If any two musicians best exemplify what makes Jam Cruise so special, they are Perpetual Groove guitarist Brock Butler and Surprise Me Mr. Davis front man Nathan Moore. So it was only fitting that both artists were still performing unscheduled sets aboard the MSC Poesia for Jam Cruise 10 when I finally called it “a day” at 6AM on Saturday morning as the tall buildings of downtown Miami and Ft. Lauderdale drew near. Brock was at a table on the Pool Deck playing for a handful of cruisers, while Moore was holding down “The Spot” with an all-star crew of musicians.
[Brock Teaches Mitch Manzella Beck's Golden Age]
Butler has been a member of the Jam Cruise Family since 2005, when he performed on Jam Cruise 3 with the rest of his band. PGroove returned for Jam Cruise 5 in 2007 and Brock has been back for each and every cruise that’s followed. He understands that this isn’t a typical festival gig where you play your scheduled sets, collect your check and tune out. Brock spends the majority of the trip trying and succeeding in making magical, unexpected moments for his fans. When Perpetual Groove was announced as a performer on Jam Cruise 10, the full band’s first appearance on the boat since 2008, I wondered if this would prevent Brock from performing as much on this cruise. Thankfully, Butler wound up playing even more on JC10 than on previous ones as the PGroove sets were added bonuses to his daily solo sets.
On the final day of Jam Cruise 10 Brock treated cruisers to two sets, one announced and one unannounced, and gave a guitar lesson to cruiser Mitch Manzella, who won the lesson through a Positive Legacy auction. For his first set, which took place on the ship’s smallest outdoor venue, the Solar Stage at 5PM just as the sun was setting, Butler showed off the wide range of his cover selections by tackling Led Zeppelin’s Down By The Riverside, Dawes’ A Little Bit of Everything and Naive Melody by the Talking Heads. Yet it was the singer’s originals which stole this show.
For JC10 Butler brought his roommate, guitarist Michael Blair of Atlanta’s Under The Porch, and frequent collaborator Gary Paulo (sax) aboard to help augment both his and PGroove’s sets. Michael and Brock have a palpable chemistry that has come after hundreds of hours of writing and performing together. The pair showed off beautifully sweet harmonies on Referring Two and If Only… from their Something About Sunsets EP. Paulo’s work brought a new dimension to If Ever Even Then, one of the best tunes from the Perpetual Groove front man’s debut solo album, Lately Here Though. After a mere 45 minutes the set had come to a close, but thankfully Brock was just getting started.
Butler’s next stop was the Artist’s Lounge, where he was set to give a lesson to a cruiser who won it through an auction for Jam Cruise organizers Cloud 9′s charitable arm – Positive Legacy. Mitch Manzella, who happens to be an amazing photographer and is the founder of Music For Democracy, was Brock’s student for what turned into an hour-long Q&A, lesson and performance. At first the two discussed Mitch’s skill set and history as a musician. Then, Brock taught Mitch a few tips and the chords to one of his songs. The pair took turns soloing and playing rhythm while the other did the opposite. Just moments after tackling Referring Two during his set on the Solar Stage with Blair, the Virginia native showed Manzella the solo version of the tune and told his student how he wrote the song. Essentially, Blair would write a verse and then leave what he had come up with for Butler, who in turn would add his own verse. Michael and Brock wrote the entire song this way, together but apart.
I kept quiet and took in the whole session as a spectator. It was amazing to watch Mitch’s expressions as Brock told him stories and gave him advice on improvisation. One particularly interesting tale was about Perpetual Groove’s first trip to New York City. The band was so excited to play the now defunct Tobacco Road and arrived in New York City just as the blackout ensconced the Big Apple on August 14, 2003. A trip the group had looked forward to had turned into disaster, though they were saved by the hospitality of HT featured columnist Brian Bavosa, who remains a friend and a fan of PGroove to this day.
Once they finished with a few different tunes, I knew this would be my best chance to make a request. I had waited a long time for this moment and had three songs in my head that I was debating between – Simon & Garfunkel’s The Only Living Boy in New York, PGroove’s It Starts Where It Ends and Golden Age by Beck. After much thought, I decided to go with Golden Age and Brock delivered a stirring rendition with the help of Manzella. It wound up being a perfect choice as Mitch used some of the tips Brock had taught him.
During the last night of Jam Cruise I decided to take it a little easier than I had the previous nights, in terms of trying to catch each and every sit-in happening on the ship. Towards the end of the evening, I split time between the Jam Room and “The Spot” where Nathan Moore and Brad Barr were rocking out with a slew of all-star musicians (much more on that to come). Around 5AM some major hunger pangs kicked in and I went to the cafeteria to grab breakfast. On my way I figured I’d walk across the Pool Deck to see if anything was happening up there. Boy am I glad I made that decision as I stumbled upon Brock, guitar in hand, about to play for a handful of cruisers.
Twelve hours after his first performance, Butler was still in fine form as he sang his signature version of Queen Bee by Taj Mahal. During the Sweet Oblivious Antidote that followed, I saw something that I had never seen in all of Brock’s sets – he broke a string. Unfortunately he didn’t have any extra strings on him, so he sent our buddy Chip on a mission to get a new one from Butler’s cabin. Chip told us he’d be back in three hours and we laughed off that comment. The lack of a g-string didn’t stop the guitarist as he lit into five-string versions of Howlin’ Wolf’s Killing Floor and Crime Story by DMX. As each song passed we began to realize that Chip wasn’t kidding.
As we started to pass more lights on land Butler still only had five strings, so he focused on dark songs that took advantage of his “G” string-less handicap. I didn’t think I ever needed to hear The End by The Doors again, but Brock’s psychedelic one-man arrangement was a revelation. The beautiful girl sitting next to the guitarist brought a laugh when she screamed the “I Want To Fuck You” line a bit early. Nearly an hour after Chip left for the “G” string, and long after Brock had sent another fan on a mission to grab his second acoustic guitar, Butler kept the dark, evil vibe of the session going with Nirvana’s Something In The Way. The best musicians make lemonade out of lemons and kudos to Brock for making the most of what he had. For the record, Chip did finally return after nearly two hours…without the guitar string.
I never saw the sunrise on Jam Cruise 10, but I also never went to bed before 6AM. When I finally wandered off to my cabin each night, the music was still going strong. Most of these tunes will go undocumented, yet those who were there will never forget these “only on Jam Cruise” moments. I’m so thankful to the many musicians who took full advantage of the ability to play as much as they wanted.
For Brock and all of his PGroove band mates, Jam Cruise 10 marked a major milestone in their career. Former keyboardist Matt McDonald was back in the fold and this was their chance to show off where the future lies for the scene stalwarts. The Athens-based band’s theater set displayed the dark, more ominous sound McDonald’s intricate, layered keyboard work brings back to their music, while the Pool Deck set was a celebration that featured outstanding interplay, three impressive sit-ins (Ivan Neville on vocals and organ for Sail On by Lionel Richie and The Commodores, The Heavy Pets’ Jim Wuest and Paulo on TTFPJ and Joel Cummins and a chorus of PGroove friends for Arcade Fire’s Wake Up) and set the tone for what should be a fantastic period in the group’s evolution. Butler seems in good health and ready to make the next step by mixing more solo gigs among PGroove tours. The sky’s the limit for Perpetual Groove in 2012 and I’m hopeful they’ll deliver on the promise they showed on Jam Cruise.