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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2009/01/24
by David Steinberg

Off to Sea Once More

Over time the spectacular becomes routine and the miraculous mundane. We've made it possible for people to travel from Seattle to Fort Lauderdale in under seven hours and people will use that time to bitch about how annoying the flight is. As Paul Simon sang, we do live in the age of miracles and wonders but we no longer have the ability to remember that spectacles, by definition, have to be rare and difficult to obtain. This effect comes into play in other realms too. Studies have shown people who win the lottery or lose a limb end up being at about the same level of happiness that they were before the life-changing event after a year of adjustment. The normalization process takes its effect on music too. Jam Cruise has moved from the best event ever to the highlight of my year to that thing I do in January. It doesn't mean the event is less spectacular, just my perception, but that's what colored my views on the way to the boat in January.

In the same way that Jam Cruise is getting a little routine for me, I suspect my loyal readers might be sick of the January day-by-day rundowns. For a chance of pace, here are the highlights of the Jam Cruise experience. It may not replace a 5 day tropical vacation, but hopefully it’ll give you a taste of the experience.

THE GOOD:

The Music

That’s the point of this game right? There are plenty of ways of taking cheaper tropical vacations, but only one gives you hours upon hours of music. While nothing hit the heights of Bruce and Grant from last year, there still were quite a few highlights.

The sail away party was the first surprise – The Dynamites featuring Charles Walker are a lot of fun. He kind of reminded me of a male Sharon Jones, high energy, very expressive, and the perfect band to listen to while you, well, sit at port hoping that you’ll actually leave at some point (more on that below). I love that Jam Cruise books bands like this. I’d probably have never have heard of them and I don’t know if I’d ever go see a show of theirs if they were playing locally, but they were perfect for their slot.

These were my first Tea Leaf Green shows with Reed on bass and I didn’t quite know what to expect from them. While I respected the musicianship involved, I never was a huge fan of Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, so I didn’t know how well the styles would mesh. It turns out that I had nothing to worry about.

While some of the songs ("Garden III," "Morning Sun") were rearranged to be a lot slower, there was a newfound openness to explore their songs. The jams were a lot more open and wide-ranging than their previous incarnation. I can understand missing the old higher energy version of the band, but this group is pretty interesting – at least as a novelty if nothing else – and it’s not like they’ve become suitable for the Lawrence Welk Show [1].

Tea Leaf Green did provide one of my musical highlights of the cruise. Seconds after midnight on my 40th birthday, they played an extended version of "Wooden Ships" with Jackie Greene sitting in on guitar. I couldn’t think of a better way of being welcomed into my 40s.

While Tea Leaf Green left me feeling nothing but satisfied, the same can’t be said for the Lee Boys. Their late night set in the Savannah Lounge messed up our sleep schedule for a few days.

It started out innocently enough. We had an early morning shore excursion scheduled the next day, but what harm could happen if we stopped in to check them out for a minute or two? The Lee Boys always struck me as a pool deck in the sunshine kind of band so their power would be diluted when they played below decks at 1 AM.

and the winner for the theory most likely to be disproved in under a minute is

We arrived as they were starting up, "When the Saints Come Marching In" with the Bonerama horns and were immediately sucked in. It turns out that it is possible to actually be too life affirming. Tiredness was forgotten. The wise move would have been to leave, but then we would have missed their incredible version of "Joyful Sounds." Yes, we spent the rest of the cruise mockingly cursing the power of the Lee Boys – once or twice to band members much to their amusement [2] – but it was more than worth it.

Unfortunately, staying up that late and then having an early morning did have some consequences. The next night had to be an early one as my old bones just can’t stay up all night every night anymore. I crashed out around 2 AM – that’s early by Jam Cruise standards – and was getting a much needed nap only to receive a call around 4:45 AM. "Get down to the Jam Room now! It’s raging!"

I had some initial resistance as it would be annoying to go all the way down there only to have the jam end as soon as I arrived. Still though, a call like that has to be answered. I grabbed my repeat offender robe, threw it over my sleeping clothes, put on my birks and headed downstairs. It turns out Mel was right. Billy Nershi and Jackie Greene and Karl Denson and George Porter Jr. were on stage together and tearing the ship to pieces. If I had not gone down, I would have missed out on the best music I saw the entire week. It ended with a raging version of James Brown’s "Sex Machine" that had me running around the room at 6:15 in the morning. Only on Jam Cruise

Belize City

If you ever get a chance to take a cruise to Belize and you’re wondering what to do there, you might want to consider the
Lamanai Mayan ruins trip. Providing you don’t mind doing a touristy activity, it can be quite fun.

The trip was eventful even before we left. Artists take advantage of the shore excursions to leave the ship early or to board late. Apparently someone was running late or didn’t close his account properly or something, because over the PA we had multiple announcements of, "Paging Leslie Edward Claypool, Leslie Edward Claypool" Years of cultivating a dark, tough guy image were destroyed in a single announcement.

There are two kinds of ports Jam Cruise visits. Some have nice deep harbors that let the ship pull in a short walk away from the beach. Others aren’t so lucky. At a tender port, the ship is forced to drop anchor out in the ocean and a second boat then ferries you to the port. Belize City is the most extreme example of a tender port we have ever used. You couldn’t even see land when we first boarded the tender ship.

Finally though we did reach land and then boarded a tour bus. Once we got out of a traffic jam, we headed out about 45 minutes to a river port. While the bus ride was educational – I did not know that Belize was actually part of the British Commonwealth – it was only the prelude. The next phase was on a powerboat. The boat tilted to extreme angles as we took the curves of the river at a pretty impressive speed, slowing down only to check out wildlife – mostly birds but there was one crocodile early on – or to let the local Mennonites fish in (relative) peace [3].

When we arrived at Lamanai, we were treated to a surprisingly vegetarian friendly (and tasty) meal. We’d need that energy for the trip that followed. The ruins were located deep in a jungle, complete with monkeys who let some of us know exactly what he thought of us being there [4].

The real appeal of the ruin, even more so than the mask, was the "High Temple." The courageous could climb up above the tree line and have an incredible view. I made a good faith effort to ignore my fear of heights, but about a third of the way up, I had to move out of the way of a descending tourist and made the classic mistake of looking down.

Not making it to the top is a huge regret as I heard the view was incredible. Even still though, it was a powerful experience and easily worth the money I paid to get out there.

The Pickin Party

One thing Jam Cruise does is try to lower the barriers between fans and the musicians. Rock Star Karaoke was one step in that direction, with fans having musicians back up their singing (or occasionally "singing"). The pickin party continued that. Fans were told to bring their own instruments. Bill Nershi led the crowd through bluegrass standards and songs that we all knew the words to (e.g. "Quinn the Eskimo"). The entire "audience" sang along and Billy made sure that everyone got a solo in every song. It was a giant campfire sing-along on a cruise ship. It was both fun and surprisingly good to listen to. Keep this one please, even if that’s all you have Billy do.

Brock Butler

You might think that Brock should be listed under music above, but he deserves a special shoutout. Only a certain type of musician can handle the Jam Cruise experience as you’re constantly in the same space as your fans. While there are many friendly musicians on board – the Lee Boys, Karl Denson, George Porter Jr., and Jon Fishman come to mind off the top of my head – Brock Butler is the gold standard. I see Perpetual Groove maybe once a year. I post to their message board maybe a dozen times. I’m not exactly in the inner circle of the band. And yet, despite that, Brock came up to me and wished me a happy birthday because he had remembered that from the year before. How many other musicians would do that?

Brock got a reward. Many people get to play on the pool stage, but how many people get to perform to a sunset like this.

Keep up the good work Brock. Oh and your sets were good too.

The Food (yes the food)

When I got home, I heard a lot of complaints about the food on the message board. I understand why they were made, but from perspective of a vegetarian, and one who would rather not spend two hours a day sitting in the formal dining room, I was quite impressed with the improved quality of food this year. There were a lot of interesting dishes and the pizza reached the point where I would actually buy it at a festival. Good job guys.

Cruise tunes

Some things are a work in progress and aren’t resolved until a few dry runs. Getting recordings of the music from Jam Cruise has been a trial. They first tried selling CDs on the boat but that proved to be problematic. There was an incredibly long line on disembarkation day with people being told that if they didn’t pick them up then, they’d be out money with nothing in return. Then some of the discs weren’t ready which lead to additional issues. It was a disaster.

After some time with no music for sale at all, they came up with a pretty good solution. Cruise Tunes is selling sets for many of the artists on board. Instead of buying the CDs on board, you bought a card that had a code on it. A week or so after we returned, that could be entered on a website in exchange for mp3s. It’s not a perfect solution – many people would like full FLAC files and there have been a few minor issues with the downloads – but it’s pretty good. You even can buy new shows in case a performance from the last day impressed you. I may have spent a little too much money on the shows, but I don’t have any complaint about the quality of the product.

The Bad:

Unfortunately, there are quite a few things here. And while some of these events were obviously outside of Jam Cruise’s control, they helped build a picture, one that I can’t ignore.

Our Hotel

We decided to do something different this year and not stay at the official Jam Cruise hotel. That is not a decision that we’ll ever be making again. Florida and I always have had a few issues, but this was worse than usual. We’ve grown to expect to have a few problems finding food, but finding anything in the area proved to be problematic. It always turned out that the safe looking neighborhood that we were staying in wasn’t. They not only had a regular police presence in the neighboring strip mall, but they had a flashing sign up warning people that they had undercover police on top of the already over the top appearance. All of that could just be written up to Florida being its usual self, and the staff did go out of its way to be incredibly nice to us, but then we discovered something while checking out. I was doing the usual room sweep to make sure that we didn’t leave anything behind when I discovered that the people who stayed there before us most definitely had. The good news is that at least we knew that they were being safe, but that’s the kind of offense that gets a housekeeping staff fired. La Quinta Airport Hotel in Fort Lauderdale. Don’t ever stay there!

Embarkation

Almost every single year, they’ve misspelled my fiancs name, putting a "d" at the end instead of the correct "t." This year they finally got it right. I didn’t know this at the time, but that correction was probably the only thing that kept us out of the trouble line.

It took us a solid two hours to get on board, which is a little longer than we would have liked but not too bad. While I was exploring the ship, I started to hear some rumors about people in a line for hours and hours and hours. It turned out that most people who made changes to their room or had any sort of error were put into a different line that was understaffed. The good news is that this was such a disaster that I don’t think there could be any way this isn’t fixed for Jam Cruise 8, but that’s not something that ever should have happened in the first place.

The stupid power thingies

In theory, it’s a good thing that the MSC Orchestra has a power saving feature. In order to keep the lights on in your cabin, you have to stick one of your sign and sail cards in a panel in the wall. While it sounds like a good idea to prevent people from leaving their cabin lights on all night while they’re seeing music, what do you think will happen if you have a boat full of drunk and overtired people? Exactly. People were constantly leaving their card keys in their rooms and having to go to reception to get new ones.

Free hint: if they do this again next year and you accidentally leave your card in your room, odds are high that it’ll continue to work to turn on the lights. Mine did for the rest of the cruise after I did the walk of embarrassment to the reception desk.

The Jam Room

The Orchestra is a larger ship than the previous ones we’ve used. The size led to the suboptimal pool deck layout, which made it difficult to swim and hear the main pool stage. More importantly, it separated the Jam Room from the other venues by a vast expanse of hallways. Ok in reality, it was only probably a 3-4 minute walk from the Savannah Lounge or the theatre to the Jam Room, but with the other venues being so close [5], it just felt like an eternal walk. Through the casino and past the photo gallery and then past the other photo gallery and all that time you’d have no clue if the Jam Room was even worth your time. Twice, early on the cruise, I made the hike only to discover no one was playing. That discouraged me from making the nightly trek. The whole point of the Jam Room is that it should be a place that you can check out on a whim.

I suspect the isolation is a large part of the reason why there were the lulls and downtime; Steve Kimock not being on board was the rest of it. The one good thing about the Jam Room is that it did seem to rage hard late at night when there was nothing else happening on the ship, but the larger boat meant that the room got incredibly crowded in those moments. I don’t know if there’s a better space, but this was the first year where the Jam Room didn’t seem to work.

Costa Maya

Costa Maya was a repeat port. The last time we were there, we went to the Kohunlich Mayan ruins, but MSC doesn’t offer that tour anymore, perhaps because our group ran so late. Without anything else interesting on the excursion list, this time we just decided to take a taxi to the local beach. After 5 years of Jam Cruises, it was hard to accept the Costa Maya beach. The water was filled with seaweed, the beach was rocky, and instead of the usual hippie crowd from the boat, it was taken over by people staying in local hotels. Sure lying out there was nicer than sitting in Seattle in January but we’re grown to have certain expectations of clear water and pristine sands. The only thing Costa Maya seems to have going for it now is the pharmacies and I don’t have any interest in buying painkillers. I saw that Costa Maya was on the list of potential ports for Jam Cruise 8; here’s one vote against that.

The Crowd

There’s always going to be a seedy element onboard the boat. Most of the people on board are the nicest, interesting, outgoing people you’re ever likely to meet. They’ll wear interesting costumes and have great stories to tell.

Unfortunately, there’s another group that comes along for the ride. They’ve heard about the party and want to see how far they can push things. Putting up signs saying, "Don’t be that guy," only goes so far. While things didn’t get as bad as they did on Jam Cruise 4, the schwilly factor definitely seemed to be on the uprise this year. More than any other reason, my reluctance to prebook Jam Cruise 8 comes out of this. I hope that we can come up with a way that people can freak freely without being disrespectful to others, but I’ve been hoping that for years to no avail.

KCI

Our return flight from Jam Cruise switched planes in Kansas City. I was reluctant to do so due to our post-Wakarusa adventures, but how bad could it be to just change planes? That was before I learned how stupidly Kansas City laid out their airport.

We had to move 4 gates from where we were to where our new flight was. However, to get from gate 32 to gate 36, we had to exit security and reenter through a different gate. I defy anyone to explain to me why that was a good setup. We bought a bottle of water for the flight in Fort Lauderdale, now we had to surrender that. Moreover, this time it was my turn to be the victim of mock the freak as the security guards spent quite a bit of time making fun of me as I waited for my laptop to come out of the X Ray machine. Ok fine, KCI, I have really learned my lesson this time. Now, I will not even change planes there.

While many of my problems with Jam Cruise were not the fault of the promoters in any way, the fact that I had a list this long does say something. When I used to tour with the Grateful Dead, I always knew when it was time to drop off of tour. When I started thinking about what songs I didn’t want to hear instead of the tracks I was hoping that they would play, when I was noticing the annoyances more than the joy, well then it’s time to leave for a while. Jam Cruise should be a week of barely containable bliss, not an exercise in trying to enjoy the music despite the obstacles. As much as I will continue to promote the event to anyone who has never been on it, it’s time for me to take a break. It’s not an ending, just a hiatus. I fully expect that Jam Cruise 9 or 10 will find us back aboard, ready to experience once again the best combination of music and vacation. Until then I ask that those lucky enough to not be burnt out on the event enjoy it for me. It’s an amazing time and I’m envious of those who will be experiencing it with fresh eyes.

[1] I’m really dating myself with this reference, aren’t I?

[2] "I’m really mad at you! You played so well the other night that we couldn’t leave and go to bed and now I’m tired!"

[3] I can’t imagine it can be much fun to be going about your daily activities and constantly be harassed by tourists commenting on your clothes and asking if you’ve been having success. I’m picturing people constantly coming into my cube in Redmond and saying, "So, write any code yet?" while others speculated on the meaning of my traditional west coast programmer garb. I can barely handle the duck tours when I’m driving without wanting to scream, "Go home tourists!"

[4] It’s like the old expression goes: Monkey pee, monkey poo.

[5] The theatre was right next to the main lounge and directly below the pool deck. You could either ride the elevator or walk up 7 flights of stairs to get to the pool, but the cool thing is that by deck 8 or 9, you could usually hear the pool stage well enough to know if it was worth your time to keep going.

David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html.

He is the stats section editor for The Phish Companion and is on the board of directors for the Netspace Foundation. You can read more of his thoughts at http://www.livejournal.com/users/thezzyzx.

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