Within five minutes of boarding the MSC Poesia at Florida’s Port Everglades for Jam Cruise 10, I found myself sharing an elevator with John Oates and Bill Kreutzmann. The beauty of Jam Cruise is that both artists and cruisers share the same space and as we embarked on the tenth Jam Cruise the organizers have figured out which acts best embrace this “lack of a wall” between fan and artist and bring those people back each year. Yes, just five minutes in I was experiencing a magic moment with two of my musical heroes, who couldn’t have been nicer, and that was probably the tenth coolest thing that happened to me yesterday.
[MSC Poesia via MSC Cruises]
The boarding process got off to a late start on Monday due to the Poesia’s encounter with a sandbarge on the previous cruise, EDM destination vacation Holy Ship!, which led to a lot of sitting around for those who came earlier than the suggested 1PM arrival at the port. Once the boat started accepting passengers the embarkation process was a breeze and it wasn’t long before Jam Cruisers were sipping BBCs, Strawberry Daquiris and Pina Coladas on the Pool Deck on a warm and sunny afternoon. Organizers let the artists on first so once us normal folk got aboard, musicians were swarming everywhere. Around one corner I’d see Col. Bruce Hampton picking George Porter Jr.’s brain, while Skerik, Brad Barr and Marco Benevento were having a family reunion of sorts around a different corner.
Many utilized the open afternoon to familiarize ourselves with the boat. For Jam Cruise vets, this is the third cruise in a row on the Poesia, but if you were like me and in a different location from the previous year, then you needed time to figure out the quickest and most direct route to the venues, cafeteria and your friends’ rooms. There were high-fives and hugs everywhere as groups of friends assembled and strangers introduced themselves to each other.
Overall, the crowd seems a little older and a little more female this trip. If I had to guess, I’d say the average age is 35 and there are just a few more ladies than men on the Poesia. The MSC staff gets such a big kick out of us with employees requesting this trip a year in advance. We’re all so happy to be here that our joy comes through to the employees who usually deal with the bitter shuffleboard/canasta crowd.
Once the sun went down New Orleans’ Dirty Dozen Brass Band took the stage with Big Sam on trombone. Sam has a long history with DDBB, and often performs with them, so whether you want to call this the trip’s first sit-in or an occasional member sitting in with his band is up to you. Dirty Dozen was a sentimental choice to kick off the Jam Cruise musical slate as they performed at the Sail Away Party on the first Jam Cruise back in 2004. The “Dirty” part of their moniker is quite fitting as their particular brand of funk is extremely dirty. Towards the middle of their set, DDBB worked into a cover of Papa Was A Rolling Stone that had a wonderfully deep groove. From there, it seemed all signs pointed toward When The Saints Come Marching In and by the time the New Orleans natives finally started singing Saints, the crowd exploded, energized by Phish LD Chris Kuroda’s eye-popping light show.
Following the opening set, cruisers had an hour to grab dinner, unpack, meet with their friends or do anything they wanted before the night’s musical schedule began in full force. I headed to the small Zebra Bar to watch South Florida’s The Heavy Pets perform for a dedicated crowd. I was impressed by their musicianship, though if a band could be “too” polished it’s them. A two-guitar band led by axemen Jeff Lloyd and Mike Garulli, the Pets focused on ska and reggae-tinged rock and seemed to have won over quite a few new fans.
Up on the Pool Deck musical legend Bruce Hornsby filled the beginning of his first set of the trip with guest spots. Right from the get go, Hornsby brought out guitarist Steve Kimock and bassist George Porter Jr. for Go Back To Your Woods, a song Hornsby co-wrote with Robbie Robertson, which wound up being the highlight of the set when it was all said and done, thanks to the deep-in-the-pocket groove GPJ whipped up. Bruce was in fine voice and was extremely playful throughout tackling classics such as Sunflower Cat, Across The River and Talk of the Town with aplomb and joy. Wind whipped through the Pool Deck all night, but never as much as during Hornsby’s set making for an interesting setting. Kimock wound up sitting in for about five songs, finally leaving the stage when an accordion-playing Bruce brought out Ivan Neville to rock the keys. Neville and Hornsby were both part of Robertson’s Storyville project in the early ’90s and clearly enjoyed each other’s company. A tender moment came towards the end of the set when the piano player dedicated White Wheeled Limosuine to cruise director Annabel Lukins, telling the crowd that they had to play one for “their boss” or else they wouldn’t get paid.
As Hornsby finished up, a “surprise” Lettuce set got underway in the Zebra Bar. Shpongle was supposed to fill that slot, but Simon Posford had visa issues that kept him on land. Event organizers acted quickly and flew in any members of Lettuce who weren’t on the boat with their other bands for this special performance. Despite little warning of what was going down, the Zebra Bar was as packed as I’ve ever seen it during my three cruises. There’s plenty of rock on the boat, but there’s no doubt funk reigns supreme. I caught a bit of the incredibly tight Lettuce before heading up to the Pool Deck to watch Umphrey’s McGee.
Umphrey’s are a fave of mine and I’ve been waiting three years for the Chicago-based sextet to return to Jam Cruise. They hit the ground running with two of their latest and greatest songs, Puppet Strings and Miami Virtue, before tearing into Bridgeless – all in all a quite heavy start. Just when you thought we’d get more metal, the band beautifully segued Bridgeless into the anthemic Hajimemashite. UM guitarist Brendan Bayliss worked nautical lyrics into Haj, which was dedicated to longtime fan Sanae who flew in from Japan for her first Jam Cruise.
[Photo by Tammy Wetzel from 12/30/11]
For Resolution, Umphrey’s welcomed their only guest of the night, Jamie Shields of The New Deal, who tore Joel Cummins’s Moog a new one. Guitarist Jake Cinninger worked One Nation Under a Groove and I Want A New Drug Teases into the mix as Shields worked the jam into a frothy lather. Once Shields stepped down, Umphrey’s finished Bridgeless and commenced a cover of Live and Let Die by Paul McCartney. Instead of performing the classic tune note-for-note, the band melded the song’s jam into It’s About That Time by Miles Davis, making for one of the more interesting sandwiches I’ve seen the group perform.
Setbreaks are rare on Jam Cruise, but Umphrey’s took one. I watched most of the show from LD Jefferson Waful’s perch high above the crowd. I’ve always been intrigued by light design and Waful was kind enough to teach me a thing or two as he lit the band. To learn from one of the best in the biz was an incredible experience and I may or may not have triggered a few cues in Ringo during the second set. Speaking of the second set, Umphrey’s came out on fire with a superb Mulche’s Odyssey > Wappy Sprayberry > Mulche’s Odyssey sequence that lasted a good half hour. UM classic All In Time was up next and despite the windy conditions, the sextet showed off the tightness for which they are known. If they don’t get better and tighter with each show, they sure do a good job of giving the illusion that they are doing so.
[Photo by Tammy Wetzel from 12/30/11]
The big cover of Set Two was Shine On (You Crazy Diamond) by Pink Floyd and Waful put on an incredible show during the spot-on version. In speaking with those who weren’t as familiar with the band, this was the tune that drew them in. Yet the best improv of the second half of the closing stanza came during a Jake-led jam in Ringo. Cinninger laid down this intense melody that his band mates quickly picked up on. Eventually the jam led into the end of All In Time and after a Pay The Snucka encore, the first Umphrey’s Jam Cruise performance on the decade was complete.
Set One: Puppet Strings, Miami Virtue, Bridgeless -> Hajimemashite, Resolution > “Jimmy Stewart” (w/ Jamie Shields) > Bridgeless. Live and Let Die > It’s About That Time > Live and Let Die
Set Two: Mulche’s Odyssey > Wappy Sprayberry > Mulche’s Odyssey, All In Time > Shine On, Day Nurse, Ringo > All In Time
Encore: Pay The Snucka
At this point it was nearing 4 AM and in past years I made sure to take it easy on the first night – “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” was running through my head but there were rumors Brock Butler of Perpetual Groove would play a sunrise set so I drank a cup of coffee and headed to the table on the Pool Deck where Butler usually performs. I heard stories from the 7 Walkers performance in the theater which took place during Umphrey’s that Col. Bruce, Anders Osborne and Big Sam came out for a smoking Turn On Your Lovelight. I’m sorry to have missed that, but I learned long ago you can’t see it all on Jam Cruise.
Within a few minutes of my arrival Butler emerged with his Gibson acoustic in hand. Sleep could wait… There’s so much hard-edged music on Jam Cruise that Butler’s sunrise sets gives me a chance to rest my ears and take in something a bit more pretty and beautiful than the in-your-face jams. In the past Brock has used these sunrise sets to play a mix of classic rock and indie covers as well as PGroove originals and for the first hour of Brock’s set that’s exactly what happened. Brock told us he had worked up 25 “home run” covers and originals for these performances and by the time he put down his guitar two hours later we had heard most of them including a gorgeous Holocene by Bon Iver, Mumford and Sons’ Little Lion Man and an incredible version of Mona Lisa’s and Mad Hatters by Elton John.
Brock Butler Sunrise Set From Jam Cruise 9
Brock’s guest on the trip is his roommate and Under The Porch guitarist Michael Blair. The two have formed a deep bond over the past year and have written a ton of incredible songs together. Michael and Brock performed a number of the tunes they wrote including Referring Two and If Only, as well as a tear-jerking version of PGroove’s Out Here and a singalong take on Long May You Run by Neil Young.
I called it a day at 6AM, though Brock was still going. Day One of Jam Cruise was in the books and I hadn’t even made it to the Jam Room, but I saw so much incredible music that I have no complaints. I’m in heaven on the boat and bounded out of bed at 9:30 after just three hours of sleep as I want to enjoy every minute of this trip that I can. I’ll be back tomorrow with my report on Day Two.