Jam Cruise Journal: Day 1 – We’re Off To See The Wizards

Words by: Scott Bernstein

Images by: Joshua Timmermans

Jam Cruise 14 – Day One :: 01.06.16 :: MSC Divinia

For five days each January, live music fans from around the globe gather for Jam Cruise, a floating music festival. Jam Cruise set off for its 14th installment in 13 years (Jam Cruise 1 and 2 were both held in 2004) from the Port Of Miami aboard the MSC Divina on Wednesday night filled to the brim with musicians from every neck of the jam world and the fans who love them. This is one week where “jam band” isn’t a bad term and those on board have not only accepted the oft-maligned designation but embraced the wide range of music, sharp improvisation and exciting collaborations that marks the best of the genre.

The music doesn’t start until 7 p.m. on the first day of the trip which gives cruisers a chance to acclimate to their surroundings after boarding. I’ve done the last seven Jam Cruises and this is my third on the Divinia, but it still takes me a day to get my sense of direction down so I can only imagine how long it takes Jam Cruise virgins to do the same. Speaking of Jam Cruise virgins, one of my favorite parts of the trip is watching the looks of amusement, amazement and incredulity on the faces of those partaking in this musical utopia for the first time. There’s just nothing like it for jam fans as the music runs at nearly all hours of the day on a luxurious cruise ship. It’s one thing to end your day at a busy festival by sleeping in a tent or even taking a drive to a nearby hotel, but on Jam Cruise your comfy cabin with most of the amenities of home is within a five minute walk.

Boarding took a little longer than usual this year thanks to a delay clearing people off Holy Ship, an EDM-centric cruise that the Divinia hosted before Jam Cruise 14. Once aboard it was hard to walk more than a few steps before witnessing gatherings of old friends brimming with excitement at finally being on the boat. Many groups wear similar shirts for the first day – for instance a group of Pittsburgh area jam fans were sporting black and yellow “Funk Yinz Face” t-shirts which made them easy to pick out in a crowd.

Ivan Neville and Dumpstaphunk were given the honors of the first performance on Jam Cruise 14. The New Orleans funk act played a “Sail Away Set” on the Pool Deck following a toast from the principals of Cloud 9 Adventures, the company behind the trip. There was a time when Neville’s outfit was a can’t miss act, but at some point their sets became a bit stale as they relied on much of the same material. Thankfully, Neville and Co. came out with a fantastic album in the form of Dirty Word and added a slew of covers to their repertoire. Color me impressed. The band employs two bass players (Tony Hall and Nick Daniels) which gives them a distinctive sound and they’ve recently been touring with a three-piece horn section dubbed the “Steel Town Horns” who joined the band on Jam Cruise. It didn’t take long for our first collaboration as singer-songwriter Cris Jacobs, formerly of Baltimore’s The Bridge and a severely underrated performer, led Dumpstaphunk and horns through a version of “Don’t Do It” similar to The Band’s cover. The legendary Fred Wesley of James Brown’s band also made an appearance with the New Orleans funksters.

While Dumpstaphunk was performing in front of a packed Pool Deck, keyboardist Nigel Hall presented a solo piano set in the atrium. The piano is setup at the most ornate spot on the Divinia, at the bottom of a crystal-laden spiral staircase that allows fans to line the railings of the stairs and the three levels above to get a good view of the atrium sets. The keyboardist showed off material from his recently released solo debut, Ladies & Gentlemen…Nigel Hall. His soulful voice and instrumental command explains why he keeps getting invited back for these atrium sets. The performance came to a climax when Nigel was joined by Lettuce’s Shady Horns (Ryan Zoidis and Eric “Benny” Bloom) for a powerful “Never Gonna Let You Go.”

Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue are frequent Jam Cruisers who started at the bottom of the lineup and this year scored themselves a headliner slot. Those who keep attending the cruise have watched Troy and his band transition from NOLA’s “best kept secret” to the Crescent City’s mainstream ambassadors thanks to appearances on HBO’s Treme, Shorty’s work with Foo Fighters and the trombonist’s contributions to the recent Peanuts movie. Guitarist Pete Murano always impressed, but he’s kicked it up a few notches since the band’s last Jam Cruise performance. Murano gives Orleans Avenue more of a rock sound than funk, which this writer certainly appreciates. As a bonus treat Ivan Neville sat-in on keys for the majority of Shorty’s set which was highlighted by Wesley adding trombone to “On The Sunny Side Of The Street.”

At this point the cruise is fully underway in that all the stages are popping off. I learned quickly on my first cruise you can’t catch everything with so much going on around the ship, so it’s a matter of picking and choosing your spots. For me, that usually means catching a few songs here and a few songs there from different artists. It’s rare I watch a full set as not only do I want to catch as much magic as I can, but I always want to give our readers as much info on the crazy collaborations and variety of music as I can. While I made an exception for Grateful Dead tribute act Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, as I was sure to watch their entire two-hour performance on the Pool Deck, I moved swiftly between sets from Ohio jam act The Werks and jamgrass stalwarts Infamous Stringdusters before JRAD hit the stage.

I hadn’t seen The Werks in years and I was extremely impressed with how far they’ve come over that period of time. The quartet held court in the Black & White Lounge, a club-like setting that was packed by Werks devotees (when the drummer asked who was from Ohio, it seemed like most in the crowd raised their hands) and those looking to see what the foursome was all about. Guitarist Chris Houser is an absolute beast who unleashed one jaw-dropping riff after another. The Ohio rockers showed off their intricate and highly-complex originals along with a fist pump worthy cover of The Who’s “Eminence Front.” The Werks won themselves a slew of new fans last night.

The ‘Dusters are like Greensky Bluegrass in that they are a band featuring bluegrass instrumentation who aren’t afraid to rock. However, the ‘Dusters may be 70 percent traditional bluegrass/30 percent rock while Greensky reverses that ratio. The timing worked out well for me as I witnessed vocalist Nicki Bluhm, who appears on the band’s new album, help out on “Not Fade Away.” Then, Greensky Bluegrass’s Anders Beck and Paul Hoffman lent a hand on a spot-on cover of Bob Marley’s “Small Axe.” With so many musicians and bands on the boat, you’re bound to see a few repeats when it comes to covers and after I headed out to the Pool Deck Almost Dead opened with “Not Fade Away” about 20 minutes after the Stringdusters and Bluhm finished their take on Buddy Holly’s classic.

Ever since JRAD made their debut just about three years ago at Brooklyn Bowl, I’ve been dreaming of the day they would play on Jam Cruise’s Pool Deck. Almost Dead’s performance lived up to my dreams and then some. Tom Hamilton was playing with a borrowed guitar after his custom Becker axe was destroyed during travel. Hamilton showed it’s the man not the instrument as he absolutely tore through one GD classic after another with his mates. Earlier I referenced “jaw-dropping riffs” and every member of JRAD is capable on leaving fans’ jaws on the floor after an insane run of notes or drum fill. Drummer Joe Russo is in the prime of his career and had me shaking my head in disbelief after some of the fills he played. “Not Fade Away” saw Hamilton, guitarist Scott Metzger and Russo each sing a verse. Hamilton then led the group through the funky “Reuben & Cerise” which led into a high octane “Going Down The Road Feelin’ Bad.” It was on “Estimated Prophet” where the JRAD fellas started to deconstruct the music. The quintet didn’t play it straight as they toyed with the tempo and standard structure throughout. “Tennessee Jed” came out of nowhere and along with “Shakedown Street” were vehicles for other-wordly solos from Metzger. The relentless set continued with “Dancing In The Streets” ’77-style featuring vocalist Nicole Atkins. The Jersey Shore native dueted with Metzger and danced away as JRAD crushed both the composed and open-ended sections of the ’77 “Dancin.” Atkins stuck around to duet with Tommy on “Two Souls In Communion” as well as the triumphant “Franklin’s Tower” set-closer. Joe Russo’s Almost Dead said farewell with a strong “Viola Lee Blues.”

Starting last year, the Divinia’s Golden Jazz Bar was turned into the Jam Cruise Jazz Lounge in which a host artist or band would put together a jam session at the intimate venue. Galactic drummer Stanton Moore was in charge of Night One and I came through just in time to see him team with guitarist Will Bernard, keyboardist Robert Walter, saxophonist Skerik and trumpeter Bloom for a jam that sounded straight off of Bitches Brew. From there I made it to the theater for ALO.

ALO are Jam Cruise regulars who always embrace the “bring your A Game” and “give fans something they won’t see on land” ethos of the boat. The Divinia’s theater is split into two levels with a huge GA pit on the bottom floor with about 30 rows of seats behind the open space. On the top floor, there are four rows of seats lining the balcony. I’ve never had a problem walking right up to the stage or sitting in the front row of the balcony. On this night I decided to take a load off and watch from the balcony, but it was hard to sit still when ALO unveiled one classic original and cover after another. The laid-back California rockers brought out vocalists Amy Helm and Nicki Bluhm for the ALO original “Try.” Helm and Bluhm were a powerful joint force as backing vocalists, but truly shined when they, ALO, Beck and Hoffman teamed on covers of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” and “You Make Loving Fun” by Fleetwood Mac. The former was given new life in the ’90s by Amy’s father Levon Helm and The Band, while the latter is a rare cover of a Christine McVie-penned Mac tune, instead of a Stevie Nicks/Lindsey Buckingham song. Again, you can’t catch everything on Jam Cruise so I was very happy I was at the theater for “Try,” “Atlantic City” and “You Make Loving Fun.”

It was now approaching 2:30 a.m. and I headed back to the Pool Deck for Soulive, where rain was pouring at first but within five minutes of my arrival had stopped. Guitarist Eric Krasno and the Evans brothers drew a huge crowd and I can never get enough of seeing keyboardist Neal Evans play melodies with one hand while unleashing funky, in-the-pocket bass lines with the other. Soulive covered The Beatles’ “Revolution” and then welcomed The Shady Horns for “Flurry” and “Hat Trick.” I had to see how ALO would finish their set and was excited to catch their version of Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ In The Years.”

One can’t miss trademark of Jam Cruise is the Jam Room. The Black & White Lounge is turned into a space where the boat’s musicians could come together in dream formations and jam into the early morning hours. George Porter Jr. was set to host the Jam Room on the first night, but sadly was unable to attend Jam Cruise for the first time. In his place, The New Mastersounds guitarist Eddie Roberts and The Greyboy Allstars/Mike Gordon keyboardist Robert Walter shared hosting duties. While I was unfamiliar with the songs they played, the pair seemed to have a game plan, utilizing tunes with plenty of space for solos rather than just playing a noodley chord progression. Russo made his way to the Jam Room and showed off a completely different style of drumming than he had with JRAD on the Pool Deck. Joe, Eddie, Robert, KDTU/Greyboy Allstars bassist Chris Stillwell, guitarist Eric McFadden and a four-piece horn section collaborated on nasty funk-fusion progression that had the crowd in awe. It was now 4 a.m. and I’ve learned Jam Cruise is a marathon not a sprint so I decided to call it a day. There’s nothing like going to bed sporting a wide smile and popping out of bed four hours later ready to get back at it. Jam Cruise 14 continues on Wednesday.

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