Jam Cruise 6 was a musical confluence. The definition of this word is quite illustrative: a gathering, flowing, or meeting together at one juncture or point, and the combined stream formed by this juncture. Think about that. When you bring together an incredible array of 30 nationally and internationally accomplished bands, and then sprinkle in heavy doses of the experience and multifaceted individual expertise of funk legends George Porter Jr. and Art Neville, Karl Denson, Robert Walter, Warren Haynes, Ivan Neville, Steve Kimock and Skerik, the experience was clearly fitting of that definition: a gathering of musical ideas which create a combined stream of flowing styles unique to itself.
These musical voices, collectively, take some measure of direct influence from so many historic sources. Firsthand, musicians on this cruise have played with the likes of: Fred Wesley, James Brown, Maceo Parker, The Grateful Dead, Roger Waters – The Funky Meters themselves have been touring on and off for over three decades – the Allman Brothers Band, Phish, The Dave Matthews Bandthis list could be much longer, but hopefully the idea is clear that the ocean was indeed a fitting place for this richly creative amalgamation of styles, which all flowed together no matter what direction the currents of expression took – whether it was jazz, bluegrass, hip-hop, funk, rock, reggae, blues, soul virtually all segments of music were expertly represented and influential during this five-day super-jam.
The success of any festival, no matter its size or location, is ultimately reflected by the quality of the people who run it. Jam Cruise 6 was a kind, easy-going, well-structured, and supremely enjoyable event from top to bottom. The Cloud 9 Adventures team worked together like a finely tuned machine, Kelly and Toast were instrumental in helping us get the ice cream onboard the ship with the utmost expediency (ice cream will tolerate no less). Amy, Megan, and Claire from Madison House Productions expertly coordinated logistics with a businesslike efficiency, while treating artists and staff alike with respect and consideration. The crew of the MSC Lirica was friendly, helpful, and even they seemed a little like they were on a working vacation.
The cruise was kicked off by Soulive on the pool deck, with particularly emphatic keyboard work by Neal Evans, who seemingly has two full brains in his head how else can one explain the ability to improvise with two keyboards simultaneously? On any given song, Evans would be playing a complex bass line with his left hand, while his right was jamming the organ with a syncopated verve often not found in a single two-handed player. Things quickly turned toward funk, as the crowd toasted the start of our five-day journey, and no sooner had the audience settled into thoroughly enjoying Soulive, when Karl Denson brought his tenor sax onstage, along with his understated sense of rhythm, and a powerful solo which increased everyones level of play and got the appreciative crowd jumping into a higher gear.
It was quite a standard to set for the inaugural show, but make no mistake about it these artists were all here because they love their craft, and they were, each and every one, playing outside themselves. Which in fact is the hallmark of musical expertise – if you will forgive the aside when its as though the player seemingly vanishes in a stream of pure thought and emotion composed of notes, you know, as George Porter Jr. was heard to say that first night, Its On.
There were no fewer than six stages in use on the MSC Lirica, so it was difficult to see and hear everything on any given day. Why, you ask? Well, just try to imagine that you are listening to music that is so good you simply cannot bring yourself to leave, even though you might want to catch some other act. It is this notion, along with the heavy groove/funk theme, that was consistent throughout the Jam Cruise 6 experience. So now we had this awesome combination of musicians who clearly love what they are doing, an audience that clearly loves to listen. This was a recipe for, as drummer Stanton Moore might say, a conversation between artists and audience that lasted each day into the early morning hours – especially in the Jam Room where the combinations of talent created rich and complex dialogs of jaw-dropping musicality.
Day two saw a significant percentage of the passengers and artists succumb to sea-sickness, as the occasional 10-15 swell was running directly across our heading, causing what this observer termed a perpetual gravity storm. When ICMs own Burgundy became affected, CraSHs thoughtful advice was, If you dance, it totally makes things better! (and you know what? he was right) Yonder Mountain String Bands Jeff Austin couldnt resist another playful anecdote during their daytime pool deck show: You people must be dancing your asses off the whole room feels like its moving! YMSB played into the evening, there is nothing quite as heart-warming and fun as a tight bluegrass ensemble on the Caribbean Sea at sunset. (thankfully, as the ship sailed further south, the sun seemed reluctant to finish its journey below the horizon) Authors Note: Michael Franti and Spearhead deserve honorable mention here, as leaving Cozumel on the penultimate day of the trip, their reggae version of “Lies, Lies, Lies ? Space Cowboy ? Lies” (with Mike Dillon) also at sunset, managed to prove my previous statement, if not technically wrong, at least not any sort of absolute Truth. Reggae at sunset on the Caribbean Sea — everything about that just felt good.
The Funky Meters threatened to turn the whole event into Groove-Funk Cruise, with long-time compatriots Art Neville and George Porter Jr. laying it down hard, as in here we are on the USS Funk, and were driving the whole damn SHIP with this sound indeed, when you added in the rhythm section of Karl Denson, Skerik, Jeff Coffin, and Dominic Lalli, things really heated up in a hurry, and I think many in the audience thought it possible that the ocean was, in fact, rocking in response to the music. It should be noted that Galactic also lobbied heavily to be co-captains of the USS Funk. And then out came George Porter Jr., Karl Denson, and Robert Walter to play along, and all Hell broke loose, or at least, all funk. Could they be named Jazz-Funk-Groove-lactic? Definitely.
Grace Potter surely garnered many new fans on this trip as well, with her distinct ability to sing stretched out and soulfully slow one moment, then belt out Joplin-esque energy the next, as she did during an astonishing collaboration with Galactic on Led Zepplins “Whole Lotta Love.” (which I might add, was so incredible it left the crowd more than a little “Dazed and Confused”) If you have not had the pleasure of seeing Grace Potter and the Nocturnals in person, do yourself a favor and look up their tour dates right now. She has taken a clearly soulful, syncopated, and strong-willed stance with her musical expression, whether its vocally or on guitar/keys. She brought an intangible and earthy quality to the Jam Room as well, when playing piano and singing with no one else but George Porter Jr. What an intimate interplay between a veteran and a relative newcomer that was.
But let us put the music aside for just a moment (actually, this being Jam Cruise, we brought it along with us) as we had the distinct privilege of participating in a special tour of Roatan, Honduras, organized by the Conscious Alliance in conjunction with Jam Cruise, Pangea Organics, The Children’s Fund of Roatan and Zero Hero. The purpose of this tour was to deliver school supplies and organic soap to several needy areas in the small island community, including a school, a clinic, and an orphanage. A charitable mission? What a perfect chance for us to employ the Ice Cream Man vision, and CraSH took the opportunity to donate about 75 pieces of ice cream to a very grateful group of children at the orphanage. The biggest treat, however, was a very poignant acoustic concert, played in the courtyard of the orphanage, which included Jon Fishman (Phish), Jamie Janover (Zilla), Jeff Coffin (Bela Fleck and The Flecktones), Dan Lebowitz (ALO), Dave Watts and Dominic Lalli (The Motet), Tanya Shylock (Mountain Of Venus), and Bo Carper, Jeff Miller and Sean Hutchinson (New Monsoon). “Aiko-Aiko” wasnt so much played, as it was felt. The Beatles “Yellow Submarine”, Jazz standard “St. Thomas”, and several childrens songs were also part of this superlative side-show. The leader of the orphanage, Mark Schuller (aka Mister Mark) borrowed a guitar from one of the musicians and led us all in a few of the Spanish songs that the kids sing on a regular basis, with many of the children playing along with percussion instruments. The compassion of everyone involved was both moving and affirming in a palpable way.
A gathering of a somewhat different sort was typical around the Ice Cream Man cart on the pool deck. CraSH was recognized from festivals around the country: Langerado, Wakarusa, Bumbershoot, and many others in fact wherever we went aboard the Lirica, he was a familiar face to many, and everyone was glad to see the Ice Cream Man represented. We heard folks saying things like, NOW its a festival, the Ice Cream Man is here! and this is my favorite part of Jam Cruise. Stanton Moore stopped by, as did Jeff Coffin, as well as other musicians and members of the ships crew. We made a lot of people very happy on this trip, and we would certainly like to thank our sponsors for their participation.
All week long the artist collaboration was unprecedented; it had the feel, at times, of a sort of Musicians Workshop, which the audience was merely a privileged witness. Nowhere was this more evident than when, during 80s Night, Oh! You Pretty Things took the stage on the pool deck this outstanding tribute to the music of David Bowie was comprised of Al Schnier (moe.) Jon Fishman (Phish), Robert Walter (Greyboy Allstars), Jeff Austin (Yonder Mountain String Band), Jans Ingber (the Motet) and Ron Johnson (with special guests, of course). An unlikely combination of voices, they blended perfectly, channeling Bowie so well for an entire show that Im sure that wherever he was on that night, Mr. Bowie heard something faintly off in the distance; some temporal echo of his the years when songs like “Space Oddity”, “Changes”, “Golden Years”, “Lets Dance”, “Ziggy Stardust” and more were new and played with an intensely fresh and raw energy.
There were so many fabulous experiences, musically and otherwise, that it would be impossible to relate them all individually. The Costume Party on the final evening of the trip was insanely fun virtually everyone onboard was dressed up as something. One thing I will say, is that if you are reading this as someone who has not been on a Jam Cruise, and balks at the cost of such an excursion, its this: there is no easy way to measure the extra value, above and beyond the purchase price, that Cruisers enjoyed, except in the hearts and minds of those who attended. So if youre thinking about signing up, just jump in with both feet — you will get more than you paid for, without a doubt.