As news of David Bowie’s passing spread throughout the globe, Jam Cruise 14 gradually crept closer back to shore following a five day adventure that neither photo galleries or daily recaps can fully encompass. Needless to say, hearing of the loss of the Starman first thing back to port was a hard way to rejoin the real world. Bowie celebrated his 69th birthday and final album release while we were at sea and while we didn’t get a chance to celebrate him through covers, his very influence was embedded within every performance that took place over our five days together.
Our last day at sea was highlighted sets by both Twiddle and ALO under the tropical sun and a final late night pool deck performance by Electron, an act compromised of members of The Disco Biscuits, Lotus and Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, playing a set comprised entirely of Pink Floyd tunes.
With a solid 24 hours now between the end of the trip and this report, it’s become clear who played the best sets, which acts maybe didn’t belong on the boat, where things can stand to improve, and what shouldn’t ever change.
MVP: Weedie Braimah
The Djembe Master was billed as an “Artist at Large” meaning he didn’t have a set to himself but was brought on board to sit in with other acts. Not only was he seemingly on every stage at once, but he hosted educational and engaging activities that were unlike anything else going on around the Divina. He improved the musicianship of every performance he joined and pound for pound, no single musician brought more value to Jam Cruise 14 than the Big Guy from St. Louis.
Rookie of the Year: Nicole Atkins
The singer-songwriter was known to the Jam Cruise community mostly as the host of XM’s Jam On program, but she threw down during multiple high profile sets that put her on the radar in a major way. Between her performances with Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (both sets) as well as Marco Benevento on Day 5, Atkins established herself as a fierce vocalist with a performance prowess that should have Grace Potter shaking in her boots. Atkins technically wasn’t even on the bill but overshadowed Artist At Large Amy Helm by leaps and bounds. Some of the biggest acts of the week were much better as a result of her presence and it would be shocking if she didn’t earn herself an invite back come January 2017.
Most Required Return: Cory Henry
Snarky Puppy’s organ/synth player is too much of a freakish talent not to bring back on the boat next year. He was the most technically proficient keyboardist this year and made everyone else he played with that much better. He makes major players like Joel Cummins (Umphrey’s McGee) and Aaron Magner (Disco Biscuits) look like kids learning their way around a Casio keyboard and Jam Cruise icons like Ivan Neville clearly enjoyed bringing him into their fold. But more than a key player, his performance and vocal prowess make him that much more valuable than even the best instrumentalist in the game. Bring Henry Back. Just do it!
Best Band: Snarky Puppy
This one wasn’t even a contest. The jazz fusion collective was first invited to Jam Cruise last year after a wave of cruisers let Cloud 9 Adventures know they deserved a spot on the bill and ever since, they’ve become more and more a part of the tight nit Jam Cruise family. Between their two performances, which welcomed plenty of guest spots, a solo piano set from Corey Henry, and various sit-ins during multiple other acts, it’s clear as Caribbean sea water that Snarky Puppy “gets” Jam Cruise and bring a great deal to the table. It’s hard to argue that member by member, Snarky Puppy hosts the most technically proficient lineup onboard and when you take into account that they’ve got that spontaneous X-Factor that makes jam bands adventurous, the argument that they were the best act on the boat becomes hard to fight. In light of the amount of acts that come back year in year out, it’s hard to deny that Snarky Puppy deserves a spot on that list.
Biggest Disappointment: Dr. John
To put it bluntly, Dr. John had no business on Jam Cruise this year. This gig is about as close to Jazzfest At Sea as you can get which would make it seam like a NOLA great like the Good Doctor is a perfect fit, but playing on Jam Cruise requires a physical stamina that the ailing pianist just doesn’t have. Being a high profile act on an event like this brings with it audience expectations that you’ll be seen around the ship, engaging with your fans, and joining your peers for various performances.
Aside from his two scheduled performances and a single talk he was billed to give on the last day, Dr. John was basically a ghost. Both Joe Russo’s Almost Dead and Trombone Shorty, the two other headliners, had multiple members performing with various other acts and were impossible to avoid all week, setting the bar for what a headliner should be. Given his condition, it’s hard to blame him for needing his experience to be as low key as possible. Age and health catch up to everyone and this isn’t meant as a slight to the great as much as a reminder to the powers that be what passengers expect from the acts atop the bill.
Biggest Improvement: Atrium Sets
A solo piano set once a day is a long time Jam Cruise tradition, but when high winds forced us below decks for the final day of the trip last year, Cloud 9 Adventures scrambled and turned the atrium into more of a regular performance space and that carried into 2016. In addition to the piano sets, Zach Deputy, Stanton Moore Trio and Keller Williams all hosted incredible, high-energy performances that made the three-story space the biggest party on the Divina. Taking a lesson from last years crisis and turning it into one of this years highlights is an inspired change that Cloud 9 Adventures deserves a lot of credit for.
Biggest Change Needed: Change Up The bill
While the lineup changes each and every Jam Cruise, both Galactic and Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe have been on every single cruise to date and while Lettuce doesn’t bare that same history, they’ve been on every trip in recent memory. These acts are staples on the jamband circuit but need to go, at least for one Jam Cruise. Bringing Karl Denson and Stanton Moore on as Artists at Large is a great idea, but knowing these band will be playing before the lineup is even announced makes the musical experience that much less of an adventure and this trio of acts is just starting to feel stale. With the exception of die hard fans, knowing these acts are putting on two shows each year gives passengers that much less incentive to see them in their hometown, which can’t be of benefit to the acts themselves. Guys like Moore, Karl D and Lettuce’s Adam Deitch are Jam Cruise staples and belong on the bill, but next year it would be a much-needed breath of fresh air to see exciting new bands on deck in place of these tried and true vets.
With that, we conclude our coverage of Jam Cruise 14. Questions and comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
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