Words by: Scott Bernstein
Images by: Joshua Timmermans
Jam Cruise 14 – Day Four :: 01.09.16 :: MSC Divinia
Check out Josh’s photo gallery after the review …
“How are you doing?” is a simple enough question friends ask when they run into each other. As humans we’re used to asking that question in most situations, even on Jam Cruise. Through four days of this year’s trip, Jam Cruise 14, aboard the MSC Divina, I’ve yet to receive a response to the “How are you doing?” question that wasn’t some form of “amazing,” “wonderful” or “what’s not to love?” We’re in the middle of the Caribbean with dozens of incredible bands and musicians in 85 degree sunny weather with like-minded music fans. “What’s not to love?” is certainly my answer.
On Saturday, Jam Cruise docked in Cozumel, Mexico giving cruisers an opportunity to visit Mayan ruins, sit on the beach, take part in artist-led excursions or simply catch up on sleep or enjoy all the Divina has to offer. I explored Cozumel a bit and had the best tacos I’ve ever eaten in my life. I then caught up on a couple of hours of precious sleep. Speaking of which, there are some who get hardly any sleep throughout the entire cruise. Now, in most cases, these aren’t spun out folks who are wrecking their bodies in the name of partying. They are professionals who spend their hard earned cash and want to enjoy every minute of this musical adventure. Sleep can wait until we get back to Miami.
For the musicians, Jam Cruise offers a chance to hang, chat and collaborate with each other. These folks spend so much time on the road that they don’t often have the opportunity to spend time with one another. On Jam Cruise, the musicians are together for five full days without having to worry about making it to the next gig and instead get to fully enjoy each others’ company. There’s no barrier between fans and musicians, no real backstage area and nearly all of the artists are completely open to chatting and answering any questions cruisers may have. This is just another aspect that differentiates Jam Cruise from any other event.
While Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe kicked off the action on the Pool Deck as the boat departed Mexico, I decided to check out a few of the activities aboard the Divina. First, I saw legendary trombonist Fred Wesley of James Brown’s band lead a wedding ceremony. Sure, the nuptials aren’t legally binding, but it was amazing to see the love between the dozens of couples Wesley “wed.” From there I headed down to the ship’s lobby, aka Atrium, for a wonderful Jam Cruise tradition -the Pickin’ Party. Greensky Bluegrass’ Anders Beck and Paul Hoffman, vocalist Amy Helm, guitarist Cris Jacobs and Infamous Stringdusters Travis Book and Andy Hall were the “professional” musicians who fronted a picking session in which all cruisers who brought their instruments on board could partake in the party. This year’s theme was a doozy: “The ’80s,” and the pro and novice musicians filled the lobby and the spiral staircase that connects three different levels to jam on such classics as “Money For Nothing” and “Simply Irresistible.” I did catch a little of KDTU and was very impressed by the ensemble’s newest member, guitarist Seth Freeman, who sure knows how to shred and acted as a good foil for fellow axeman DJ Williams. KDTU welcomed Con Brio frontman Ziek McCarter to lead the group on a handful of Prince songs from The Purple One’s Dirty Mind LP, reprising a role he played at a few shows over Halloween weekend. Denson and the gang also treated fans to a funked out take on Pink Floyd’s “Fearless.”
One recent addition to Jam Cruise is the “Chefs At Sea” program. JC organizers bring in top chefs who usually have some connection to the jam scene, to prepare differently themed late night meals. In addition to the late night goodness, which was highlighted by the Fox Brothers providing a full BBQ spread on Friday night, Chef Chris “Shaggy” Davis (aka the NOLA Crawfish King) was tasked with putting together a New Orleans dinner featuring classic dishes from the Crescent City for any Jam Cruiser who wanted to partake. The Jambalaya was particularly tasty.
After dinner I spent two hours in the atrium watching piano sets from Holly Bowling and Umphrey’s McGee’s Joel Cummins. Bowling, who was so excited to be aboard she literally cried tears of joy, drew the biggest crowd for any atrium set as she worked through Phish and Grateful Dead classics. Holly opened with “Fly Famous Mockingbird” which she transitioned into “Help On The Way” and “China Cat Sunflower.” Next up was a ridiculous segment of “Theme From The Bottom” > “Swept Away” > “Theme From The Bottom” > “Slipknot!” > “Franklin’s Tower.” Holly was joined by the Disco Biscuits keyboardist Aron Magner for “Franklin’s” as well as the tDB original “Magellan.” Bowling then showed off another “how did she think of that?” pairing in “It’s Ice” > “Frankenstein” > “It’s Ice.”
Cummins and Bowling promised interlocking sets, an atrium first, and they delivered in a big way. The pair played Phish’s “Tweezer Reprise” > Umphrey’s “Cemetary Walk II” to connect their performances before Bowling left the piano to Cummins. Joel had a few classical pieces in store before unleashing a breath-taking solo piano version of Radiohead’s “Everything In Its Right Place.” He then brought up Hoffman and Beck for the recently debuted Greensky original “Living Over” as well as a cover of Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago.” It wouldn’t be a Joel Cummins solo set without his take on the UM rarity “Orfeo” and this time around he worked the Chicago rockers’ “Upward” into the middle of “Orfeo.” The set came to a close with a singalong rendition of “Tempted” by Squeeze, a song UM debuted during their just completed New Year’s Run in Colorado.
NOLA legend Dr. John gave in to the Jam Cruise spirit by varying his sets greatly. On Saturday he played a set in the theater that was highlighted by guest spots featuring The Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli and guitarist Will Bernard as well as the good doctor’s gorgeous “What A Wonderful World.”
At this point in the evening there were some hard decisions to be made. With so much going on, there were three or four sets taking place at the same time I really wanted to see. Thankfully, the venues aboard the boat are close to each other so I was able to bop around pretty easily. Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers’ final set of the trip took place in the club-like Black & White Lounge and saw ALO drummer Dave Brogan and keyboardist Zach Gill sit-in for the entire set. Hoffman and Beck took turns guesting with the Gramblers, while Amy Helm teamed with the band for a riveting “Chain Of Fools.” My favorite part of the set was a cover of The Stones’ “Tumbling Dice” featuring DJ Williams. The set came to a close with the only member of ALO who hadn’t sat-in yet, guitarist Dan “Lebo” Lebowitz adding pedal steel to “Jet Plane.” Bluhm and her band are in great shape despite the departure of founding member Tim Bluhm.
Keller Williams boarded Jam Cruise in Cozumel and played his first set of the trip on the Pool Deck backed by More Than A Little. I happened to catch the Grateful Dead portion of the set as “Samson & Delilah” led into “Eyes Of The World.” The latter featured DJ Williams, who sure got around on Saturday night. Over in the intimate confines of the Golden Jazz Bar, legendary drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie fronted yet another epic “only on Jam Cruise” ensemble that featured Eddie Roberts and the rhythm section of The New Mastersounds, Nigel Hall and Karl Denson. The set was so popular the Jazz Bar was as packed as I’ve ever seen it.
For years I’ve heard about Worship Your Organ, a group containing two incredible organ masters in Robert Walter and Marco Benevento, that only plays one or two shows a year. Walter and Benevento led an improv-heavy set along with saxophonist Skerik and drummer Adam Deitch. So, think about it, at the same time we had Worship Your Organ’s otherworldly lineup holding court in the Black & White Lounge, Purdie’s lineup worthy of the “supergroup” title in the Jazz Bar, guitarist Anders Osborne rocking the theater and up-and-coming jam act TAUK crushing over at the outdoor Brews At Sea Stage. You just couldn’t go wrong, but I must say Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) doesn’t only affect those at home watching reports from Jam Cruise roll in, it also affects cruisers who just can’t see it all. The bit of TAUK’s set I saw was hard-hitting rock fusion and I was lucky to catch Cummins come out to add to their original “Tumbler.” I was hoping for more high energy Anders tunes, but he focused on slower songs. Guitarist Eric McFadden and keyboardist Ivan Neville sat-in with Anders and Co. for the entire set. The set came to a close with saxoponist Ron Holloway adding to a celebratory “Rainy Day Women.”
Jamtronica act Lotus isn’t usually my thing, but I was blown away by their Pool Deck set on Saturday night. The group focused on the rock more than the untz and these guys are ridiculously talented musicians who are incredibly tight. One of their final songs was a blissful, major-key groove that had me smiling throughout. I’ll be buying Lotus’s Pool Deck set as part of the Cruise Tunes program which features official recordings of most performances just so I can figure out the name of that tune with the blissful, major-key groove. Lotus ended their set with a spot-on cover of Talking Heads’ “Once In A Lifetime” to the delight of Jam Cruisers.
Snarky Puppy’s final set of the trip closed out the evening’s performances in the theater The band’s intricate and complex arrangements had my head spinning at that point and I particularly enjoyed their instrumental take on “Them Changes.” I ended my night by heading to the Jam Room, where Dumpstaphunk bassist Nick Daniels was the host. The Jam Room was in full force from the time the “set” started at 2 a.m. until the sun was coming up at 6 a.m. Daniels did a fantastic job leading the action and there was hardly any down time or noodling. Ian Neville, Ivan Neville, Robert Walter, Eric McFadden and Tony Hall were just a few of the musicians who rocked the Jam Room until the wee hours.
Sunday on Jam Cruise is another full day at sea as we head to Miami, which means a packed day of music that goes all the way until the boat docks. I head home to NYC a few hours after we get to the port and I aim to sleep for 24 hours upon returning home, so give me a few days for my final report.