Jam Cruise: The world’s best floating music festival

Every year, over 3,000 music lovers of all ages pack up their shorts, swimsuits and creative costumes and head south to take a break from winter.

They converge at a south Florida cruise ship terminal, where all the stage shows and cheesy lounge singers have been kicked off the ship, replaced by some of the country’s best groups from the jam band/festival scene. It’s Jam Cruise, and the 12th floating music festival took place January 4th the first cruise on MSC’s new ship, Divina, after four years on the Poesia. It was also the first departure from the Port of Miami, which is a much nicer facility than the Port Everglades terminal. And my hat’s off to the folks at Cloud 9 Adventures and all their supporting cast. Putting together a production like Jam Cruise is a huge and complicated undertaking under any circumstances, and no amount of pre-planning will anticipate everything that could go wrong. This year, there was the added complication of a new ship just to make things a tad more challenging. The pool deck is about a third smaller than it was on Poesia, and that complicated the load-in and erection of the stage. But they powered through it all and got things up and running. And I have no doubt that they’ll take what they learned and have it nailed down next year.

Once the stage was ready, Cruise Director Annabel Lukins, aka “Julie McCoy” introduced the Cloud 9 key leadership and offered up a toast to kick off Jam Cruise 12. Following tradition, the sail away party was a brass band from New Orleans. The past two years were the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and The Soul Rebels. This year, the opening slot went to Bonerama, an ensemble out of New Orleans fronted by three trombone players. Their show, made up of originals and covers of tunes you wouldn’t expect from a brass band, was a great way to kick off the show.

While the schedule was shifted on the pool deck, the other venues were able to stick with the posted times, and you always have to make tough choices when there are competing shows. We chose the Monophonics, and what a great choice. A solid, six-piece ensemble led by Kelly Finnigan’s soulful voice and keyboards, this band was our top surprise for night one. With a solid rhythm section, scorching guitarist, and a trumpet/trombone horn section to fill out the sound, they had the crowd gettin’ down from the first note to the end. We made a quick dash back to the pool deck to catch Robert Randolph and The Family Band. They’re one of my all-time favorites, and they didn’t disappoint. The extended family this time around included Robert’s sister and a 10-year old guitar prodigy, Brandon Niederauer, that blew everyone away.

Les Claypool’s Duo de Twang. That’s probably all I need to say. Claypool has always been one of my favorite bass players, but my exposure has always been through Primus and his sit-ins with other groups. Duo de Twang is a whole ‘nother thing altogether. We got everything from Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Amos Moses” to The Bee Gees “Stayin’ Alive” to Johnny Horton’s “War of 1812”. Les’ banter with the crowd was great as always. He even made a proxy proposal for a guy whose girlfriend was in the audience but couldn’t be found. By the way, she said yes. With Wylie Woods on mandolin and Bryan Kehoe on guitar, they huddled around the fake plastic log campfire and sang to us. It was vintage.

Day two started off with Keller Williams. He began with some choice acoustic solo/looping jams. About halfway through the set, Steve Kimock and his son John Morgan Kimock joined in on guitar and drums. It was some sweet, tasty stuff to begin a sunny day at sea on the pool deck. Things shifted to the solar stage for a great solo acoustic set by Nathan Moore, a troubadour from my home state of Virginia. Then it was back to the pool deck stage for Anders Osborne. Anders is a phenomenal guitarist with a great voice. His regular trio of Carl Dufrene Jr. on bass and Eric Bolivar on drums was augmented by Peter Stelling on guitar, Mike Dillon on percussion and Ivan Neville on keys. At various points during the set, George Porter Jr., Stanton Moore, and Billy Iuso joined the mix. It was a spacey, trippy kind of set that everyone enjoyed.

After some downtime for food and rest, it was time to head to the theater for Bootsy Collins and The Funk Unity Band. This was the third time I’d seen them in the last three months, so I knew what to expect, but that didn’t make it any less fun. The theater was packed with the largest crowd I’d seen so far, and all the Funkateers in the room got down on the one! While most of the Parliament Funkadelic crowd is either gone, has stopped performing, or should stop performing, Bootsy seems to get better with age. He is surrounded with a top notch collection of musicians and vocalists who not only back him very well but carry the show on their own during Bootsy’s costume changes. The band worked through some classic tunes from Bootsy’s Rubber Band and Parliament days. He ended the set with “Touch” and waded into the crowd to touch his people. Whether you physically touched him or not, Bootsy definitely touched everyone in the theater that night.

Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe followed in the theater. Back around 2003 I was bored with the mainstream music I’d listened to for years, so I started checking out the schedule for a venue in Norfolk, The Norva. I saw Karl Denson’s name, followed the link to his website, listened to some samples from his newest album, “The Bridge”, and my musical life was changed forever. Karl will always have a special place in my heart. The first half of the set was a sampling of his tunes, new and old, along with one composed by his guitarist, D.J. Williams. Bill Evans made a guest appearance as well. Then Zach Deputy came on stage as they launched into their Ray Charles Boogaloo Dance Party. The band was tight, and Zach did an amazing job carrying the vocals for a truly legendary artist on tunes like “Mess Around”, “Busted” and “Unchain My Heart”. I only caught a tiny bit when they performed the same show at Bear Creek last November, so I was thrilled to hear the entire set.

I have a confession to make. Even though this is my third Jam Cruise, night two was the first time I managed to make it to the Jam Room. With George Porter Jr. hosting, I knew I had to be there. Since this was my first visit I don’t know if what I saw was the norm, but the side of the stage was packed with musicians hoping to get asked up for a song or two. There were typically 12 to 14 musicians crammed onto a fairly small stage at any time, and the music flowed seamlessly from one style to the next as the players changed. One trombonist (who shall remain nameless) took matters into his own hands and jumped up from the front of the stage to join in with Corey Henry (Galactic), and Craig Klein, Mark Mullins, and Greg Hicks (Bonerama). It was a little awkward, but that’s how intensely these musicians want to be a part of the jam.

When we woke up on the afternoon of day three, my wife said “If the eyes are the window to your soul, then my soul must be bleeding”. That’s the sign of a good night on Jam Cruise, as is waking up at 1:00 in the afternoon. We’d been in port Falmouth, Jamaica for six hours by then. It was cloudy with on and off rain, so it was a good day for a couples massage to work out the previous night’s kinks and prepare for the sets on day three.

The Wailers kicked things off as we got underway from Jamaica. I loved seeing Aston “Family Man” Barrett still doing his thing on bass. I consider him the seminal bassist around which the reggae of the late sixties-early seventies was built. The band worked through faithful interpretations of all the classic tunes from the original group. By the end of the set, we was all irie! We scooted down to the atrium to hear Kelly Finnigan of The Monophonics in a solo setting. He felt out of his comfort zone, but it didn’t really show. Kicking things off with “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, he worked through an eclectic set that included a quick sit-in by Dan Hastie of Orgone. He got a little lost in the lyrics to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, but held it together nicely. The set concluded with a duet with Adryon de Leon from Orgone on the Ben L’Oncle Soul tune “Why Can’t I Let Go”.

What do you get when you combine a marching band with an assortment of “uniforms”, throw in some acrobats and stilt walkers, and place them on the deck of a cruise ship rocking from side to side with a 30 mile-per-hour crosswind? The MarchFourth Marching Band, of course. The combination of the funkiest marching band you’ve ever heard combined with the theatrical presentations makes this band a must see anytime you have the opportunity. It’s just flat out fun. So I watched some of their show, but I felt a strange, mystical force pulling me towards the theater. After going aft instead of forward (let’s not talk about why), I found one of the most interesting collaborations I’ve ever seen. John Popper, DJ Logic, George Porter Jr., Stanley Jordan and Adam Deitch were in a full-out jam. They were joined by Bill Evans on sax at various points throughout the performance. They played without a break in the sound for an hour and twenty minutes, handing off to one another and smoothly transitioning from groove to groove. The sonic and rhythmic diversity was absolutely incredible. God, I hope that show is available on Jam Tunes; I want to enjoy it again and let others listen. It was that good.

To say Galactic is a staple on Jam Cruise is just stating the blatantly obvious. I think they’ve been on all but one, and you’d think that the crowds would start to get smaller over time. Not the case. This New Orleans-based funk/jazz ensemble consistently fills whatever venue they play on the boat, and their set on the pool deck was no exception. They introduced a new lead singer, Maggie Koerner, whose powerful voice, phenomenal range and sensuous stage presence electrified the crowd. I left for awhile, but came back for their finale, a cover of “Gimme Shelter” with Koerner and Jans Ingber on vocals. It was a full-throated, in your face interpretation of a classic that shook me to the soles of my feet.

As I mentioned, I left for awhile during Galactic’s set to catch The Infamous Stringdusters in the Black & White Lounge. While some may consider this five-piece group of traditionalists a notch down from bands like Greensky Bluegrass, Railroad Earth, and others, I just don’t see it that way. They’re all outstanding players on their respective instruments, but what sets them apart for me is the richness of their vocals. While Andy Hall pulls most of the vocal responsibilities, there’s no loss in quality when Jeremy Garrett or Travis Book takes the lead. Their first guests were Roosevelt Collier and Eric Krasno. I was intrigued by the choice of Krasno and ready to hear how he’d fit in. No surprise: he killed it, putting just enough twang into his licks to make the sound feel at home. Later, a more natural collaboration occurred as Anders Beck and Paul Hoffman sat in for a song. Unfortunately, Anders’ dobro wasn’t active so you couldn’t hear his solos.

I wrapped up the day with The New Mastersounds in the theater. Eddie Roberts took the stage adorned in his “Mayor of Purpletown” robe, so dubbed by Simon Allen. This band always delivers with a solid funky, jazzy sound. They dug way back and played a couple of songs from their very first album, and were joined at various points by the California Horns, Ivan Neville, and Jans Ingber. It was a great set to end the day.

Day four began on the pool deck with my new favorite band, The Monophonics. A very new band out of San Francisco, they bring some solid soul chops to the stage. Kelly Finnigan’s soulful voice has tinges of JJ Grey’s range and feel and Joe Cocker’s soul, but with a cleaner tone. And when he kicks that voice in with the Hammond B3, he’ll melt your soul. With a solid horn section and great players across the board, this band is going places. You absolutely must check them out if they come to your area.

The LA-based soul/funk group Orgone is another of my favorite bands. There’s always been a rotating cast of female lead vocalists, all of them extremely talented. Nikki Crawford filled that slot the first few times I caught their show, and Tiffany Austin’s sweet voice graced the stage at the Mustang Music Festival in Corolla, NC last October. Their new vocalist, Adryon de Leon, has power, range and control that adds a rich, full tonality to the band’s repertoire. And even through there have been some lineup changes on various instruments, the core group of Sergio Rios on guitar, Dan Hastie on keyboards, Sam Halterman on drums and Darren Cardoza on trombone hold that trademark Orgone sound together. It’s always a treat to see this band perform.

I always look forward to the Super Jam each year. The host artist takes the role seriously and pulls together an all-star cast of players and vocalists to produce a one-of-a-kind show. This year, Soulive’s Alan Evans delivered a thick, meaty slice of funk and soul classics as well as interpretations of songs from other genres. From “Superfly” to “Let It Be”, from “Theme from Shaft” to “Purple Rain”, the set was very well constructed and expertly delivered. The guests included members from Lettuce, The Revivalists, Galactic’s Rob Mercurio on bass, Ivan Neville and Tony Hall from Dumpstaphunk and Jennifer Hartswick’s sweet vocal stylings.

I’d never heard of Thievery Corporation before this year’s lineup was announced, but what I read and sampled of their work before the cruise intrigued me. None of it prepared me for the live experience. There were influences from Indian raga, rasta reggae, hip-hop and world sounds, interpreted by a rotating cast of vocalists and backed by a core group of musicians and Rob Garza’s DJ stylings. It was exhilarating and moving, both sonically and visually.

I mentioned earlier in the review how Karl Denson’s album, “The Bridge”, affected my musical trajectory. They played the album in its entirety at a New Year’s Eve show in Chicago, and I’d been bugging D.J. Williams about the possibility of it happening on Jam Cruise. Well, dreams do come true! This cat was in total bliss mode when they kicked in with “How Fine Is That”. Hearing this set was the emotional high point of the cruise for me, and I’m so grateful that it happened. Whether it was my incessant pleas or karma or positive vibes doesn’t matter. And after that, all I had to do was turn around to face the Solar Stage and hear The Revivalists for the very first time. That’s some straight up New
Orleans funk and soul right there. It’s neck and neck between them and The Monophonics for my new favorite band.

We got up fairly early on day five. We were looking forward to some swim time in the beautiful waters around Half Moon Cay and catching the Warren Haynes show. It was cloudy and looked like it could rain at any moment. The water didn’t look rough to me, but apparently it was too rough for the tender boats to ferry people ashore. But what about Warren? Cloud 9 came through again, managing to get him to the island via seaplane and somehow get him on the boat. So instead of a set limited by the shore location, we got an extended set with lots of extra instruments and guests sitting in. Instead of two hours, the set lasted for an extra 45 minutes. Warren kicked things off on acoustic, working through a mixture of his solo tunes, covers and Gov’t Mule selections, including “Fallen Down” and U2’s “One”. Alecia Chakour, Ivan Neville and Bill Evans joined Warren for “River’s Gonna Rise”. North Mississippi Allstar’s Luther and Cody Dickinson collaborated with Haynes on Howlin’ Wolf’s “I Asked For Water”, and Steve Kimock joined in on “To Lay Me Down” and “Stella Blue”. Paul Hoffman and Anders Beck of Greensky Bluegrass joined Warren for a beautiful version of “Patchwork Quilt”, and the set ended with Alecia Chakour, Ivan Neville, George Porter Jr., and 10-year old Brandon Niederauer joining Warren for a wonderful rendition of “Soulshine”.

I had to get another dose of Popper/Logic/Porter/Jordan/Deitch, so I caught their set on the pool deck. It was totally different from their first set, more song oriented and segmented, but no less spectacular. It’s just one of many unique collaborations that you won’t find many other places than on Jam Cruise. While I was jamming, my wife attended a sound therapy workshop hosted by the Bob Moog Foundation. We’ve always believed in the healing qualities of music, but this takes it to a whole new level. Depending on what we find as we research the topic, she may be hanging out her shingle in the coming year.

Our Jam Cruise experience ended with a serving of Lettuce on the pool deck. I’ve always loved this group with their driving funk groove, anchored by Jesus Coomes on the bass. They played some old favorites and introduced several new pieces that I can’t wait to hear again. We were fading fast from all the raging of the previous four days and knowing I had to drive first thing in the morning. It looks like we’ll have to throw in a hotel and a day’s stay in Miami for arrival day next year. We’re already pre-booked for the cruise, and can’t wait to reunite with friends old and new for another great week of music at sea.

- John Phillips

- Photos by Festy Shots Photography