, McFadden and Joseph shred mightily and Danny Louis is exposed in a way that shows off what a wacked keyboard wizard he truly is. A punkish “Conscious Contact” was another highlight, and overall this set only amped my curiosity about what this band might produce down the line.

Big Gigantic by Chad Smith
Big Gigantic :: 11:45 PM-1:30 AM :: Pool Deck
Very rarely does a band blow me away the first time I see them. The adjustment to their vibe usually takes a time or two, but so immediate and sultry is Big Gigantic’s thang that I found resistance futile. It’s definitely dance music, but with much greater dynamics and musicality than most working a similar vein today. They don’t rely on obvious samples to get over with the crowd, instead diggin’ hard for sounds and beat configurations that will stimulate groove people. Drummer Jeremy Salken pumps blood into the machine rhtyhms andDominic Lalli is a blur of keyboards, samples, triggered beats, loops and saxophone freakiness that compares favorably to Jam Cruise vet Skerik. Big Gigantic plays to the tastes of dance music fans but expands upon them in a really nifty way.

Garage A Trois by Dave Vann
Garage A Trois :: 2:15-4:00 AM :: Pool Deck
In perhaps the most aerobic set of the Cruise (down to matching track suits), Skerik (saxophonics), Mike Dillon (vibes, marimba, percussion), Stanton Moore (drums) and Marco Benevento worked up a crazed lather as they laid down instrumental music without borders or clear precedent. They always make me feel giddily unmoored, a feeling intensified by the rockin’ of the ship. They were on their best mis-behavior in front of a totally engaged, lit-up audience eager to devour their strangeness. One gets the sense they dare one another to go beyond throughout their sets, speeding up to insane levels or working with space in a daring, uncontrolled way. Personally, this is my favorite Stanton Moore project because it most removes him from his New Orleans comfort zone. You could see him out on the edge again and again in this set, poked and prodded by the three circus lunatics in the foreground. When so much in the world is structured and ordered, it’s a joy to wallow around in such lawless sonics.

Lotus by Chad Smith
Lotus:: 2:00-4:00 AM :: Teatro Carlo Felice
I’m the first to confess that what Lotus does isn’t my first love musically but the band really unlocked for me at this set, which featured the most dramatic, empathetic light show of the cruise. What came through was what REALLY good musicians these four are, and how well they understand the ebb & flow of today’s instrumental music, which is often more about mood and texture than straight melody, though they have a good deal of that, too. Their drummer has the crack of Art Blakey in a post Aphex Twin world, forming an ever-solid center around which the others swoop and swerve. The music carries echoes of primo jazz fusion, early Tangerine Dream, Boards of Canada, Kratwerk, 70s film scores and even Dream Theater in some proggy moments. Lotus hits the same pleasure points as electronic music, stimulating synapses with real artistry, but they don’t succumb to bald repetition and pounding intensity too common with most electronic music. And it was SUCH a scene in the theater – gypsies and zebra striped kids weaving about, a group of rotund clowns working what the ringmaster gave them in the balcony. Below, glow sticks flew through the air as people sparkled and shimmied in time to the ever-changing music. A gangsta lean guest turn from Dominic Lalli didn’t hurt, and the exuberance of Lotus’ followers proved quite infectious.

Interlude Two

George Porter Jr. & Ian Neville by Chad Smith
The Jam Room is a nightly event on the ship where the musicians take over one of the lounge bars. It’s a cutting session of the highest order and a chance to see way, way too much talent on one stage. It’s where the musicians often end up after their own sets, and it’s a meeting ground for all styles, though funk/soul predominates. On this night, one of Jam Cruise’s royalty George Porter Jr. was the host – other nights were helmed by Tony Hall, Wally Ingram, Big Sam and Steve Kimock – and George was working his eager participants like sled dogs. When I walked in a bit after 4 am, the lounge was packed and the music was loud and razor sharp. This didn’t let up for hours, and once again left me flabbergasted at the stamina and invention of the players on Jam Cruise. Not everyone can hang in such an environment, sliding in and out of pieces that often come to life in the moment, but there was no lack of musical greatness to be had any hour in the Jam Room.

If one stepped outside onto the deck just outside the funky roar, they discovered Nathan Moore, Bryan Elijah Smith, Greensky’s stunning dobro genious Anders Beck and a rotating cast of musicians and passengers picking away. It was unutterably organic and lovely to see music, unplanned, unscheduled, burbling away. It was music for the pure joy of it, and it made one stomp their feet and hoot and reach for the sky in happiness. And it went on for hours, greeting the sunrise with a sing-along “You Are My Sunshine,” with the whole hootenanny happening again the next night. Nathan is one of those wonderful catalysts that brings out the song in our hearts and inspires us to open our lips and just sing it to whoever might be around. Sometimes that was Kimock, borrowing Beck’s dobro and picking Dead melodies, and sometimes it was just regular folks with a ukulele and a fractured voice, but it was always magical and a real step outside of normal life. This sort of thing happens on Jam Cruise, which creates an environment friendly to such impromptu shows of creativity, and one is just lucky to stumble across them in their rambling.

Continue reading for Day Four of Jam Cruise 9…

Friday, January 7

Cornmeal/Greensky by Dave Vann
Pickin’ Party – Rock Covers :: 5:00-6:00 PM :: Zebra Bar
Greensky Bluegrass and Cornmeal joined forces for this year’s pickin’ party, which tackled classic rock numbers with audience members playing along. The musicians would announce a basic chord structure and occasionally call out changes, and the whole thing would trundle out of the gate with ragged charm. Beginning with a bonafide gem, Grand Funk Railroad’s “We’re An American Band” (announced as one of Homer Simpson’s favorites), it would have been nearly impossible not to have fun at this set, which included a stab at Bob Seger’s “Turn The Page,” The Beatles’ “Get Back”, fine woo-hoos from the crowd on “Sympathy For The Devil” and some choice spoon and harmonica solos from audience members. While both Cornmeal and Greensky are known as string bands, this session showed off the rock ‘n’ roll souls some of us having been picking up on for ages.

Pool Deck by Chris Monaghan
God Street Wine :: 8:30-10:30 PM :: Pool Deck
Beginning with a superb cover of Van Morrison’s “Into The Mystic,” God Street Wine’s second set of the cruise rolled out with the same near-perfect execution. Once again, their jamming always went somewhere; a real group activity, conversational, motion-filled, lively. During Leo Nocentelli’s guest turn it occurred to me that Jam Cruise is a real temple to the archetypes of modern music. Just this cruise featured core members of the Grateful Dead, The Meters and James Brown’s band, all of whom enthusiastically reveled in the chance to show off their chops whenever opportunity arose. Again, even if one were unfamiliar with God Street’s music, the tunes were immediately enjoyable and a great platform for their guests like Anders Osborne, who dove in, head bobbing, eyes steely, with an expression that said, “I’m gonna get me some!” Later, Anders Beck joined them for a rollicking “Get On The Train,” a song equal to Dylan during his blazing Highway 61 Revisited period. While it’s highly unlikely these guys will ever return to full-time touring, it’s to be hoped that they make another Jam Cruise appearance along with select land-based fest gigs. The music is too good not to be shared with more people.

NMS w/ Jen Hartswick by Chad Smith
The New Mastersounds :: 11:15 PM-1:15 AM :: Pool Deck
NMS do it clean and sharp. There’s nothing flabby about their approach to instrumental funk ‘n’ soul, and it inspires others to keep it neat and tight, too. While Robert Walter, Roosevelt Collier from The Lee Boys, Jennifer Hartswick, Mike Dillon and Zach Deputy played with hordes of others on this trip, they turned in some of their most concise, pointed playing with the Mastersounds at this set. But that’s just gravy for the core playing of this quartet, particularly the lightning fast guitar of Eddie Roberts (who also beats a tambourine with the possessed verve of a Baptist choir member) and the luxurious, feel-first bass work of Pete Shand, who proved my personal favorite of all the very gifted bassists on JC 9. The guy just crawls inside the musculature of a groove and lives there. So bloody satisfying!

Bill Kreutzmann by Chad Smith
The Rhythm Devils :: 2:00-4:00 AM :: Pool Deck
The new lineup of Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart’s long running project was a real rock ‘n’ roll beast. Though playing a number of Grateful Dead numbers, this band – comprised of the drummers, Tim Bluhm (guitar, vocals), Davy Knowles (guitar, vocals), Andy Hess (bass) and Sikiru Adepoju (talking drum) with Steve Kimock joining them on the Cruise – moves along a MUCH different current. One recognizes the melodies and words but the feel is quite different. For one thing, Bluhm and Knowles are have much stronger voices than Weir or Garcia. Hey, I love Jerry and Bob as much as the next guy, but there’s something really cool about hearing powerful, dexterous vocalists tackle pieces like “Ship of Fools,” “U.S. Blues” and “Ripple.” This isn’t said to be disrespectful but to simply point out a key difference. Mickey and Billy didn’t choose these guys casually, and the difference is really felt in the new originals, where the drummers even lay down their version of a straight backbeat on a couple poppier pieces.

Rhythm Devils by Dave Vann
This group also cooked on classics like “Cumberland Blues” and “Uncle John’s Band,” breathing air into the familiar. I think it helps that Knowles, Hess and Bluhm weren’t tie-dyed-in-the-wool Deadheads before joining up. This music is largely new to them and thus comes across to our ears with a freshness that’s exciting. Hess is especially striking in how he converses with the drummers, finding a tough, harmonious groove that’s worlds away from Phil Lesh. He listens really hard, responding and adapting in the moment, and always coming out the other side right in tune with Kreutzmann and Hart. The finale of “Good Lovin’” included a nice chant of “Turn this boat around/ ‘Cause we don’t want to go home” led by Bluhm, who came into his own by set’s end. For however long this band lasts, they’re making arguably the most interesting Dead music happening right now.

Continue reading for Day Five of Jam Cruise 9…

Saturday, January 8

Pool Deck by Dave Vann
Pimps of Joytime :: 11:30 AM-12:45 PM :: Pool Deck
A wake-up call in several respects, PJT burned hot as the opener to the final day before we arrived back in Florida. Thankfully, they didn’t pull any punches despite being on at a time when many were nursing hangovers and simply trying to muster the energy for a final day of revels. PJT’s voices blended especially well under open skies and their playing threw off serious sparks over lock-tight rhythms. The PJT sound is one with the power to reintroduce musician-made funk to hip-hop kids, a sound both classic and contemporary. Leo N was incendiary on “Janxta Funk!” and other guests included Ivan Neville, Nigel Hall and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, all of whom seemed to bestow a much deserved ancestral blessing on PJT. “We’re a very lucky band today,” said Brian J. “ You can tell everyone else when they wake up that they missed all this.”

Nathan Moore & Bryan Elijah Smith :: 12:45-1:30 PM :: Solar Stage
Appearing as a duo, the pair gave off a strong Everly Brothers vibe, their voices joined in empathetic harmony in service of plain ol’ good songwriting. Standouts included the title track from Smith’s latest album Pour On Me and a brand new tune the boys had written early in the cruise that began, “Look, ma, no hands/ I’m on a ship far from land.” And underneath it all was Moore’s unforced grace, a gentle hand that reaches into the depths of us and loosens feelings, haunting us with lines like, “I know it isn’t true but it doesn’t go away.” His understanding of the human condition is profound and his songs vibrate with his found wisdom. And Smith has a decent measure of the same mojo, too. After the Pimps, it was just the cooling tonic one needed.

ALO :: 1:30-2:45 PM :: Pool Deck
If there’s a better band to enjoy in bright sunlight on a cruise ship deck I can’t come up them. ALO turned on the charm and rejuvenated the flagging energies of the afternoon risers. They have a gift for producing positivity, a charge that eases tensions and lifts spirits, and that gift was on full display this set, which included a saucy extended “Hot Tub” with a Zach friendly shaman rap, some cheeky Gilligan’s Island theme song quotes from Lebo, and a sit-in from Living Colour’s Corey Glover on “Glamour Boys.” There was also a kundalini loosening “Shapeshifter” and a sweet cameo from Tim and Nicki Bluhm, who sang the new Nicki tune “Stick With Me.” A late in set cover of Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ In The Years” made me wonder why I’d never thought of the Dan as an ALO ancestor before. As with the rest of the set, it was pitch perfect and a pleasure.

David Gans by Dave Vann
David Gans :: 2:45-3:30 PM :: Solar Stage
One of the more intense, intimate sets despite a setting where people were bouncing beach balls and chattering away. If you focused in, Gans offered up rich tunes in a timeless voice full of soil and sky and underpinned by some really lovely picking. His POV is that of a vet of the scene who’s witnessed the good and the bad and tells it like it is with clarity and great skill. His Garcia ode “Who Killed Uncle John?” targeted all the right things and moved with the circular logic of 60s Dylan. At times his playing recalled the late Michael Hedges, full of space and ringing rightness, mixed with a touch of Jerry. His darker eye came as a nice contrast on the boat, with one original about festival life built around the refrain of “Go down to the river and drown” as a metaphor for the sometimes outrageous and dangerous behavior one encounters at fests. Gans concluded with one of the prettiest versions of “Brokedown Palace” since Garcia passed, cementing his place as a premiere interpreter of the Dead catalog. But the takeaway from this set is how well formed and unique his original work is and how much more attention it deserves than it has received up to this point.

Anders Osborne :: 3:30-5:00 PM :: Pool Deck
Describing this set from the stage as “a Tuesday night at the Maple Leaf,” Osborne sunk deep into his New Orleans roots, this time backed by the uber-amazing rhythm section of George Porter, Jr. and Johnny Vidacovich. Leo Nocentelli murdered his old classic “People Say” with them, and the whole set Osborne’s guitar was just ferocious, moving from whisper soft single string strikes to a raw growl that might just unleash the hounds at Hell’s gate. At one point, Bill Kreutzmann leaned in to play a cymbal and floor tom over Johnny V’s shoulder, drawn in by the music and unable to restrain himself. This feeling seems to infect even the most jaded musicians once they settle into Jam Cruise, and it was on display a lot at this set, which secured Anders place as one of this year’s standouts.

Wyllys & Joel Cummins by Chad Smith
Brock Butler & Wyllys :: 5:00-5:45 PM :: Solar Stage
Butler showed off his rangy electric guitar chops alongside slamming DJ Wyllys in a set that raised energy levels and woke up the dancers on deck. At every turn, these two gave the ear something interesting to grab onto. They were aided by Joel Cummins with some wicked Moog action on a few numbers, and even made time to bring up some friends for a little salute to Phish and the search for sanity that clearly moved a lot the crowd.

Maceo Parker Super Jam :: 5:45-7:15 PM :: Pool Deck
Maceo was one of the classiest, coolest dudes on the boat, and this set showed how well his fellow musicians love him, too. One of THE godfathers of funk took an all-star cast including Karl Denson, Skerik, Fred Wesley, Pee Wee Ellis, Robert Walter and countless others through their paces, offering a brief history lesson in how jazz turned into soul and soul into funk. The climax of “Pass The Peas” had the entire space humming, leaping and pretty much willing to do Maceo’s bidding. Jam Cruise gives a grandmaster like Maceo the spotlight and mass appreciation he deserves and in turn he turned the mother out hard.

Maceo Parker by Chris Monaghan
The Rhythm Devils :: 9:15-11:15 PM :: Teatro Carlo Felice
Like the previous night, the Devils dived right in, skipping the usual aimless Dead jam, everyone riding the utterly unique rhythm that Mickey and Billy produce, which, as Tim Bluhm pointed out in our recent feature, may be the most distinctive musical trait in the Dead’s sound. Even a staple – predictable in its way – like “Fire On The Mountain” sounded fresh in their hands and neatly tucked into “Scarlet Begonias” in the tail end, Kreutzmann casting a wicked grin as they band hit on all cylinders and really started to swing. Billy honestly seems to experiencing a real resurgence with thes Devils and 7 Walkers, and it’s glorious to see one of the greatest drummers of all-time dancing in his stool again. The line “strangers stopping strangers just to shake their hand” got a massive roar and had people turning to those around them to exchange a shake or hug like it was the Passing of the Peace at a church service. Kimock was more fun at this set, throwing in Garcia-y accents but also sparking off the differences in this lineup. “Friend of the Devil” had a nice country twang in Bluhm’s handling, and new one “Voodoo Zombies” turned things back to rock territory with a thick groove and some the best lyrics Hart’s ever penned. The “Drums” spotlight led into a biting “The Eleven,” a tune this band does better than any I’ve heard since Jerry passed. Davy Knowles sang lead on an exquisite “So Many Roads” that got a lot of us choked up. They countered that feeling with a “New Speedway Boogie” that emphasized the boogie and had Bluhm complete soaring on the vocals over a chunky new rhythm structure and Knowles’ blues guitar accents. In their hands, this music is exciting, particularly the songs they’ve developed together, which is a striking difference to the many séances going on that seem focused on bringing back something that left this world with Garcia. The Rhythm Devils are focused on the far horizon, even when playing old favorites, and that’s nothing but a good thing.


Jamcruisers by Chad Smith
A gathering of angels appeared above my head,
They sang to me this song of hope and this is what they said,
They said come sail away, come sail away, come sail away with me lads.

The remainder of my last night aboard was spent wandering, letting my subconscious soak up all the wonderful random beauty and strangeness happening all over the ship, fuel for my dreaming in the days before the next Jam Cruise. And there was so much to draw from, even at the end: Hemp kids high-steppin’ to Cornmeal as the last zebra people ran wild in the halls; people doing The Robot to “Axel F” at the The New Mastersounds’ dance-off; a porno clown with gigantic, glittering cock giggling as he menaced the laughing staff with his member; sweet, tired drifters shambling aimless and already mourning the end; folks spinning and throwing the last glow sticks as Lotus carved happiness in sound waves before a meditative, lovely denouement; the true partiers sucking all the marrow out of life in the disco and Jam Room; the crew that seemed a little sad to see us go; all the clever, funny door and hallway decorations (a fave: a sign that read “Don’t worry and pet the fuzzy rug” on top of a plush brown rug hung in a hallway) and more and more and more. Everywhere one turned, life seemed to explode. To call it evocative would be to sell it far short.

Porno Clowns by Chad Smith
The “jam” in the Cruise’s name is not some genre or record label tag. It’s an upfront pronouncement that folks can mix it up here and that the usual rules don’t apply. Jam Cruise is a open environment that brings out the child within, the one eager to play, the one open to new experiences and anxious to make new friends. Out of necessity we cannot live like this on shore. The world is too sharp and dangerous to walk around like that, but for a brief time we can can live this way in what is an undeniable Mecca for music lovers. It’s tough to imagine someone not being turned on by the music on this boat, regardless of their tastes. Sure, a little light on metal and heavier stuff, but I think there’s ways they could incorporate that into the mix if they wanted to – they already bump shoulders with it allowing Mike D and Skerik to hold court. Add to this 24-hour food, cabins with your own bed and shower, satellite TV if you want to see what’s happening on the planet elsewhere (or watch the daily dose of photos and set excerpts from the previous days on Jam Cruise TV), a spa, hot tubs, endless bars and many more amenities and Jam Cruise comes out as something worth saving for, even forgoing other pleasures, other fests, if music holds a central place in your life. It’s a journey one should take at least once but don’t be surprised if you find yourself powerless to resist when the next one starts booking. Simply put, it’s a bit of a paradise with an absolutely monster soundtrack.

Jamcruisers by Dave Vann
Oh, the dreams started the first night I returned and always leave me smiling when I awake.

Here are our thoughts, voyagers’ thoughts,
Here not the land, firm land, alone appears, may then by them be said,
The sky o’erarches here, we feel the undulating deck beneath our feet,
We feel the long pulsation, ebb and flow of endless motion,
The tones of unseen mystery, the vague and vast suggestions of the briny world, the liquid-flowing syllables,
The perfume, the faint creaking of the cordage, the melancholy rhythm,
The boundless vista and the horizon far and dim are all here,
And this is ocean’s poem.

-Walt Whitman – In Cabin’d Ships at Sea

Continue reading for a few more tidbits on Jam Cruise 9…

Jam Cruise 9 All-Stars

There was no lack of talent on the boat, in fact, it’s nothing but pros and future pros. But over their many guest turns these three musicians showed themselves to be a reliable source of inspiration to their compatriots in multiple, varied setting on top of being hugely able soloist and massive talents due an extra measure of props this year. One trait they all shared is the gift of under-playing when all around them noodled mightily. I raise my glass to all three and promise to buy their first drink if we wind up on the boat together again.

1. Nigel Hall
Pipes from Heaven, major keyboard kung-fu and a nice chap to boot. When you see Nigel step up you know it’s about to get good, every single time.

2. Jennifer Hartswick
Pipes also from Heaven, charming stage presence, trumpeter extraordinaire. She’s someone you want on your team no matter what game you’re playing.

3. Anders Beck
He makes the dobro sing and cry, weaving into spaces missed by other musicians, stirring strong feelings without a single word. Time will likely show him to be an advancer of his instrument, someone who pioneered new possibilities for the dobro and inspired others to take the path less traveled.

10 Thematic Cover Song Suggestions For Jam Cruise 10

Cover tunes are a big thing on the boat. Bands break out new ones especially for JC, and sea/ocean themed numbers always go over great. With that in mind, here’s a few ideas for artists to tackle next time.

1. Roger McGuinn’s “Jolly Roger”
2. Procol Harum’s “A Salty Dog”
3. Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather”
4. Styx’s “Come Sail Away”
5. Robert Plant’s “Ship of Fools”
6. Little Feat’s “Sailin’ Shoes”
7. Kansas’ “Point of No Return”
8. The Blues Image’s “Ride Captain Ride”
9. Jefferson Airplane/Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Wooden Ships”
10. Fred Neil’s “The Dolphins”

5 Humble Lineup Suggestions For Jam Cruise 10

1. Clutch
A bit outside of JC’s usual comfort zone but actually a superb fit given their range into dub, psych and blues. Clutch would provide a welcome splash of heaviness, and they could also do a set as their jazz-inflected instrumental alter-ego The Bakerton Group, which dovetails nicely with prior JC vets like Garage A Trois and Go-Go Jungle. I think they would be a major surprise for Jamcruisers.

2. Living Colour
Lead singer Corey Glover was on the boat with Galactic this year and dug the heck out of the cruise. Next step is to bring him back with his own band, who are playing better than ever, to flip lids. Who doesn’t want to see Vernon Reid in the Jam Room?

3. 7 Walkers
Bill Kreutzmann clearly had a great time this year and George Porter Jr. is a staple of the cruise. That just leaves Papa Mali and Matt Hubbard. This quartet is stunning live, working some of the best lyrics Robert Hunter has written in 20 years and weaving a deeply Southern kind of voodoo.

4. Chris Robinson Band
With The Black Crowes taking a long hiatus, Chris is embarking on a solo band in 2011. They plan to stick to the West Coast for the most part so it would be a treat for folks to catch them on JC 10. Chris thrives in environments like Jam Cruise. As he said to me at last year’s High Sierra, “If there’s a bunch of loose, barefoot people getting down to my music then I’m in the right place.”

5. Chuck Brown
A late night chat with Robert Walter this year brought up the idea of some quality D.C. Go-Go for the boat, and who better than “The Godfather of Go-Go”? I foresee many hands in the air with Chuck making the pool deck bounce.

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