The mission of Cloud 9 Adventures (the Jam Cruise travel and production company) is to provide a comprehensive and immersive musical experience, targeting aficionados of the jamming-style. This style intersects through the genres of The Grateful Dead, funk, R&B, and roots, with the occasional electronica and reggae session depending on the year’s schedule. Particularly remarkable, the romance of cruise ship travel can compel spontaneous music happenings. All of which often involve collaborations of various musicians, and so, the realization of the condition “to jam”.
Cloud 9 has not released attendance numbers; however, the MSC Divina can accommodate just under 4,000 passengers. Cloud 9 has stated that their intention is to not reach this capacity. The purpose of this tactic is to better manage the logistics of multiple and simultaneous stage venues and to ensure a measure of comfort and intimacy for other activities (such as master lectures in musicianship and group yoga).
Proudly, this is my third Jam Cruise, and this time, I was accompanied by three mates sharing two balcony cabins. This is a big-bucks venture so sharing a ship cabin (and so half the rate) is a necessity. Our strategy was to arrive into Miami the day prior and then to base the night out of a South Beach rental. Our evening this year was spent eating at banging Haitian Restaurant (Tap Tap), drinking $7.00 Crown two-fers in the oldest dive bar in Miami (Mac’s Club Deuce), walking Ocean Drive, and grooving at a local reggae joint (Club 426). Most importantly, we made the necessary gonzo-run for mustering the cabin provisions.
As observed during previous years, Jam Cruise is pleasantly represented by a complement of Dead Heads. Who else can you depend on to turn a musical happening into a stratospheric party? For the hardy, count on five hours cabin sleep a night or sun-crashing on the pool deck. Considering the Sunday debarkation and subsequent travel stress to home base, future jam cruisers may want to consider a Monday vacation day to decompress the effects of marathon partying. But then again, why waste a vacation day if you are “experienced”?
The following are my retrospective notes of the 2015 cruise, parsed into travel days. Over two dozen bands were on the schedule, most of which my Grateful Music friends will be familiar with. Since the event can run four or more jams simultaneously, and at different ship venues, Cloud 9 has created a schedule that allows for some bands to play twice. Although one drunken sailor can bring a sea shanty, he can’t heave all the long boats. Therefore, my apologies if my recap missed your favorite music.
You could feel the diesel engines rumble through the souls of your feet as the MSC Devina motored passed the loading cranes of Port Miami, cutting a wide south turn toward the warmer waters of the Caribbean. This low frequency vibration is a signal to finish unpacking your tie-dye shorts, grab your cabin drink, and head topside for the main stage. Although Tuesday’s moon was two days waning gibbous, the stage action was a full-moon party in every other respect. First ship concert is always exciting and fully attended if only for the anticipation of future days of reverie and camaraderie. The Motets was granted this first-up honor as a Jam Cruise historic regular. The band blasted their funky horn and keyboard version of Fight the Power so loud, the ship must have seemed doppler-shifted to the dock workers as we headed out the inlet under clear skies.
Another feature of Jam Cruise is the opportunity to push your music reality into unknown territory. Elephant Revival was my opportunity for exploration. I find that folk/bluegrass bands are becoming difficult to categorize considering broadening musical influences. It is more than a coincidence that Elephant Revival, like the other “grass” bands Yonder Mountain String Band and The String Cheese Incident, call Colorado their home state? Enchanting melodies were abetted by acoustic strings (guitar, bass, and fiddle), washboard-beat rhythms, emotive vocals, and mindful lyrics. Some have called this genre psychedelic folk, a term which my swiftly altering consciousness found very agreeable, as well as (I assumed) the Jam Cruisers twirling in harmony.
My nomination for the over-the-top-surprise-band for the cruise is The Word. Was this the North Mississippi Allstars with guest Robert Randolph or Robert Randolph backed by the North Mississippi Allstars? And… featuring John Medeski on keyboards! I am embarrassed to admit I have not heard of this super group prior to the Jam Cruise 13 (they played JC 10) but I have now been slain by a higher power. The searing gospel/blues cords by the master of the lap steel, Robert Randolph, was mesmerizing.
I can only think of one word to describe The Word…phenomenal. So, I will resort to an unfiltered quote from my gonzo shipmate Mojo Joe:
“Randolph backed by all three N Mississippi All-Stars and Medeski….simply stated, way over the motherfucking top! Luther drove Randolph to another level acquiescing in a non-lead roll delivering a relentless stream of chops from behind that were so blistering it was Jam Cruise energy insanity at its highest and finest level. Throw in G. Love and the stew was a mighty gargantuan potion. Needless to say, we manned the stage rail front and center and the contact with Randolph was huge. At one point Randolph took over the drum kit while Luther’s brother Cody came out front and sang a funk tune, getting the energy to a fever pitch working call and response with the crowd. Then… jumped off stage directly in front of us and did the call and response with the rail riders. There was no hesitation to keep his mojo working when he put the mike under my mouth. What a party that show was!”
I have to congratulate Cloud 9 for their excellent production and scheduling which allowed time between bands to catch one’s breath, grab another drink, check out guest-chef Pieter Dijkstra’s outstanding Phunk cooking, or a walk along the ship’s promenade. I needed that 45 minutes following The Word to regroup my senses for the next superband - Dragon Smoke. Each member of this Nawlins-style side project is a current musical leader in the genre either with a band or as solo. So how well does a blend of Galactic and Dumpstafunk musicians jam? Back to Mojo Joe for the commentary:
“The follow-up act Dragon Smoke could not match The Word for energy, but was some sick-assed music as well. Stanton Moore putting on a drum clinic, Galactic bass player, Ivan Neville on Hammond. Throw in a horn section and it was a formidable musical stew of its own.”
Mojo Joe and myself are constantly arguing over current best jam-style drummer. Joe goes with Stanton Moore and I side with Joe Russo. Technique vs. flow. Either way they both are tremendous drummers that make their personal presence felt.
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