Jam Cruise 11 – Setting Sail on one of the Great Music Festival Experiences, Part 1

I have known about Jam Cruisesince the first two set sail in January of 2004, and always hoped I would be able to go on one. Just one, that’s all I wanted, because when I’m not seeing live music, I’m a teacher, and taking a week off at the start of January is next to impossible, as any teacher will tell you. Even without a teaching job, I wouldn’t be able to afford Jam Cruise 11, so I was in a perpetual Catch-22, the elusive floating festival always out of grasp.

That was, until last year when the teaching market looked bleak and I said “Screw it. I’ll put the deposit down and see what happens job-wise.” With my friends Jason and Chris, we planned to book a cabin for three and all enjoy our first Jam Cruise together. Deposit is required early in the year for a better choice of room, plus installments needed to be paid on time in July and September, making this far from a last minute ‘”WooHoo! I got off work!” festival’ – you invest time and effort into Jam Cruise and plan well in advance. People are already planning their Jam Cruise 12 experience for next January, and that is far from an exaggeration. Having paid for Jam Cruise 11 and looking forward to it with every lineup announcement, activities announcement and details about theme nights coming in every few weeks, I was set on going and looked forward to this festival daily.

I had heard stories from past Jam Cruises – the musical acts, the musical collaboration, the all night music, the costumes, the tracksuits, the Pool Deck sets, the Jam Room, the Disco, the off shore excursions… and frankly, I was tired of hearing about it. I needed to live this. So when I got hired as a special education teacher in November, it was bittersweet. Would I have to sell my spot to someone? Would I ever wind up on the boat? Fortunately, I had understanding new employers who knew that paying for a (non-descript) trip in January well in advance meant I needed those 5 days off, and it was worked into my contract. Sigh, meet relief. I wasn’t sweating it too much, for the stars will align when you go on Jam Cruise. This isn’t your average two or three day festival – this is the mother of all festival, the pinnacle festival experience.

The plan all came together over the months leading up to the cruise. Theme nights were announced. Tuesday was ‘Blue Lagoon’, Thursday was ‘Cirque du Funk’ and Friday was ‘Spinal Tap Night’, because this Jam Cruise went to 11. There were of course some other theme nights that were unofficial – Monday’s theme was ‘Zebra’ and Wednesday was ‘Soul Train’, so after some consultation with friends who went on past Jam Cruises, I learned that these nights, while optional, well, they weren’t. We could ignore them and just wear shirts and shorts and enjoy ourselves, but the level of enjoyment wound up increasing tenfold as a result of taking part in the theme nights. Chris and I hit off The Costumer in Albany and did our shopping for each night. More on what we wound up wearing later, but rest assured that costumes and enjoying the theme nights make the Jam Cruise experience that much better, for you accentuate who you are: an expressive, unique and awesome person ready to share this rare musical experience with others.

The holidays rolled around and it was time for Phish at MSG, so five days in the city were needed to hit off all four shows, plus a couple late night shows, The Pinstripe Bowl (Go Cuse!) and pre-show meetups. Phish’s NYE run is always exhausting, but this time, it wasn’t. Even though 2012’s NYE run was better by miles than 2011, I was still feeling good after four nights of dancing. That darn post-Phish w00k flu always rears its head, but it was kept at bay, because nothing could keep me from enjoying Jam Cruise, especially since I had a couple days in between to teach and then head south to Florida. In a 21-day span, there was Christmas, Phish in NYC, a drive to Florida, Jam Cruise and the journey home. I’m no Roger Murtaugh but I was concerned that yes, I was getting too old for this shit.

Heading out January 4th, Chris and I drove from Albany to Orlando in a flat 20 hours. Many asked ‘Why would you drive?’, and the answer was simple – it was cheaper (less than $300 for the two of us on gas and tolls) and far easier to travel by car to get there. Plus, we had to pick up Jason as he flew in from Kentucky to Orlando, and some rest was needed before we embarked on the trip. Saturday and Sunday were filled with anticipation while we watched football and tied up loose ends, packing all the needed clothes and supplies, costumes and disco balls, so rather than rush from Ft. Lauderdale airport to the terminal, we got to take our time. Plus, its winter up in New York! Why not enjoy a little sun for an extra couple days?

Day 1: Monday, January 7th

We left Orlando for Ft.Lauderdale in the early afternoon, arriving with 3 hours to spare before the first act, The Soul Rebels, took the stage. We dropped the car in the ship’s adjacent parking garage, dropped off our bags with the porters and headed in for embarkation. This wound up being one of two times all week we had to wait in line. For about an hour, we waited to go through scanners (similar to the airport but no TSA fondling involved) and then waited in line to get our room keys and sign our final paperwork before boarding. We took the picture that everyone who has ever been on a cruise takes before boarding, and lo and behold, we were on a boat! The MSC Poesia to be exact.

I knew a handful of friends who were going on the boat, and hoped to catch up with them, but even on a boat of 3,000 Jam Cruisers and another 1,000 staff, plus stage and band crew, I still didn’t run into some friends until Friday afternoon. It’s a bigger boat than I imagined, and the friends I made on the boat made up for it. Jam Cruise is just like a festival – everyone is there for the music first and foremost, and to have a good time. If everyone is there for the same purpose, then it becomes a collective community celebration of epic proportions.

Arriving to our cabin, there is the mandatory emergency drill, so we donned our life vests and headed to our meeting spot, hung around for 10 minutes, then went back to the cabin so we could go catch the start of the free Happy Hour sponsored by Magic Hat, one of the Brews at Sea on the boat, including Sweetwater, Lagunitas, Breckenridge and NOLA. (There was Bud Light and the rest, but why drink swill on a cruise?). Beers in hand, we watched The Soul Rebels tear it up for the Sail Away Party on the Pool Deck. This might have been the only time everyone on the boat was in one place at the same time, as no venue could hold 3,000 people at once, and this was the only musical option for an hour. Annabel, the emcee for acts on the Pool Stage and all around ‘Julie’, ala The Love Boat, got things off on the right foot by saying “Are you ready to have the best week of your life?”, and she was far from overamplifying the event, as the crowd let out a thunderous cheer no other cruise ship could muster. The New Orleans sound of The Soul Rebels kicked the boat off with a cover of “Sweet Dreams (are made of this)” by Eurythmics, “Touch the Sky” by Kanye, “Do you Remember the Time” by Michael Jackson and set the tone for the cruise as we slowly sailed out of harbor and into open waters.

Taking the recommendation of veteran cruisers, I left during the last half hour of the kickoff set to head to the Merchandise area of the boat. Getting the posters and any merch I desired was a necessity early on, as I was advised that the good stuff sells out early. I picked up both posters, done spectacularly by Jeff Wood, and shirts and stickers and the usual. Not having to deal with this later on was a big plus, and even more so – we could get drinks while we waited in line! Drink ticket booklets were the way to go: 13 tickets for the price of 12, and different booklets for Brews at Sea, regular beer, wine, soda and mixed drinks. One Brews at Sea and one mixed/frozen drinks booklet for me wound up getting me through Thursday.

Getting a little downtime in cabin was needed, as sea legs are not something everyone has. The sway of the boat wasn’t much, but it did demand an adjustment on my part. A quick break in the cabin is always a good thing to help you relax and reload, but you don’t want to plan to spend much time in there, especially since some cabins, like our triple, are a bit cramped. You do have the benefit of a small TV in your room that shows on three channels scenes from the week – audio, photo and full video of sets. I might have seen the Big Gigantic Monday show on the TV about five times in the span of the cruise, yet only caught a little of their set first hand. It served as both a reminder of what you missed and what you enjoyed. We also needed a chance to change for the nights ‘Zebra’ theme, which led to me donning a robe, habit and mini disco ball and heading out for the night. (This is totally normal)

Heading back out to the Pool Deck, Medeski Martin Wood were joined by guitar virtuoso John Scofield, for one of the sickest shows of the cruise. All four were fully in sync but Scofield played leader to the quartet, who took their time with fast and paced pieces, but didn’t rush a single note. MMW fans were in for a treat on the boat and will enjoy recordings as they surface.

The Motet, a Colorado based nine-piece funk band, was one of the acts I was most excited to see, mainly because they just don’t get to the East Coast very often, although they did let me know they will be playing in New York City in April, a must see show. I’ve followed The Motet for years, loved their albums, especially Dig Deep and their funkified covered of Grateful Dead songs, so getting to see them on the boat as a group and spread out among the random collaborations was one of the highlights before I even got on board the MSC Poesia. Playing in the Zebra Lounge at 11:30pm, the crowd was up and tight for the set as the large band spread out around the stage, with Jans Ingber leading the way on vocals with Stevie Wonder-esque soul and interaction with the crowd that warranted a packed house. While enjoying the show, I discovered the signature drink of Jam Cruise, the BBC – Baileys, Bacardi, Coconut Puree and a banana, finely blended with ice for a rich concoction that you can’t top. It was the perfect drink for the cruise.

The night ended with Big Gigantic on the Pool Deck, a duo from Boulder, with Dominic Lalli on Sax and mixing beats on his laptop, while Jeremy Salken played drums with fervency throughout, dropping into snyc with Lalli and establishing a powerful performance that was accentuated with Sax riffs that were reminiscent of The Motet, of which he was a former member. I made it through only part of the set before calling it a night. The first eight hours of music on the boat were incredible, but I needed to rest up for Day 2. If there were four more days of this left, I was going to need all the energy I could muster.

Day 2: Tuesday, January 8th

Waking up on Tuesday and heading to get food at the 24 hour buffet, I realized that this cruise, much like the one I had been on when I was in high school, was a vacation. Naturally, cruises are vacations, but I had always looked at Jam Cruise as a festival at sea, but not a vacation. Finding an all you can eat buffet with a wide selection around the clock, turn down service and quick cleaning of cabins, as well as some of the best staff one could ask for, I was finding two experiences – a festival and a vacation – combining into one: a festivacation. There was little to set the two apart from each other, and thus, set the festival apart from other music experiences and festivals. Jam Cruise caters to the professional festivarian. Casual and energetic all at once, you are able to relax, enjoy music, party, check out special sets, find a second and third wind, and uniquely, find that there is no wall between fans and artists; artists are in cabins just like you, roaming the boat, eating meals in the restaurant and buffet, ordering drinks and catching some sun. There were few fan boy/girl moments throughout the cruise, but rather handshakes, thanks given for sets, casual interactions and elevator rides with musicians. Ever ridden in an elevator with Bernie Worrell? Had dinner next to Skerik? Well, it’s cool, but not that big of a deal on Jam Cruise, because that kind of stuff happens all the time!

Wandering around and still trying to get my bearings on where everything was, I found myself in the Pigalle Lounge, otherwise known as the Jam Room. Here, during the day, and not closed off to Jam Cruisers, you can find random practice sessions and soundchecks taking place. I popped in for 10 minutes when I discovered the room during the light hours, to find Natalie Cressman (Secret Garden, Trey Anastasio Band) Joey Porter (The Motet) Ryan Zoidis (Rustic Overtones, Lettuce), Eric Krasno (Lettuce, Soulive, Chapter 2) and The Motet horns, among many more, warming up and practicing a for a set to be played later. The sets and jam sessions are semi-planned with a lineup, but the jams are always unscripted. Watching the warm-ups meant that I had to get down to the Jam Room later that night, or randomly on the boat where these musicians would assemble that night or over the course of the cruise.

Autograph signings take place twice on the boat, and with luck, you can get nearly every musician to autograph whatever you want, in my case, posters for myself and one for a later auction for The Mockingbird Foundation (stay tuned to PhanArt for details). Musicians were gracious to sign posters, guitars, whatever you brought with you, as well as chat for a moment if you so desired. Half the boat’s musicians were here in the Disco, leading to interactions with Lettuce, MMW, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, The Funky Meters, Col. Bruce Hampton and many more. It was worth sacrificing an hour of music to meet some of the legends on the boat, including Art Neville and John Scofield.

JJ Grey and Mofro played the Pool Deck to quite a packed crowd. Hailing from Jacksonville, JJ Grey brings a gritty voice and strutting stage presence to the show, while Mofro’s horns and band stay in step with JJ and lead the way to a fantastic afternoon set, perfect for this time of day. Notable tunes included “Everything Good is Bad” and “Lochloosa”, as well as a great statement from JJ Grey regarding the preparation needed for Jam Cruise, the enjoyment of the week on the boat, and then the next week needed for recovery. He wasn’t far off base on this assessment.

One of the most welcome aspects of any festival is how Green the festival can be, keeping sustainability on the radar of both the producers and the festival-goers. Jam Cruise is no different, and goes to a higher level with ALL cups on the boat being compostable, as well as Positive Legacy holding auctions and raising money through carbon offsetting that goes to plant trees in the locations Jam Cruise visits in the Caribbean. For Jam Cruise 10, 10,000 trees were planted in Haiti, as well as 12,200 shoes were donated in partnership with Soles4Souls. Jam Cruise 11 advocated for carbon offsetting, which was between $10-25, depending where you flew/drove from, which would be used to donate school supplies in Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos. Additionally, there was the Magic Hat Wind Stage, a stage that ran on wind power, and this day, there was plenty of wind to be found, as the boat was sailing quickly to make the trek to Grand Turk. In 2012 the stage was powered by the sun, and on this year’s cruise, there was more wind to be found than sun.

A Space Disco set, with Wyllys featuring Joel Cummins (Umphrey’s McGee) played the Pool Deck at 5:30 pm for a unique set – Wyllys spins tracks and Joel added in keys to build up froth for those who swam in the pool and enjoyed the sunset. Dancing in the gusting wind while enjoying drinks and taking random pictures for people as they wandered past the setting sun made for a hilarious and wild start to the night.

Attending the HeadCount volunteer dinner with Chris and Jason, we made friends with table mates Ben and Ryan, chatting about our HeadCount experiences in the past year, while enjoying some of the best food on the boat. Three courses filled us up for the night, plus some delicious wine and beverages were a solid cap to an already enjoyable day. Krasno, Ivan Neville (Dumpstaphunk), Jeff Coffin (Dave Matthew Band, Flecktones) Joel Cummins and numerous volunteers, bloggers and musicians all enjoyed a great dinner in Il Palladio Dining Room.

Note: By this point of the cruise, I would have been looking down at my phone, tweeting these updates to my followers and not living in the now. Thankfully, I left my phone in my backpack from Monday at 5 pm until Saturday around 10 am, undeterred by the Wifi available on the boat. As Laura Nulman said, “I think the best part about Jam Cruise is the lack of cell service. No one live tweeting and such. It lives in our memories only.” And that was one of the non-musical highlights of the cruise, saving the experience for my memories and reviews of the boat. There were some computers on the boat where you could buy time on the Internet for a small fee per minute, but a few minutes checking email vs. constantly checking your phone would take away the vacation aspect of Jam Cruise. Besides, I was there for the music! If Disney is the happiest place on earth for kids, Jam Cruise is the happiest place on earth for live music fans.

After the HeadCount dinner, we walked toward the Atrium to catch Nigel Hall’s piano session amid the three-levels of the boat converging for great acoustics. Playing a selection of songs on the piano, Nigel was later joined by Ivan Neville for a song, while the rails and stairs were lined with music fans smiling and focusing on the spontaneous music that was created in front of them.

The plan for Tuesday night was simple: see The Motet ‘Funk is Dead’ set, Boombox, Funky Meters, Big Gigantic, catch some Medeski Skerik Deitch and cap the night in the Disco with Wyllys. Could it all be done? Probably not, but that’s part of the fun. The entire time you are roaming the boat, you are going on a new adventure, and sometimes you wind up forgoing one musical experience for something else. With most acts playing twice on the boat, you always had a backup option. Still, with all this on tap, you have to pace yourself! There is never a need to rush when you are at a festival, but here’s a Pro Tip: if you find yourself a bit tired or feeling sluggish, grab a cup of  coffee, dump it into a cup of ice, stir, pound it, and you’re back in the game. It worked like a charm on more than once this cruise.

We missed the ‘Funk in Dead’ set during the Headcount dinner, but knowing it will come to NYC in the Spring, I felt better enjoying a meal instead. While relaxing on a couch in the Zebra Lounge and sipping a fine Malbec, our growing group of friends were awaiting Boombox to come on stage. Jason was talking about them from the moment we boarded the boat and his recommendation was good enough for me. Pairing Russ Randolph as DJ with Zio Rock Godchaux on guitar (Former Grateful Dead members Keith and Donna’s son) was not only a legitimate dance party infuser, but incredibly inspired and unique. For 90 minutes, we had a dance party in the Zebra Lounge, hanging with those who stopped by what felt like our own exclusive booth for viewing, but was really just an open window to the party. There was a great song that felt like they would drop a techno-enhanced version of “2001” on us, accelerating the night into overdrive.

Tuesday was also ‘Blue Lagoon Boogaloo’, which meant that nearly everyone was dressed in some shade of blue or a costume that was blue. For me, it was simple – Disco/Disney shirt, blue Hawaiian shirt and blue pajama bottoms. My final Smurf count was 12, while there were only 2 Na’vi (from Avatar) to be found. Unobtanium indeed…

True story: for nearly all of 2012 after I paid for Jam Cruise, I proudly and without a hint of irony, said that this would be my only one. I meant it seriously and remorsefully. The former because it didn’t seem like I would be able to go again since I had to wait 10 years from the first cruise, and the latter being that I am a teacher and as I mentioned, I can rarely get this time off of work. But I had done my homework and found the experience to be second to none, and was already trying to figure out how to put down a deposit for Jam Cruise 12. And it was only the second day of Jam Cruise 11.

After Boombox and a little hydration, we went to see the most classic of New Orleans bands, The Funky Meters. Art Neville – 75 years old and still able to tickle the ivories with panache, was seated stage right, while George Porter Jr. took center stage on bass and vocals with Brian Stoltz on guitar to his left and Russell Batiste Jr. holding down the drums. You couldn’t ask for a more incredible act to be on the boat. This is the original New Orleans funk band, and as someone said on stage, if you were a musician in New Orleans, you probably played in a band founded by Art Neville. It was a real treat from the moment they took the stage. The quartet played everything you could ask for: “Just Kissed My Baby”, “Africa”, “Hey Pocky Way”, “Look a Py Py”, “Fire on the Bayou”, “Cissy Strut” and a personal highlight, “Ain’t No Use”. After many years of hearing Widespread Panic versions of “Ain’t No Use”, seeing the original version was simply incredible. The set went on until 1:45 am, but it felt more like 3 am with the way the songs stretched into the night.

Moving down to the Teatro Carlo Felice (The Theater), Big Gigantic played a powerful 90 minute set, including a truly amazing version of “I Need a Dollar”, before bringing out members of The Motet, Lettuce and many more, to jam out to some Herbie Hancock tunes until 4am. From where I was sitting, you could see a line of horn players waiting to take the stage to sit in with Big Gigantic for this special set. When the guy next to me heard the name ‘Herbie Hancock’, he jumped up, asked me if I needed anything, ran to get a drink for himself and water for me, and was back within five minutes. I was thankful not to miss this special treat of a set, especially having missed much of the set the night before.

Late night after the music is scheduled to end is a casual, ‘eat whatever you want and roll into the next day’ kind of affair. Catching up with Chris, we popped into the buffet to get a bite to eat en route to the next adventure, Wyllys featuring Rob Soup, in the Disco. For the rest of the night, how little was left of it, we danced with friends to great house music mixed by Wyllys, and looked back on an incredible day. Once you make it to this late in the night, and have little intention of going to sleep, you have to see the sun rise. So heading out to the top of the Pool Deck while staff cleaned and scrubbed the level below us, we watched the sunrise, looked back on the night and still found the energy to dance, evidenced by the video below.

It took a little over 500 years to go from Columbus setting foot in the Caribbean, when it was a risk to sail on the unexplored, open seas, to having a five-day cruise with non-stop music that created a new and positive West Indies footprint. And Jam Cruise 11 wasn’t at it’s halfway point yet.

Stay tuned this week for more reports from Jam Cruise 11. Wednesday features Christopher DeCotis’ photo gallery from Day 1 and 2, Thursday will have Pete Mason’s full recap of Day 3, 4 and 5, and Friday will have Christopher DeCotis’ photos from the final 3 days of Jam Cruise.

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