It’s time once again for me to try to describe the indescribable: Jam Cruise. For those unfamiliar, Cloud 9 Adventures charters a cruise ship each January, fills it with outstanding musicians and the music fans who love them for a five-day adventure at sea. With six “official” venues on the boat and plenty of impromptu picking parties and jam sessions on every corner, the options are limitless for fans of the many styles of music that fall under the “jam” moniker.
As has been mentioned in the past – this is my fourth Jam Cruise – this trip is the ultimate “choose your own adventure” vacation. Each of the thousands of attendees have a completely different experience and part of the fun is catching up with all your friends to see what they saw that you may have missed and vice versa.
The MSC Poesia, home to Jam Cruise 11, left from Fort Lauderdale on Monday afternoon. Despite torrential rain in the morning, the weather had cleared by the time the Poesia was open for check in. Getting on the boat was a quick and painless process this year. These guys have the process down after 11 trips and within 45 minutes of my arrival at the port I was sitting on the pool deck enjoying a Pina Colada.
In sitting on the Pool Deck I saw lots of reunions between groups of friends who had gathered for the trip. Some of these groups made their own t-shirts so that they could easily find each other on the Poesia. For instance, a group of fans from Pittsburgh made a black and yellow shirt decked out with a Steelers logo on the front and the words “Fuck Yinz Face” on the back – a Pittsburgh variation on the title of Phish’s Fuck Your Face. But my favorite part of the pre-departure hours was getting to see the looks of incredulousness on the face of Jam Cruise virgins. There’s nothing like your first Cruise as despite my best efforts and those of others who’ve done the trip, you just can’t explain what it’s like to spend five days at sea with music fans who you most likely have plenty in common with watching one incredible set after another.
Around 6PM it was time to say farewell to Florida. New Orleans brass band Soul Rebels had the honor of playing this year’s “Sail Away Party.” The eight-piece band was a fine pick to kick off the festivities as they kept the large crowd entertained with a bombastic sound that incorporated funk, hip-hop, rock and soul. Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) fit perfectly as the opener with its line about traveling the world and the seven seas. The NoLa group mixed in a number of covers such as Michael Jackson’s Remember The Time, Fire by the Ohio Players and even a romp through Kanye’s Touch The Sky along with their potent originals.
Each night of the cruise at 7:30, one of the keyboardists on the boat performs a short set of unamplified music on a beautiful, clear grand piano set up near the lobby. The piano sits under a phalanx of stairs leading to the three floors above. Kyle Hollingsworth of String Cheese Incident was the first piano man to play and drew as big a crowd as I’ve ever seen for one of these “atrium sets.” Fans packed the stairways and seized on any piece of space to watch Kyle deliver a mix of String Cheese originals and covers. Unfortunately, it was tough to keep a crowd of that size quiet and it was hard to hear the unamplified vocals and piano over the hum of the eager audience.
However, what you could hear was fantastic. Hollingsworth invited up guitarist Dan Schwindt from his solo band who takes the title of first Jam Cruise 11 musician to blow me away. Since Kyle was unamplified, Dan had to keep his levels extremely low but you could still make out these mind-blowing riffs that built upon what Kyle was playing and singing. The two highlights of the 45-minute set were Hollingsworth’s inventive deconstruction of Naive Melody by Talking Heads in which the crowd sung along and The Motet’s Kim Dawson joining Kyle and Schwindt for a blissful Boogie On Reggae Woman.
Next up for me was Steve Kimock with Wally Ingram, Andy Hess, John Morgan Kimock and Bernie Worrell in the theater. The theater, like all of the venues on the Poesia, has little nooks and crannies that you can explore in trying to find the best vantage point to take in the show. I settled on a solitary row towards the back of the theater and had five seats worth of dancing space to myself when the set started. Kimock has been on the road with this band for a few years now and they are incredibly tight. Steve weaved one gorgeous lick into another throughout the 30-minute segment I saw which featured a reggae bent. The guitarist gave the legendary Worrell plenty of time to show off his signature style. Bernie especially shined during a Riders On The Storm jam. Towards the end of his set, Kimock welcomed vocalist Nicki Blumn to lend her voice to a gritty cover of Tumbling Dice by The Rolling Stones. Her sassy vocals fit the tune like a glove.
As much as I was enjoying the Kimock performance, I had my eyes set on Medeski, Scofield, Martin and Wood’s Pool Deck set. And boy was I glad I made that decision. I was blown away by the grooves MMW laid down while Sco soloed over top. This was the kind of groovy MMW that first drew me into the band all those years ago. Jam Cruise is the perfect event for an ADD music fan like myself as you can quickly move between venues, but at this point I was going nowhere. MSMW attracted me into their web and I didn’t leave until it was over. Particularly sweet was A Go Go from the ensemble’s first studio album and a cover of Hey Joe.
When MSMW finished I headed to the theater to catch a bit of reggae legends Steel Pulse. I was thoroughly impressed by the energy they infused into each song and the shreddy guitar antics. Colorado’s The Motet drew a huge crowd at the small Zebra Bar venue. While I look forward to their “Funk Is Dead” set later this week, on Monday the large ensemble focused on new original material. The funk is deep with these guys as they delivered one in-the-pocket groove after another anchored by bassist Garrett Sayers and drummer Dave Watts. The Motet welcomed old friend Nigel Hall (Lettuce, Warren Haynes Band) out to lead them through a medley of P-Funk covers that brought the house down.
Speaking of bringing the house down, Big Gigantic has blown up since their first appearance on Jam Cruise. As the only band to perform on the The Holy Ship EDM cruise that took place before Jam Cruise and Jam Cruise itself, the Colorado-based duo has crossed over in a big way. I had Lettuce (the band) on my mind but Big Gigantic’s Pool Deck set drew me up and refused to let go. Saxophonist Dominic Lalli and drummer Jeremy Salken have created an original stew filled with different EDM ingredients that provides a satisfying sound. The pair had the crowd in the palm of their hands as the large crowd assembled on the Pool Deck went wild with every drop. These guys made it clear why they’ve done so well for themselves and deserve the success they’ve garnered.
There are many tough choices on the schedule this year and one I struggled with was Tea Leaf Green playing at the same time as Lettuce late night on Monday. I caught a little of TLG and was most impressed with their current sound, but Lettuce was absolutely on fire in the theater so I would up catching most of the funkmeisters’ deep set. Lettuce welcomed Bernie Worrell for a riveting, organ-fueled jam and later, when Big Gigantic’s Dominic Lalli finished at the Pool Deck, he sat in with them. Natalie Cressman (Trey Anastasio, Wyllys and the NY Hustlers) also added trombone to the proceedings. With 20 minutes left in the Lettuce set, Nigel Hall emerged and showed the kind of stage presence you just can’t manufacture. Hall led Lettuce through an amazing cover of Move On Up by Curtis Mayfield that put the cap on their magical set.
At this point we were approaching 4AM and after a quick run through the Jam Room where host Lebo (ALO) was jamming with members of The Motet and Tea Leaf Green, I decided to call it a night. Jam Cruise is a marathon, not a sprint and even though I knew I’d miss something there’s a full day of music tomorrow. I look forward to hearing the stories from other Jam Cruisers later this morning. There’s still plenty of time and plenty to see. Come back tomorrow for more from Jam Cruise 11.