Cloud 9 press

Jam Cruise 8 | 01.03.10 – 01.08.10

JAMBASE - January 14, 2010

The urge to set sail on an adventure is deeply rooted in our collective unconscious. Tom and Huck on a makeshift raft on the muddy Mississippi, Odysseus tossed about the Mediterranean, Ahab in restless pursuit of his alabaster nemesis – these tales are writ large in our subconscious and I felt the symbolic stirrings of these and myriad other stories the first night on open water during my first Jam Cruise. With nothing but stars, clouds, waves and shiny, happy people around me (plus a few other cruise ships in the distance), I realized that this journey was my reality for the next five days. Home was miles behind me, the air cool and filled with energetic sounds, and I felt a primal sense of adventure rise in me. Jam Cruise is surely a party, but approached with slightly more conscious intent, it can be considerably more.

While sometimes seen as an elitist fest because of the price tag, what I found was the vast majority of people had obtained passage through hard work, talent and scrimping and saving. Yes, it is considerably more than the average camping fest but one has a cabin, shower, 24-hour food and drink, excursions to Jamaica and the Grand Cayman Island, and a host of amenities that constitute real luxury for the average festivarian. And there’s something to be said for being patient and working towards a really big event like this, particularly in a culture of near-instant gratification of most appetites. Sitting in a hot tub watching Luther Dickinson lock horns with Robert Randolph during The Word‘s blistering opening night set, I swiftly realized that this was unlike any other experience I’d ever had. To then wander indoors – barefoot, smiling and steaming – to find Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes tearing it up like a miniature gritty soul-rock revue in the Zebra Bar – think a pimp’s idea of “classy” done up in mirrors and garish zebra print – and I soon discovered that there were going to be a lot of temptations to not sleep over the next week. The atmosphere is charged, to say the least, and there’s as much as one can stand – and then some – on offer almost any hour of the day.

There is an intrinsic sense of playfulness on Jam Cruise. One encounters sights and sounds every few hundred feet that make one laugh aloud – costumed freaks making wild animal noises in the stairwells or a door hanger that reads, “Fucking Your Mom – Do Not Disturb.” It was, with few exceptions, good natured mischief, and I found myself humming Little Feat’s “Sailin’ Shoes” (or in my saucier moments, Ian Dury and the Blockheads’ “Sex and Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll“) as I strolled the carpeted hallways, frequently finding strangers in harmony with my fine mood. And many times these random encounters turned into extended conversations that dipped into everything from politics to divorce to our children and wistful remembrances of musicians past (Garcia’s spirit was very much afoot on the MSC Poesia). It may not have been universal but there was a significant portion of attendees who seemed split open in the most beautiful way, ready to face all sorts of things inside them, shared with a clarity we don’t often reach on dry land. On a half dozen occasions I found myself cradling someone I’d never met before as they cried into my shoulder only minutes after we’d begun speaking. And I was glad to be their sounding board and temporary comfort. Perhaps some of us felt freed up by the wonderfully alien setting, certain, on some level at least, that we were in safe company and that the music unfolding around us would heal and guide us onward. I saw people move from sobbing to dancing in swift order, and each of these encounters meant I had another new friend every time we bumped into one another the rest of the trip. And unlike most festival friendships, the depth of feelings shared cemented something more enduring that I want to hold onto and nurture now that I’m home, and I hardly think I’m alone in that desire.

You’ve also never ever geeked out and talked music like you can on Jam Cruise. Literally hours would pass as we traded our touring pedigrees and insights on beloved albums. With wide, wild eyes, we waxed poetic about Dead, Panic, Phish and Crowes shows we’d experienced, and in this company we felt no shame in being irrationally and completely in love with music. These are people whose personal timelines are marked by musical moments, songs or shows that capture the essence of a relationship or an entire year. A cigarette on the deck could turn into two hours of intense discussion of Duke Ellington or improvisation or whatever metaphorically floats our boats. And regardless of what was happening on stages, one rarely felt like they were missing out. In fact, usually the conversations would travel from disco to pool deck to Jam Room, shifting tone and content as one encountered others or got sparked off by the notes flying at them. More than any other festival, I felt surrounded by my tribe, the people for whom music is central and endlessly informative and inspiring.

And there’s the music. Perhaps it’s the herd mentality and general myopia of most music press, but this might be the most talented yet overlooked collection of musicians on the planet. This thought occurred to me repeatedly throughout the week as I watched players engage with a staggering number of styles and genres, most of them seemingly ready at a moment’s notice to wing it and see where they might go with their compatriots. In terms of pure chops, musical smarts and live energy, it’d be tough to beat the assemblage on Jam Cruise 8, and even if most aren’t household names that takes nothing away from their immense talent and infectious, free spirited spark.

“The beauty of this thing is we’re all sequestered in this place,” said saxophone marvel Jeff Coffin, an artist-at-large this year, who proved a real musical colossus with a wicked imagination and the dexterity and facility to pull off anything that came to mind, as he popped up with seemingly everyone at one point or another. “There’s so many chances to get outside of your comfort zones.”

Coffin’s observation hits the nail on the head: Jam Cruise is a chance to get outside one’s comfort zone and taste and feel the unfolding moment in a tangible way. If nothing else, this trip has reaffirmed that the jam scene continues to thrive where it counts most – the music.