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Published: 2005/02/04
by Mike Greenhaus

Jam Cruise In Retrospect

The multi-colored tag attached to each bag brought onboard read: "What happens on the boat, stays on the boat"a friendly warning and a fitting welcome for passengers aboard this traveling version of Las Vegas' sugarcoated strip of vices. Combining the overstuffed excitement of Bonnaroo with the surreal interaction of rock and roll fantasy camp, Cloud 9 Adventures' third Jam Cruise reset the festival experience on a commercial liner designed for suburban family getaways. And, if Sin City has come to represent the theatrical energy that sets jam-rock apart from neighboring musical genres, then Jam Cruise is hippie-rock's most exciting high-rollers club.

Like any cruise, the roughly 1,900 passengers aboard Jam Cruise 3 were greeted with a barrage of eye candy upon arrival: casino slots, tropical-colored mixed drinks and slightly browned bathing bodies. Expanding in size and condensing to a single voyage, passengers onboard Jam Cruise were greeted by a new cruise line, Carnival, and tagged with a new set of rules and regulations and. Some were laughable (a $10 corking fee for fine wine brought on board), while others carried more serious consequences (13 passengers were arrested upon arrival after an intensive search by drug-sniffing customs dogs). Yet, once onboard Celebration, Jam Cruise's shiny vessel, Tent City quickly reconstructed itself, with the usual parade of Jam Nation personalities wandering the ship's narrow halls.

But unlike its summer time camping counterparts, passengers aboard Jam Cruise were awarded the opportunity to observe some of the jam-scene's most high profile artists in their civilian state. Shortly before embarkation, a muster stations worth of fans watched Jon Fishman learn to use his life jacket, while late night dwellers often observed Umphrey McGee staking claim to their title as the jam-nation's "poker kings." Of course, all bets were off at the all night, all you can eat pizza bar, where everyone from Oteil Burbridge to Marc Brownstein could be seen scarfing down a choice slice. A step up from parking lot foodbut still on par with college cafeteria farethe ship's meals allowed passengers to gear up for a smorgasbord of shows spread across five separate stages. Throughout the weekend, waiters in the Horizon Dining Room, perhaps Carnival's most confused passengers, served a smiling but rowdy crowd, which sporadically erupted in cheers throughout the evening's three-course meal. And, in certain ways, Jam Cruise functioned as a virtual VIP pass, erasing the importance of plastic coated laminates and blurring the line between audience and entertainer. With artist accommodations sprinkled between fan occupied cabins, passengers literally lived next door to the weekend's entertainment. Likewise, Celebration's family styling dinning room mixed-and-matched musicians and passengers, offering a window into what Bonnaroo would have looked like if set in the Catskill Mountains.

From a booking standpoint, Jam Cruise's organizers made a conscious effort to draw acts from each of jam-nation's loosely defined sub-genres: Tony Rice and Peter Rowan (authentic ties to The Grateful Dead Family), a recently reformed incarnation of Aquarium Rescue Unit (perhaps the seminal second generation jamband), Karl Denson's Tiny Universe (one of the first funk acts to break down the borders between jazz and jam), Sound Tribe Sector 9 (one of the most popular livetronica acts currently making their way through the club ranks), Umphrey's McGee (a purebred, fourth generation jamband), North Mississippi Allstars (a symbol of jam-nation's southern-fried sects), Les Claypool (a successful alt-rock act adopted by the hippie-rock movement), Galactic (a taste of genuine New Orleans funk), Keller Williams (a solo singer-songwriter who looped through a band's worth of pedals and levers) and The Duo (the downtown New York jazz scene's current de facto hippie-rock ambassadors). Plus, onboard by way of a variety of side-projects were members of three of the jam-scene's undisputed heavy weight champions: Phish (Jon Fishman playing drums with Jazz Mandolin Project), The Disco Biscuits (a new electronic project anchored by Marc Brownstein and Aron Magner) and String Cheese Incident (Kyle Hollingsworth and Michael Travis' individual sideband). Add into the fray the likes of DJ Logic, Eric Krasno, Garaj Mahal, Jeff Coffin, Robert Walter and Cheme, among others, and Cloud 9 set the stage for dozens of collaborations and Phantasy Tour worthy asterisks.

And, without derailing into a laundry list of sit-ins, chew on the following: The Art of Improv, a free-from jam featuring Karl Denson, Jeff Coffin, Jeff Stipe, Jimmy Herring and Oteil Burbridge; Umphrey's McGee's Jake Cinninger jamming with North Mississippi Allstars; Stanton Moore, Cheme, Jimmy Herring and Karl Denson each sitting in with Les Claypool's Frog Brigade, a Stanton Moore driven supergroup featuring Oteil Burbridge, Jimmy Herring, Jeff Coffin, Jeff Stipe, Cheme, Robert Walter, Nick Blasky and John Staten; Cochemea "Cheme" Gastelum, Robert Walter, Skerik, STS9's Zack Velmer and members joining Karl Denson's Tiny Universe for their mainstage set and Joe Russo, and DJ Omen, Joe Russo, Jake Cinninger, Brendan Bayliss and Sunny Michelson helping Marc Brownstein and Aron Magner flesh out their new electronics material. Throughout the weekend, Marco Benevento also nodded to an eclectic group of artists, offering a "karaoke" set of Radiohead and Led Zeppelin material with Joe Russo and medley of Billy Holiday standards with Leslie Helpert.

From an historical standpoint, it also makes sense that Aquarium Rescue Unit found a spot on Jam Cruise shortly after their recent reunion. Among the original five bands to perform on 1992's H.O.R.D.E (the first traveling rock festival to focus on the then fledgling jam music community) two, Spin Doctors and Blues Traveler, later rose to Billboard prominence by way of a crossover single, before sheepishly returning to their more organic roots. Another pair, Phish and Widespread Panic, spent the 1990s amassing arena-size followings, eventually staking claim as the undisputed kings of modern jam-rock. Yet, the fifth act booked for the first installment of H.O.R.D.E, Aquarium Rescue Unit, splintered off before the mid-1990s boom of third-generation jambands.

In certain ways, ARU is the stereotypical lost influence: a semi-mythical collective of musicians often cite and critics often ignore. So, it's only just that Jam Cruise, the latest multi-band package driven by jam nation's collaborative spirit, doubles as a celebration of Aquarium Rescue Unit's reuniona chance for a generation of jam fans weaned on Phish and Panic to experience the long lost "fifth" H.O.R.D.E act. Though Col. Bruce Hampton rounded up his ARU frontline, bassist Oteil Burbridge and guitarist Jimmy Herring, for several scattered shows in recent months, Jam Cruise was the first festival bill to highlight the oddball singer's seminal band. Mixing dirty southern-rock with the zany antics, ARU is the missing link between Frank Zappa and the Allman Brothers. While most in attendance had never seen them perform live, ARU welcomed a packed crowd to the ballroom-size Astoria, including celebrity fans Luther Dickinson, Skerik, Matt Dillon, Eric Krasno and Jeff Coffin. A longtime ARU fan, Dickinson, in particular, couldn't hide his glowing grin, sheepishly thanking Jimmy Herring after his spot's conclusion. A carefully orchestrated blend of cartoonish energy and jazz-rock jams, younger fans also saw the inspiration for several of Phish's early antics. "We play low-brow music," Col. Bruce Hampton remarked the following morning.

If ARU represents jam-nation's past, Umphrey's McGee are a sure sign of the genre's future. A band weaned on Phish, moe., MMW and metal, Umphrey's have become one of the country's most popular club attractions by following the jam-band blueprint. Upon arrival, every passenger onboard Jam Cruise 3 received a complementary copy of the December/January issue of Relix, the tagline for which reads: "Umphrey's McGee Fights for the Jamband Crown." And, in front of Celebration's maritime-colored, bottom-lit pool, Umphrey's McGee very well may have received its royal colors. Rising above the festival experience, Chicago's finest jamband offered an action-packed, cohesive two-set show which outdrew three stages of music even before its posted set time. Despite an overstuffed schedule with enough conflicting shows to make a setlist scribe's head spin, three decks worth of fans chose picking the perfect poolside spot over hearing scene-stars like Robert Walter, Michael Travis and DJ Logic.

Capping off an exhaustive twelve-month journey which has, among other accomplishments, seen the sextet befriend Phil Lesh, earn a nod from Rolling Stone and leapfrog around the country with moe., Umphrey's boarded Jam Cruise as rock stars. With a personal tragedy postponing their Thursday set to Saturday evening, pre-cruise hype elevated dramatically, especially after Jake Cinninger's well-received guest spots with North Mississippi Allstars and The Disco Biscuits' electronic offshoot. A royal celebration in the guise of a fraternal-gathering, Umphrey's McGee toasted its success by sipping Budweiser as a who's-who of purple-ilk musicians huddled around like King Arthur's roundtable. Well aware of jam-nation's fickle fan base, Umphrey's made a conscious effort to flex its muscle without an endless parade of special guests and three-dimensional spectacles. Reserving choice collaborations for Sunday's grand finale, during their Saturday set Umphrey's relied on setlist staples and festive covers, such as The Who's "Baba O'Riley." Fashioning Lido Deck's wooden planks was a panoramic dance-floor on which fans fed-off UM's energy until just before sunrise, leaving simultaneous shows by The Duo and DJ Logic all but empty.

And, if Umphrey's Saturday evening performance served as a successful bid for Jamband head of state, then the sextet's Sunday evening served as the grandest of inaugurations. Playing a loose, inspired set, Umphrey's McGee emerged as Jam Cruise's de facto headliners, welcoming a smorgasbord of musicians to the stage, including Robert Walter, Cheme, Theresa Anderson, Maddog, Alan Hertz, Eric Levy and Nick Blasky. Joining for an Aquarium Rescue Unit-style jam leading out of Steely Dan's "Hey Nineteen," Jimmy Herring and Aron Magner also expanded Umphrey's lineup to eight. Celebrating both Miles Davis and Prog-metal, Umphrey's celebrated late into the night, closing out the outdoor portion of Jam Cruise's festivities.

In fact, Jam Cruise was loaded with so many choice musical moments, it's easy to forget that this trip was in fact a vacation. It's often said that the key to surviving the festival experience is pacing. And, two and a half days into Jam Cruise 3, a stop in Freeport served as Celebration's collective rechargesetting the stage for a final whirlwind thirty-six hours of music. Docking in an industrial park located along the tropical paradise's coast, Celebration arrived in the Bahamas during a hazy period of the evening's segue into morning. And, upon arrival, passengers were greeted with a newly formed band of jammers, known collectively as the "Jacksonville-Thirteen." A handful of these ticket holders, as well as others who had missed Celebration's departure, traveled to Freeport to board. Yet, upon arrival, boat officials made the decision not to let the "Jacksonville Thirteen" onboard, citing company embarkation regulations. Waiting at the pier all day, these would-be passengers collected over 1,000 signatures before being left shore-side.

Yet, those in need of a vacation from their vacation made the most of Celebration's brief stop in Freeport. Spreading out over local beaches, passengers shopped in Duty-Free stores, sipped 16-oz mixed drinks and swam in a pristine section of the Atlantic Ocean. Early risers also had the opportunity to go deep-sea fishing with MOFRO's JJ Grey and snorkeling with a pair of Jam Cruise frontmenJamie Masefield and Perpetual Groove's Brock Butler. Still feeling the effects of last year's hurricane season, Freeport felt a bit depressed, as local cab drivers tried to swindle a few extra dollars from concertgoers breezing through the small city. And, while the reggae version of the Grateful Dead's "Row Jimmy" could often be heard through Celebration's closed-circuit radio, it took a slightly-fuzzy stereo blasting "Who Let the Dog's Out" to truly welcome visitors to the Bahamas.

But, in reality, Jam Cruise itself was a vacation from the traditional rock and roll concert. The ultimate proof of the jamband scene's communal nature, player's intermingled without pretension. Likewise, the jam-scene's communal nature awarded musicians enough space to breath, preventing any paparazzi-style disasters. And, by the time this article is uploaded, Celebration will have scrubbed Jam Cruise from its wooden plank, making room for—-oddly enough—-a gospel-themed excursion hosted by the Baptist Church. While passengers lugged their suitcases off the boat, 1,900 tags reading "What Happens on the Boat, Stays on the Boat" once again showed their face—-a friendly warning and a fitting farewell for each passenger aboard this traveling version of Las Vegas' sugarcoated strip of vices.

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