Words by: Scott Bernstein
Images by: Joshua Timmermans
Jam Cruise 14 – Day Two :: 01.07.16 :: MSC Divinia
Check out Josh’s photo gallery after the review …
Thursday marked the first full day of Jam Cruise 14, a floating music festival sailing between Miami and Mexico aboard the MSC Divina and from the time Pennsylvania jamgrass act Cabinet took the stage at noon through the time the Jam Room came to a close around sunrise, attendees of the sold-out adventure were treated to 17 hours of music with little to no breaks in between. How one went about traversing the many performances, activities, workshops and amenities was different for everybody. I love using the “Choose Your Own Adventure” metaphor as the possibilities are endless depending on your tastes and level of energy. My tastes are diverse and I was ready to take in as much as possible, so this is the tale on my Thursday aboard Jam Cruise 14.
Food options are plentiful on the boat, but I like to use as little time as possible eating as I’d rather spend the time watching music. After a quick and delicious breakfast I sat down to write the Jam Cruise Journal we posted yesterday. You’d think after four hours of sleep it would be difficult to write about something as hard to describe as Jam Cruise, but there are so many stories to tell and I’m still so excited to be on the trip it was a pleasure to put my thoughts down on paper. With my article submitted, it was finally time to partake in all Jam Cruise has to offer.
Before I start digging into the music I saw, a note on one of my favorite parts of the trip – the details. Jam Cruise organizers Cloud 9 Adventures have been doing these sailings for well over a decade and have learned what works and what doesn’t work. They also have a great eye for detail as the company takes over the boat’s internal TV system and broadcasts performances from the previous day on two channels and a photo slideshow on the other. With so much going on, I usually watch a set I missed the previous day while getting myself up in the morning. If you’re into yoga, there are multiple sessions each day usually featuring music provided by one of the artists aboard the boat. Jam Cruise TV and the yoga sessions are just two examples of how Cloud 9 converts a cruise ship that usually hosts older patrons into a home for live music hardcores.
Cabinet kicked off the festivities under a clear sky in 75 degree tropical weather on the Pool Deck. A small but faithful crowd was on hand to watch the Pennsylvania boys make their Jam Cruise debut. While Greensky and the Stringdusters infuse rock into their bluegrass sound, Cabinet focuses on more straight-ahead bluegrass. The band was joined by saxophonist Ron Holloway, a frequent collaborator of both Cabinet and Warren Haynes, for “Mr. Spaceman.” I looked at my watch: only 25 minues into the music and we already had our first sit-in. The sit-in action continued during a mesmerizing set from Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers. Bluhm and her band kept the guest spots coming by welcoming multiple members of The Infamous Stringdusters are various points through their high-energy performance. Andy Hall added to a blistering rendition of “Statesboro Blues,” while Andy Falco played electric guitar on “Jet Plane.” The beautiful and vivacious Bluhm and the Gramblers brought the set to a close with a fan-pleasing cover of “Piece Of My Heart.”
The action now moved to the “Brews At Sea Stage,” a small performance area across the deck from the Pool Stage. Greensky Bluegrass’s Paul Hoffman and Anders Beck led a set that probably should’ve been at the Pool Stage as they drew a huge crowd. Hoffman and Beck rounded up some of their musical compadres, guitarist Cris Jacobs, bassist Travis Book of the Stringdusters and Fruition axeman Jay Cobb Anderson for a set focused on Greensky originals. Anders and Paul’s band was well-rehearsed as they ran through “Who Is Frederico?,” “Fixin’ To Ruin,” “Windshield,” “In Control” and more. A highlight of the performance came in the form of Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved.” Does it get any better than watching the stars of the scene play Marley as a boat powers towards Mexico in beautiful weather?
Florida rockers JJ Grey & Mofro focused on material from the recently released Ol’ Glory and it was great to see how happy JJ was as Grey battled vertigo and seasickness on his last Jam Cruise. The highlight came with Luther Dickinson sat-in on the sultry “Slow, Hot and Sweaty.” It was now off the Jazz Lounge for one of my favorite activities: Rock Star Karaoke.
Rock Star Karaoke allows cruisers to pick a tune off a 20-song list and lead ALO through said song. Umphrey’s McGee keyboaridst Joel Cummins is aboard a special guest and as the most accessible member of the band often interacts with UM fans on Twitter. One such fan, Jam Cruiser Terrence O’Connell made a bet with Cummins during the College Football season when Terrence’s beloved Boston College took on Joel’s alma mater, Notre Dame. The Irish won the game giving Cummins the win in the bet which allowed the keyboardist to pick the song O’Connell would sing during Rock Star Karaoke. While Joel and Terrence were hoping that song would be Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” sadly the tune wasn’t on the list. Cummins and O’Connell settled on “White Wedding” and Terrence did an admirable – if off-key – job as Joel sat-in on keys and egged O’Connell on. Only on Jam Cruise, folks.
Up on the Pool Deck Snarky Puppy was leaving many jaws on the floor. The band plays complex and groovy, yet accessible avant-jazz. Snarky Puppy impressed so much on Jam Cruise 13, they were welcomed back the next year. Keyboardist Cory Henry is insanely talented and I spent the majority of the set watching him work. From there, I headed to the Divinia’s ornate Atrium for ALO keyboardist’s Zach Gill’s solo piano set. Gill mixed ALO originals with fun covers throughout. Standout moments included Zach telling the story behind “Waiting For Jaden,” a song he wrote with ALO bassist Steve Adams as Gill was waiting for the birth of his daughter 15 years ago. Adams and ALO guitarist Dan “Lebo” Lebowitz sat-in for the majority of the set including on “Waiting For Jaden” and a ridiculous “Blew Out The Walls” > “Let ‘Em In” (Paul McCartney) > “Immigrant Song” (Led Zeppelin) sequence. It has become tradition that Zach leads singalong versions of an Elton John song during his set, but took it to a new level by playing a medley of “Bennie & The Jets” > “Rocket Man” > “Tiny Dancer” > “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” The keyboardist also tipped his hat to the recently reunited Ween by covering Dean and Gene’s “Buenos Tardes Amigo.” Bluhm and Amy Helm guested with Zach and his ALO mates on Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands” before the set came to a close with Gill and Bluhm leading the hundreds gathered on “Hey Jude.”
I bounced around between Lettuce on the Pool Deck and the Southern Soul Assembly in the theater. The former saw guest appearances from multiple percussionists and bassist Oteil Burbridge. For my money, the highlight was the riveting “Phyliss” that closed the set. I was concerned about how Southern Soul Assembly’s set would turn out. The group features JJ Grey, Luther Dickinson, Anders Osborne and Marc Broussard sharing the stage and joining together for each performers songs while seated in a mostly acoustic format. The ensemble wound up playing before a sizable crowd and kept the energy up despite the unplugged format. Osborne’s bassist Carl Dufrene wound up lending a hand on the Anders-led songs.
While the Pool Deck was being turned over between Lettuce and Galactic, Con Brio took the small Brews At Sea Stage for their first-ever Jam Cruise performance. The San Francisco funk/soul act was the first group I hadn’t seen before that truly blew my mind. Frontman Ziek Carter is a whirl of motion, active frontman who sports a voice somewhere between Prince and Michael Jackson. The group’s upbeat soul-fueled sound kept Jam Cruisers dancers and I bet they won themselves a slew of new fans. Keep your eyes on Con Brio.
On my way to theater for Joe Russo’s Almost Dead I passed by one man band Zach Deputy performing at the atrium. There was a celebratory, party vibe as Deputy provided his reggae, gospel, rock, soul, island hybrid and he drew the biggest crowd to the atrium yet. For me, JRAD was the main course of the evening and they most certainly disappoint. I was on hand for the group’s debut in January ’13 and have since seen them seven times, but last night was the five-piece’s best set yet.
Jersey Shore vocalist Nicole Atkins reprised her role from the first day of the trip by singing with Almost Dead on a “The Music Never Stops” opener. Atkins has stage presence galore and sounds so great along with JRAD. The quintet worked “Music” into “Help” and “Slipknot!” before they embarked on a wild jam that somehow landed on “The Wheel.” Bassist Dave Dreiwitz was on fire as he led “The Wheel” jam into “Uncle John’s Band” which after the verses, chorus and five minutes of improv led back into “The Wheel.” Following “The Wheel,” JRAD connected on a blues jam that featured blistering solos from Scott Metzger and Tom Hamilton that the group used to connect “The Wheel” to “Cumberland Blues.” Marco Benevento shined on “Cumberland” and led his mates into a “9 To 5” jam that would’ve made Dolly Parton happy. Coming into the trip, some fans were hoping for an impromptu Bustle In Your Hedgerow set since four of the five members of JRAD make up Bustle, a Led Zeppelin cover act. While there’s been no Bustle set, we got a taste of what that tribute act is all about thanks to the Almost Dead debut of “The Lemon Song” by Led Zeppelin featuring Atkins on vocals. JRAD then said farewell by bringing out Amy Helm for a triumphant “Don’t Do It.”
I must admit, I was beat by the time Almost Dead finished the two-hour barn-burning set, but it’s Jam Cruise so I wasn’t done quite yet. The theme for the day was “Level Up” and I’d say perhaps 30 or 40 percent of cruisers dressed as video game characters. Earlier in the night Twiddle hosted a costume contest. After JRAD I caught the end of TAUK’s set and was very impressed. These road dogs continue to get tighter as they weave a wee bit of jamtronica into a heady prog-fusion sound. Philadelphia’s Lotus weaves even more jamtronica into their tunes and sounded like a mix of the Disco Biscuits and Talking Heads which was kinda perfect at 3 a.m. The New Mastersounds closed out the Pool Deck and brought out vocalist Charly Lowry who performed on the album as well.
One Jam Cruise tradition that began its sixth year on Thursday night is “The Spot,” an unscheduled performance that usually starts at 1 a.m. on the second night of the ship and all remaining nights and goes beyond sunrise. Singer-songwriter Nathan Moore is the unofficial host and mastermind behind the area where the ship’s performers can team up for mellow, acoustic-based songs. Moore brought along a few friends from Virginia along with Fruition guitarist/vocalist Jay Cobb Anderson for Jam Cruise 14. Members of Cabinet, Infamous Stringdusters, Greensky Bluegrass and Marco Benevento were among those I caught performing at The Spot on Night One.
I ended my night by visiting the Jam Room, where Lettuce guitarist Adam Smirnoff was the host. I had high hopes for what Smirnoff would put together, but after a 30-minute take on “Thank You Fallentime Me Be Nice Elf” featuring Smirnoff, Tony Hall, Ivan Neville, drummer Adam Deitch, Todd Stoops and Jans Ingber that just wouldn’t end, I thought it was time to a call it a day. On Friday, Jam Cruise 14 makes its first stop at a port. Due to “technical issues” the Divinia couldn’t dock in Belize City, so we’re stopping in Costa Maya, Mexico. Stay tuned for a report on Friday’s action.
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