Featured Column:Sit Right Back and You’ll Hear a Tale…
If there’s one advantage to Phish’s breakup, it’s that I can try a few new things. New Year’s Eve has a lot of tradition for me. Every year – hiatus excepted of course – I fly out to wherever Phish is playing and go see them. Obviously I couldn’t do that this year. No other plans to celebrate the beginning of 2005 seemed interesting so I decided to just blow it off. I’ve traveled to see music every year since 1989, but this time would be different. New Year’s Eve would be spent in my bed. Instead I was going to get excited for a different day. The problem with an early January birthday is that I never get to see music on it; everyone is still recovering from the holiday a week earlier. January 8th might usually be a dead time for music but in 2005 it appeared smack in the middle of Jam Cruise. Hey if I can’t see the band that I want to see, why not see what’s out there in the water?
While there was no band that moved me as much as Phish on the boat, the lineup was definitely a plus. There were a lot of bands that played upbeat, danceable music. Maybe I don’t get that excited when KDTU or Robert Walter’s 20th Congress comes to town, but in the context of a sunny day on a cruise ship, they would make the perfect soundtrack.
While I was hopeful about the trip, I can’t say that I didn’t have any trepidation at all. The trips in 2004 had a certain reputation for being less about the substance of the music and more about the substance being consumed at that moment. The potential downside of Jam Cruise was being in a boat with a thousand really schwilled out people and no possible escape from them until we reemerged on shore. It is in the context of that fear that I was somewhat glad that discretion was the word on the boat. No, I’m not happy that people were arrested or that the press felt free to try to ruin the lives of non-violent people. I wish everyone had heeded the warnings about drug dogs on the Jamcruise message board, not to mention the multiple hints the Jam Cruise staff were giving to people while we waited in line. It was horrible that people got in trouble for the crime of wanting to relax in their own manner on their vacation, but the side effect of a calmer boat was a wonderful thing.
The trip started out a bit slow. We first spent about an hour and a half waiting in various lines to get aboard the boat. The boat was a little late leaving the harbor, so the first few acts started there. We started to move halfway through Jazz Mandolin Project, so they had to be abandoned for the spectacle of watching the boat barely make it under a bridge at the end of the Harbor. Then came the amusing spectacle of our first formal dinner – we have how many forks again? It was a fun night, but nothing too amazing. Things were about to change though.
We were sitting in the Islands of the Sky lounge, trying to hear the Rowen/Rice Quartet over the rather noisy crowd; neither time were they really loud enough. The lounge is kind of dark, the music was quiet, and the boat was swaying. As a result I was starting to drift to sleep. Melissa had the idea of getting some fresh air. We walked up the stairs to go upstairs. It is then that I discovered my one true love – the Lido Pool stage.
The North Mississippi All Stars were playing as we wandered the deck. That sentence sounds somewhat mundane, but it’s not. Let me rephrase it again so some of the experience can be portrayed. We were on a boat in the middle of the ocean. It was a warm night. We stood by the railing and looked up at the stars and down at the ocean. Melissa pointed out other ships on the horizon. We had a conversation about how sailors managed to guide themselves across vast expanses of ocean using only the stars and trigonometry. It was a wonderful night, and while we were doing this, the North Mississippi All Stars were playing. Would I go on NMAS tour? No. At that moment though, they were amazing. Barring there being a band I really wanted to see below deck, my plan for the rest of the trip was to maximize my time at the Lido.
Of course, The Duo in the Endless Summer Lounge and Keller in the Islands in the Sky beckoned. I tried really hard to stick to my schedule and see the bands that I wanted to, but the lure of the open sea was too much. I had to go back outside. It is fortunate that I did, because waiting up there was my discovery of the cruise – Perpetual Groove.
I’m not going to oversell the band here. I’ve seen way too many claims of bands being the Next Big Thing over the last few years to make one myself while in the throes of infatuation. However, I really liked their set. I would most definitely see any Seattle shows they played (hint hint guys!). They were able to both improvise melodically and build things up to a nice peak. I’m always a sucker for a nice build jam.
I stayed out watching them until about 3 AM. It wasn’t easy to leave, but I had a strategy. All too often people overschedule themselves and exhaust themselves by the end of the trip. There are only four ways of attending an event that has eighteen hours of music a day. You can miss the early shows, you can miss the late shows, you can try to see everything at the cost of being too cranky to enjoy anything, or you can try to see everything by chemical means but never really remember anything. In the past I’ve tended for the exhaustion technique, but the pampering nature of the cruise got to me. I was on vacation dammit and I was going to relax. Sure I’d miss the end of the late night sets (and regrettably, my chance to see a sunrise over the ocean), but I’d enjoy the rest of the days. Besides, in my experience of seeing all night music, it’s rare that the great moments happen after 3 AM. The band also starts to get tired much later than that.
It’s easy to sleep in a windowless cabin on a moving boat. I did just that, giving myself barely enough time to shower and get dressed before the digital download panel. This was fairly interesting, albeit quite informal. The highlight of the morning though was another surprise. I am more of a String Cheese fan than a Kyle fan, so the idea of a Kyle Hollingsworth side project didn’t set my heart a-twitter. Fortunately, my first exposure to Remarkable Elba Kramer would be back at my favorite stage. There was a difference though between seeing a show by the Lido Pool during the day and seeing one at night. The pool was no longer covered.
In my years of seeing live music, I’ve been to my share of interesting venues. I’ve been to vaudeville era theatres, a shed built on the banks of the Columbia River, and to a ampitheatre carved out of a red rock wall. I thought I knew how to see music. I was wrong. The only way to fully appreciate a band is to see them while floating in a salt water pool on a sunny day in the tropics.
The pool was at the perfect depth to fully enjoy it. It was 5 feet 2 inches throughout the whole pool, deep enough to get most of my body wet at all times but shallow enough that I didn’t have to constantly tread water. The key to the pool experience was that the water was salt. All you had to do was to lie back and you would float. It takes work not to enjoy music in that kind of environment, and I was way too relaxed to put in that kind of effort.
Part of the fun of Jamcruise comes from the fact that there are only 1500 people on the boat and we all have to use the same services. Sure there are some backstage areas where the artists can escape from us, but for the most part, band members are incredibly accessible. If you wanted to see Colonel Bruce Hampton, apparently you just had to sit in the casino and see that the guitar isn’t the only thing that he plays. While some of the events were random and haphazard, others were planned. You might be able to see music anywhere. There are plenty of cruises out there. How often though can you play Bingo with Jon Fishman as the caller?
This wasn’t just a throwaway event. It might have seemed like a silly idea, but Jon took it quite seriously. I don’t mean that he took the game seriously. Rather he felt it important to entertain us while we played. He was spot on with his chatter (‘G as in binGGGGGGGGGGGo’) and had a great Gyuto Monk impersonation. It might have been the oddball item on the calendar, but Jon definitely could have a second source of income if he ever needed any spare cash.
So at this point, I had learned how DiscLogic tracks down royalties for random cover songs that a band would play, seen a good band play while floating in a pool, and played Bingo with the drummer of my favorite band. It was only 3 PM. I had had more fun than I normally did at an entire day at a typical festival and I still had eight hours of music to go. The rest of the night was spent dancing to Keller, JMP, and Robert Walter’s 20th Congress. When we got tired, we went to the aft end of the boat, pulled out deck chairs, and let the music wash over us. It’s the ability to do that that separates Jamcruise from your normal festival. Well that and the towel animals.
Saturday was a day different from all of the other days on the boat. Not only was it my birthday, but we also were having our port of call. The Grand Bahama Island might not be the most exciting island in the Atlantic – especially since it’s still recovering from hurricane damage – but it still provided us what we needed for our day off – sea, sand, and sun. A quick taxi ride took us to Tranquility Shores. Sure it was an obvious tourist spot, but we were obviously tourists. Besides, the bar was playing some amazing music over their stereo. Maybe it was just my mindset where pretty much any music seemed incredible, but I regret not asking what cd they were playing.
We couldn’t stay too late as my Seahawks were in the playoffs and I had to go watch them lose. As we got up to get a cab back to the boat, we looked to our right and saw that Fishman was sitting on a chair some 20 feet from us the entire time. Did I mention that the artists were incredibly accessible?
The one down note was the same down note from Thursday. There are conflicting stories as to who told whom what exactly, but the people who were unable to get on the boat flew down to the Bahamas under the belief that they would be allowed on board. If I were in charge of things I would have let them, but perhaps that’s the reason why they don’t let me be in charge of anything.
Safely back aboard, I sent Melissa off to explore or whatever, while I devoted myself to the serious job of following the ‘Hawks game. They set up a tv showing ESPN Deportes (complete with wacky Central American ads) by the Trolley Bar for us. After halftime, we got a bit of a surprise. I never got around to reading the bottom part of the schedule, so I didn’t know that Perpetual Groove guitarist Brock Butler would be playing a solo show. The single highlight of Jamcruise for me occurred during that set. The Seahawks had just taken the lead. As I was getting excited over that, Brock started up the Talking Heads classic ‘This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody).’ It was my birthday, I was in the Bahamas, the Seahawks were winning, and I was hearing one of my favorite songs covered quite well. It was all too much for me. I was jumping up and down and mouthing the words and pumping my fist and all sorts of stuff; a brief clip of that made the Jambands TV reel. Sure the ‘Hawks would give up the lead by the end of the song and we’d eventually lose. It doesn’t change the fact that that one moment was pure perfection.
Sunday is traditionally a day of rest. What better way to spend it than to sit by the pool and listen to tunes? Once again Jamcruise gave me difficult decisions. Should I listen to the Duo in the pool or should I grab a deck chair on the sun deck and a frozen drink for their set?
Should I go down to the Endless Summer Lounge for Perpetual Groove or sit in the Lukewarm Tub  for the Stanton Moorestars? Of course, the correct answer is to do all of them, switching from one to another as the whim of the boat calls you.
While normally I’d make plans for a festival, this one was best left unplanned as much as possible. What makes Jamcruise so amazing is the combination of both the jam and the cruise. While I enjoyed the music immensely , I highly doubt I would have traveled across the country just for that lineup. Conversely, it’s incredibly unlikely that I would ever find myself on a normal cruise. This though was incredible.
It would have been enough to take a cruise, not with one or two of your friends, but with an entire boatload of like minded people, to be on a Carnival cruise ship where they piped the Grateful Dead in the hallways and the Jerry Band in the formal dining rooms for dinner. Scheduling a rather impressive musical lineup on top of that was almost excessive. If it is possible to have too much fun, it most likely happened to someone on the boat.
Alas, eventually we had to deport. That wasn’t the smoothest of all efforts. A thick fog had rolled in causing us to dock late. Fortunately, our flights were late afternoon ones, so we were just patient. I amused myself by listening to Kyle and Jamie Janover – also patiently waiting right in front of us – plan out a rather elaborate winter tour. The cruise might be over but for the musicians, there is always another gig. 
How much fun was the cruise? If this rather long gush from a fan that is prone to cynicism weren’t enough of a clue, as soon as we got home from the boat, we put in our deposit for Jamcruise 4. If this sounds at all interesting to you and you think you can afford it, I highly suggest that you do the same.
The boats can only get so big before the event wouldn’t work. In order to have Jamcruise be Jamcruise, they’re probably capped at 1500-2000 people maximum. Since most people who go on the cruise feel compelled to do it again the next year, it’s quite possible that this could become a rather difficult ticket. Maybe Jamcruise slots will be like season tickets for a popular football team, where you have to sit on the waiting list for a while before you’d get a chance to go. You wouldn’t want that to happen to you, would you? Of course not.
Put in your deposit. As long as you don’t hold yourself to sticking to a particular schedule and you don’t let yourself become part the next Jacksonville 13, it’s an incredible time. Other than the downside of making all other festivals  appear incredibly unattractive – once you start thinking about all of the crowd, weather, and sanitation issues involved at a normal festival, it’s easy to start thinking about being on the boat instead – there really is no downside, and again, this is coming from someone who could find a downside in a festival that gave large sums of money just for attending. This one really is worth it.
 There were only two things wrong with the ship really – the hot tub wasn’t all that hot and the waterslide was closed for the duration of the cruise because they used it to hang lights for the pool stage. Alas.
 Of course the same thing holds for the boat crew. There was another cruise going out on our boat as soon as we could be cleared off. Amusingly enough, it was a Christian group. The bars and casino were closed for them, giving the bartenders a well needed break.
 Other than Jazzfest of course, but that doesn’t really count either.
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 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.