Words by: Scott Bernstein
Images by: Joshua Timmermans
Jam Cruise 14 – Day Three :: 01.08.16 :: MSC Divinia
Jam Cruise 14 continued on Friday with the MSC Divinia’s first port stop of the trip – Costa Maya, Mexico. Some cruisers used the time to rest up for the full slate of music that lied ahead, while others participated in fun excursions or simply lounged on the beautiful beach adjacent to the dock. Saturday’s musical lineup was one of the more varied in Jam Cruise history, both the old standbys and newcomers to the boat brought their A Games to the delight of the fans on the sold-out trip.
Zach Deputy and his band the Hashtags made the most of their time in Costa Maya by bringing Greensky Bluegrass mandolin wiz Paul Hoffman and guitarist Scott Pemberton to a bar at the south end of the Mexican city for an impromptu performance. Jam Cruisers live in a bubble for five days with little internet and phone service, so you had to be particularly lucky to catch a whiff of what Deputy et. al were doing or you’d wind up just hearing about it back on the ship.
I always love the last few hours in port when Jam Cruisers exchange tales of what they did that day or the music they saw the previous night. As I mentioned yesterday, there’s so much going on at all times it’s impossible to catch all of the magical moments, but I do love hearing about the stuff I missed. Jamgrass act The Infamous Stringdusters were given a plumb slot performing on the Pool Deck as the MSC Divina pulled away from port. Jam Cruisers come in all shapes and with varying musical tastes. There are those who love jamgrass, jamtronica fans, those with a heavy leaning towards rock and of course cruisers who can’t get enough of the funk. The ‘Dusters crowd was filled with jamgrass aficionados who were represented in large numbers of the trip. Those nearest the band seemed to know every word and danced hard to the group’s aggressive music.
Next up for me was a set in the intimate Jazz Lounge from singer-songwriter Rayland Baxter. I was unfamiliar with the Michigan native’s music but left a big fan. He has a goosebumps-inducing voice on top of reverb-laden guitar patterns. Baxter started with a handful of solo songs before welcoming Paul Hoffman of Greensky Bluegrass for a pair of tunes. The set came to a climax when Baxter showed off his impressive guitar skills on the final three songs of the performance on which he was backed by all of ALO. The members of “RayLO” had only practiced once, but I wouldn’t have known that had Rayland not told the crowd as much. Can’t wait to get home and buy his records.
Over in the theater, the new Lettuce documentary, Let Us Play was screened for Jam Cruisers followed by a Q&A with the film’s director and producer. The film did a wonderful job showing the 20+ year musical relationship between the members of the band and the high level of communication they have without needing to exchange more than a knowing glance. The movie focuses on the making of Lettuce’s recent album Crush but also provides an origin story and a look at some of the group’s bigger gigs of 2015.
Friday’s piano atrium set came courtesy of Snarky Puppy keyboardist Cory Henry. While I was watching the Lettuce doc, I heard Cory drew a huge crowd that he engaged well with. Speaking of engagements, a male fan asked Henry to help him propose to his girlfriend and the keyboardist complied leading to a beautiful moment. Cory ended his performance with a riveting cover of “God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys.
I must admit, when I found out Dr. John would headline JC14 I wasn’t thrilled. Well, I must now also admit I was ignorant, as the New Orleans legend and his five-piece backing band filled with talented youngsters delivered a fantastic, crowd-pleasing set. Both Fred Wesley and guitarist Stanley Jordan spent time on stage with the Good Doctor during a set that featured such beloved songs as “Let The Good Times Roll,” “Walk On Guilded Splinters” and “Right Place Wrong Time.” Life doesn’t get much better than dancing on the Pool Deck with your friends as Dr. John sings “Such A Night.” I’ll never forget that moment under the stars.
On Wednesday and Thursday, the first two days of Jam Cruise 14, I had plenty of opportunity to watch keyboardist Marco Benevento at work with Grateful Dead tribute act Joe Russo’s Almost Dead. Marco showed off a different side of his musicality in the club-like Black & White Lounge backed by bassist Dave Dreiwitz and drummer Andy Borger. I’ve never seen the Black & White Lounge so packed for an evening set, which must have pleased Benevento. Marco and his trio mixed new material from his soon to be released LP such as “Dropkick” along with old chesnuts like “Greenpoint,” “Atari” and “Real Morning Party.” The latter saw the trio aided by Mike Dillon, while Eric McFadden added guitar to “Dropkick” and saxophonist Karl Denson stole the show on “Greenpoint.” Marco also threw in a cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend The Night Together” for good measure.
Meanwhile, Dumpstaphunk was showing they are far from the one trick pony they were a few years back. Ivan Neville and company, along with a horn section, displayed new material with a fresh sound that’s still heavy on the funk. The set came to a climax when bassist Oteil Burbridge emerged for the jam of Dumpstaphunk’s final song of the evening. Burbridge dropped an insane bass solo that included plenty of scatting and drove the crowd wild.
Deputy and his band rocked the Brews At Sea Stage while the Pool Deck was turned over between Dr. John and Brownout Presents Brown Sabbath. Zach was joined by Col. Bruce Hampton and Greensky Bluegrass’ Anders Beck for a rollicking “I’ve Got My Mojo Workin’.” You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a bunch of hippies dancing wildly to Black Sabbath, and thankfully I had that experience during Brown Sabbath. The Austin based Brownout put out a fantastic album of Sabbath covers and have brought their tribute to venues nationwide. The horns and relatively funky arrangements didn’t take away from the power and sheer balls of Black Sabbath’s music and was a nice treat.
I then went back to the Black & White Lounge and my timing was off as I spent 15 minutes watching Cabinet tune at the start of their allotted set time. I didn’t want to wait so I headed to the theater for Soulive. The Dumpstaphunk, Soulive and Lettuce performances in the theater were billed as “Royal Family Ball” in reference to the record label and shows held nationwide under that moniker. Soulive welcomed many guests throughout, including bassists Oteil Burbridge, Tony Hall and Chris Stillwell, Denson, members of Snarky Puppy, guitarist Anders Osborne and keyboardist Ivan Neville. Neville and Osborne added to a cover of CSNY’s “Ohio” which featured masterful shredding from Anders straight out of his “Cajun Hendrix” days of the late ’00s. Stillwell also did a fine job holding down the bottom end on a cover of The Beatles’ “Taxman.”
Thankfully I did head back to the Black & White Lounge in time to watch Cabinet’s high-energy performance. The bluegrass-heavy band uses some rock instrumentation including electric guitar and drums to give off a sound very different from others in the genre. Saxophonist Ron Holloway spent plenty of time on stage and helped Cabinet and guitarist Cris Jacobs end the set with the Dead’s “Easy Wind.”
Ohio’s The Werks played their second and final set of Jam Cruise on the Brews At Sea Stage in between sets from Brown Sabbath and Electron. Once again, I was thoroughly impressed by the talented prog-jammers. The road dogs time on tour has paid dividends as they played extremely complex songs at such a high level. Also major kudos to The Werks for learning and crushing a cover of “Under The Sea” from The Little Mermaid and showing the breadth of their repertoire by performing “No Diggity.” However, the highlight of the set was a blazing take on “2001” Phish/Deodato style featuring both Holly Bowling and Umphrey’s McGee’s Joel Cummins on keys. Seek this one out folks. I see huge things for The Werks on the horizon.
As the clock struck two Electron came out with bassist Marc Brownstein bantering about the new year and his love of Jam Cruise. Brownstein, drummer Mike Greenfield, guitarist Tom Hamilton and keyboardist Aron Magner opened with the fitting “Home Again” which led into an untzy-rock jam. Other highlights included the funky “Kamaole Sands” and Cummins slaying “Confrontation.” I then went back to the theater for about an hour of Lettuce which I especially enjoyed after watching the documentary and learning more about the band. Lettuce is both playing and writing songs at a high level right now. Guests included Nigel Hall, Alan Evans and Tyler Coomes as Lettuce kept it all in the family. Sometimes I wonder whether Jam Cruise should skip Lettuce for a year or two, but they provided a dance party that filled the theater with revelers.
I ended my night near 5 a.m. after spending sometime at the “The Spot,” an impromptu jam session featuring Nathan Moore and friends joined by members of The ‘Dusters, Cabinet, Greensky Bluegrass and Fruition. Over in the Jam Room, McFadden was the host and kept it interesting throughout. The best thing I saw was a 20-minute power jam featuring jaw-dropping solos from guitarists Stanley Jordan and Vernon Reid. These are two of the best axemen in the game and the ship is so filled with amazing musicians and performances, I didn’t even get to see those guys in action until I hit the Jam Room.
The MSC Divina is now docked in Cozumel, Mexico. Stay tuned for a full report on Saturday’s action tomorrow.
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