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Published: 2006/01/15
by David Steinberg

Featured Column:Jam Cruise Diary

Day Zero – Anticipation

Last year was about curiosity, this year is about repeatability. I no longer have to worry if Jam Cruise is an event I would enjoy. Last year’s cruise was one of the best vacations I have taken in my life. However, part of that was because I had never seen the concept before of combining both a tropical vacation and a festival. Now that I know what to expect, I wonder if the joy will survive a second year. Hopefully, this will be like Phish festivals where they got better and better and better every year … well except for the heat of Oswego and the rain at It and Coventry doesn’t count….

After red-eying it from Seattle last night, I’m currently lounging around a hotel in Ft. Lauderdale. Many people are going to the pre-show tonight, but I know my limits. With six nights of all day and all night music, it’s about pacing. I want to see music yes, but I also want to relax.

That is the key about Jam Cruise. The lineup is fun, but probably nothing that would get me to travel to LA, let alone Florida. The boat and destinations look incredible, but I couldn’t imagine booking a normal cruise. Put the two together though, and how can it be beat? There’s nothing wrong with a tropical vacation with many of my close friends being augmented by very cool music. I can hardly wait to get onboard.

However, waiting is what I will do. I just got out of a mildly heated pool as the clouds rolled back in. Doing the backstroke to some decent reggae music is not a bad way of starting out the week. It actually took me a minute or two to remember why I don’t just move down here [1] and the cruise hasn’t even started yet. It just gets better from here.

You know you’re about to go on Jam Cruise when…

...you go down to the bar in your hotel and Kyle and are drinking there too. There really is little separation between musician and fan on the boat, or even the pre-cruise hotels.

Day One – Beautiful boat and the inevitable mini-disaster

For over 350 days, the fear of the Jacksonsonville 13 [sic] was upon us. We had a year to speculate over what security would be like and how many incidents there would be. In the wake of that – and remembering how long check in took last year – we showed up extremely early. Much to our surprise, we were on the boat by 1:15- a mere fifteen minutes after boarding started. Everything went smoothly and there weren’t any reports of arrests. It’s amazing how not being in a small city that was trying to send a message to Superbowl attendees makes things go smoother.

A fruit animal created for the opening buffet

We put the extra five hours to use for two things – exploring the boat and wondering where the blerp out bags were. The MSC Lirica is an incredibly beautiful boat. As nice as the Celebration was last year, it wasn’t nearly in the same league as this one. Grand staircases, beautiful lounges, and a mini-golf course – what more could you want out of a boat? Other than our clothing that is.

The first day of an event like Jam Cruise has to be considered as an adjustment day. It gets spent figuring out where all the venues are and getting used to the motion of the boat and organizing the small space of your room so you can get in and out of it without having to climb over bags. Part of that is expecting some minor things to go wrong. This year we had some luggage issues. We wandered the boat and came back to the room., No luggage. We went to the life jacket drill and came back. No luggage. We got some dinner and came back to the room. No luggage. There were fears of having to wear the same clothes the entire cruise which would have gotten just a little bit old around the time we got back from Jamaica. We saw a pretty nice Antibalis set and checked the room. No luggage… oh wait, there it is. With all of the bands, it took longer to load all of the equipment than they expected. The lesson to be learned is that you have to just expect something to happen on that first day and be able to roll with the punch.

Oh yes, there also was music on this boat. What stuck out this night was Keller Williams. Keller has managed a difficult feat. There are many acts that play in bars and entertain people by having so much fun that the crowd can’t help but to enjoy themselves. Somehow he has managed to become a much bigger act without having to take himself more seriously. In addition to covers of "St. Stephen" and "Attics of My Life," there were references to "Copacabana," and "Rappers Delight." Most surprising – and an early nominee for Most Exciting Cover Choice of Jam Cruise – was a mini Camper Van Beethoven segment featuring the rather obscure "Still Wishing to Course" and "We Love You." I saw Camper three times in 2005, and this managed to be the first time I heard either one.

After Keller, I got to experience the most exciting innovation of the boat – the Jam Room. You have all of these musicians on the boat, not everyone can play all the time, why not open things up to see what will happen. Jam Cruise draws obvious references to the Festival Express train. Here was the chance to let spontaneous connections form. Anyone could go onstage and play along. That led to some train wrecks of course, but when it worked (which was more often than it not), the music was incredible.

Day Two – They call it Jam Cruise

One of the things that Jam Cruise does to make itself stand out is that they take over the PA system. Instead of the music that a normal cruise would play, we hear a lot of Jerry. Unfortunately, someone sabotaged that system late on Saturday night. Early risers on Sunday not only didn’t get music they would appreciate, but they had some horrible diva singing over the system. You wouldn’t serve people on a gourmet cruise McDonalds, why give Jam Cruisers horrid pop music? [2]

Fortunately, that was pretty much the last thing anyone had to complain about that day. It was a tad breezy, but the winds pushed away the dark clouds giving us a warm day. The only thing better than listening to music while lying on a deck chair with the cold beverage of your choice, is listening to music while soaking in the hot tub. And what music it was. The day started out with the Lee Boys. If you’ve never seen them, think of a more energetic Robert Randolph without the dancing lessons. It was billed as a Sunday gospel session; the song with Victor Wooten sitting in sure reaffirmed my faith in a higher power.

Lee Boys with Victor Wooten

Other highlights from the day were the Everyone Orchestra showing an incredible amount of power for a Superjam, Keller Williams intentionally wrecking Nirvana’s "Lithium," (the singer was euphoric in that version), and seeing SCI’s Michael Travis play the bass. [3] For me though, the night belonged to one band.

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones had taken over a year off. Sunday was their return. Rather than having a rusty performance, they just exploded. The plan was to catch up on my sleep this night, but it was next to impossible to pull myself from the stage. Of course, this is Jam Cruise; even when I managed to leave the amazing power of the ‘tones, there was still the Jam Room with its seductive sounds, room decorations to examine, and random encounters with friends – both old and new – to have before making it to the room.

The return of the Flecktones

Rest was important though. The first port was one many were curious about. A boat full of hippies was heading to Jamaica!

Day Three – In which I learn that it can be fun to be a tourist sometimes

The problem [4] with having a half day in Jamaica, is that there are really are only three options – doing something touristy, doing something kind of sketchy, or lying on the beach. Since the sun wasn’t booked on Jam Cruise until late in the tour, we were left with the first two options. It might have made a better story if I just got off the boat and went looking for adventure, but seeing how a few people didn’t make it back onto the boat, I’m happy with my decision to go on an official tour.

While the shopping part of the trip was pretty banal – if you’ve ever been to Juarez or Tijuana, you know the kind of market we went to, filled with hard selling people (all of whom were calling me "Moses") trying to get you excited about exploring their stall, which was exactly the same as the one next to it – Enchanted Gardens was kind of cool. There’s nothing wrong with walking through a series of tropical waterfalls. The amusing part was something we weren’t quite warned about – a room full of tame birds. If you’re not expecting a parrot to land on top of you, it can be a scary moment. Sure it’s as inauthentic as you can get if you’re looking for some "real Jamaica" [5], but it was incredibly fun. If you can’t be exposed to a different culture, at least try to have a great time.

The terror of an unexpected bird attack

If the day reminded me once again about what separates this experience from going to yet another festival, the night gave another reason why any other cruise would be incredibly boring. It was about 1:15 in the morning. Your intrepid reporter’s unfortunate instincts as a morning person were making it difficult to stay up much longer but I wanted to see the Fantastic Four before I went to sleep. When we got there, they were just setting up. Melissa turned to me and said, "Want to check out the Jam Room for a minute?" I never did actually get to see the Four.

I’ve seen many late night free form jams. The Loft in Seattle had a show or two a month in the late 90s and I attended nearly every one. This one might have been the best I’ve ever seen; it’s at least in the top five. Anchored by Karl, Kyle, and an incredible rhythm section, they kept up an incredible high energy jam for nearly two hours. How good was it? We’ve all seen shows where an usher or two starts dancing because the music was so good. This time, a member of the ship’s crew was so inspired by the music that he grabbed a percussion instrument and joined the band. He was pretty good too. For nearly two hours, the stage was a location where it seemed impossible to make a mistake. Every chord, every lineup change was precisely what needed to happen at that moment. Seeing a band in the zone for that long made the whole trip worthwhile just by itself.

Who says the ship’s crew can’t play too? He would end up also playing the next few nights. I don’t know what his real job was.

Day Four – West and Welaxation

You know you have the wrong destination for Jam Cruise when the daily flyer lets people know that Grand Cayman Island is known as "Brand Name Island" due to the wonderful deals on brand name products that can be found at their shores. For all I know, that could very well be true, but this was the day to be lazy on the boat. It’s a rough way to spend a day, lying by the pool, occasionally jumping in for a while, drinking a froo froo drink, but I was up to the challenge. There is no sacrifice too strong for my readers.

The highlight of the night was something billed as the "Brain Damaged Eggmen." It was members of Umphrey’s McGee and the Disco Biscuits doing two sets – one solely of Beatles songs, one of Pink Floyd. Being a huge Beatlesphile – they mean more to me than even the Grateful Dead – I had this circled three or four times in my program.

Brain Damaged Eggmen

The Beatles set was one of the highlights of the cruise. I’m not a huge Umphrey’s fan [6], but – and this might be the first time the following six words have ever been uttered – the maturity of the Disco Biscuits helped calm down the ADD stylings. The songs were jammed out, but more in the style of the Biscuits. This is a disc that I can easily see finding its way into my cd player and staying in rotation.

Hey Jude, with guests

Unfortunately, while I was seeing the Floyd set of BDE (a little too heavy on The Wall[7], while the early material was completely ignored), I apparently was missing an incredible jam down in the Jam Room – christened the Jazz Jam room for the night. At one point, Skerik and Chris Littlefield were playing at the same time, making the set feel like a Seattle loft party. Jam Cruise is starting to be like Jazz Fest, where the story is as much about what you missed as what you saw.

Day Five – Putting the Maya in Costa Maya

Mayan ruins. What self-respecting hippie doesn’t have the desire to see these at least once? You don’t have to buy into theories about ancient astronauts or mystical beliefs about the Mayan Calendar to be at least a little curious about the culture. Flush with recent victories in a NFL suicide pool [8], I signed up for the more distant (and thus more expensive) trip. It was definitely worth it.

It was a two hour drive across the Yucatan Peninsula to get to the site. Unlike the Jamaica trip, we had plenty of time to see how people lived in Mexico. The road geek in me was fascinated by the highway we used – two lanes, no barrier between them, and a speed limit of approximately 72 mph. At least that’s how it was in the open. Once you entered a village, they’d put up these massive speed bumps to slow you down. You have to do something when you don’t have police to stop speeders. Locals tried to sell pineapple and drinks to people stopped as they navigated over them.

The ruins themselves managed to impress, even with the weight of tourists. I doubt my house would survive a century without constant work on it; these structures have lasted for over 1500 years and still are sturdy enough that people can climb up and down the pyramids without any damage.

The masks themselves were amazing. I have to confess that I didn’t pay that much attention to the tour guide’s explanations, as I was trying to see as much as I could in our limited time at the site, so I don’t know the details about what the masks meant to the Mayans and who was in the carvings, but the power from them was palpable. A lot of energy had been focused on the statues and it still is present in them.

On our way out, we had an unexpected encounter. There are howler monkeys living in the trees; they decided to make a rare midday appearance. Few Americans have ever seen monkeys in the wild, so we kept pointing at them and taking pictures as our tour guides got more and more desperate to get us back on our buses so we could return on time. "Look, that one has a baby!" "Listen to that horrible noise they make!" "Hey, they’re slinging shit [9] at us!" Monkeys aren’t subtle about dropping hints that they want to be alone.

Back on the boat, the highlight – once again happened in the Jam Room. There was a nice long "Stand By Me" with Jennifer Hartswick and Reggie Watts providing a free form version of the lyrics. There was plenty of time for guitarists – one being Steve Kimock – to do call and response jams, for tempos to pick up and drop out, and for the drummers to discover a very cool fill to play. The Jam Room wasn’t so much of a secret anymore. Unlike previous nights, there were at least seven tapers present and two people with video cameras. It’s good to know that the most interesting music from the boat will be available.

Day Six – One Last Blowout

As much fun as the shore excursions were on this trip, it is the days at sea that I love the most. It was a warm day in the Atlantic; all we had to do is sit by the pool and listen to music. Big dilemmas on this day were whether one should jump in the pool or sit in the hot tub. Much like The Gorge, music sounds better in an environment like that. Zilla definitely benefited from this. I don’t recall thinking that much of them either way from last year’s cruise; this year I found their music to be amazing.

If nothing else, that’s what makes Jam Cruise so incredible. It can be hard to turn off the critical ear, but Jam Cruise sure helps. Sure there are minor annoyances on the boat (e.g. Captain Toast making way too many announcements during the music [10], the weather not really cooperating as much as we would have liked, my ill fated attempt to break in a new pair of Birkenstocks leading to horrible blisters [11], my inability to ever figure out how to control the temperature in the shower, the fact that my house feels like it’s swaying a full day after I’ve disembarked), but this is by far the best festival – one that makes it harder to go to something like High Sierra – let alone Bonnaroo. In the spirit of Jam Cruise 4, here are my ten favorite moments on the boat. So many of them could not have happened anywhere else as they involve band/fan interaction or the wonderful idea of the Jam Room, neither of which are feasible in a more normal festival environment.

10: The bird encounter in Jamaica. Yes, it’s a tourist trap, but for hours after that, it was all we could talk about.

9: "Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother" – Honkeytonk Homeslice, 1/11. Knowing what a big fan of "Black Clouds" I am, you’d think that getting one on my birthday would make the list instead of this. However, this was a cool moment for String Cheese Incident fans, as not only did I learn that I wasn’t the only person who automatically chants "So well, so well, so what?" during this song, but it had a great jam in the end that had me running around the Lirica Lounge.

8: Seeing the monkeys at the ruins. Do I have to explain more? Wild monkeys!!!

7: Tossing around a football at the ruins. Before people call me an ugly American, let me say that this was not my fault. I didn’t bring the football. I didn’t start throwing it. However, since my trip was funded by betting on the NFL, it seems appropriate to pay respect to the football gods by catching a pass on the very same stone building where the Mayans played their traditional ball game. It was a more powerful experience than it had any right to be.

6: "Stand By Me" – Jam Room, 1/11. In the past, I haven’t been the biggest fan of Jennifer Hartswick’s playing and singing, but in the past year, she’s been winning me over. First, I was regularly impressed by her work in 70 Volt Parade after she was reintroduced to the Trey universe. Then, she played incredibly well at the first Everyone Orchestra set. I was starting to realize that I was really enjoying her performances and this song cemented it for me. It was a coming out party for me being a Hartswick fan. I might have been late to the party, but I am joining it now.

5: Lee Boys – pool stage, 1/8. Part of the fun of Jam Cruise is bumping into the artists. In the case of the Lee Boys, you couldn’t miss them. Not only were they constantly hanging out, but they all were wearing jackets and shirts with "Lee Boys" emblazoned on them on the advice of their manager. It could have been a running joke on the boat, but then they played. Their sound is the high energy, gospel infused stylings that I’ve been hoping would make an active presence in the scene. First The Word was my hope, then Dottie Peoples at the first Bonnaroo. Maybe it’ll be the Lee Boys who actually stick around and continue to blow us away. I would love to see them again.

4: Skerik’s Pizza Rant – Critters Buggin’, pool stage, 1/12. The artists have a few advantages on Jam Cruise. There was a bar that was reserved for them. They got to board and disembark before the crowds. For the most part though, their experience is the same as ours. That was made clear on the final day of the boat.

The MSC Lirica is an Italian boat. Despite that, the pizza was just appalling. When it comes to pizza, I don’t require much. Get a decent sauce, throw on some cheese, maybe a veggie or two, and I’m quite happy. On the Celebration last year, I constantly took advantage of the 24 hour pizza bar. It’s a basic rule of my life. If you put pizza in front of me, I’ll eat it. It takes serious work to ruin it.

The Lirica was up to the task. With long breaks between meals, there were times where a snack would have come in handy. You only had to make the mistake of trying that pizza twice [12], before never even considering it as an option again.

It was the last day of the cruise. We were sitting on the top of the boat on the mini golf deck looking out at the sunset and listening to Critters Buggin’ when Skerik suddenly went on a rant about the pizza, comparing it – unfavorably – to the kind he made in elementary school out of Play Dough. There is only one thing to be done in a moment like that. I walked down to the pizza kitchen, grabbed a slice, and delivered it to the stage. Skerik flung it halfway to the hot tub, sparing an unsuspecting soul from accidentally consuming it.

3: Jam room 1/9. Simply the best music I’ve seen in a long time and one of the best pure improvisational band experiments I’ve heard in ages. The Jam Room was the best idea for this boat and I really hope it returns in 2007.

2: End of the boat band, somewhere on deck 5, 1/13. Let’s set the scene. Disembarkment is going slowly. No one is going to be allowed off of the boat until a few people settle their cash bills. An additional requirement that everyone personally review and sign their credit card statement (Why they couldn’t just let the people who want to challenge their bar bills go to the reception desk is beyond me.) that was sprung on the Jam Cruise staff at the last second is slowing things down more. There’s a chance for frustration and annoyance that would end the event on a bad note. Fortunately I was crashing out in a lounge that had a piano.

This is Jam Cruise after all. Give people a chance to play and they will. Kim Manning helped start the jam, which eventually had multiple guitars, two people on the piano, some drums, a mandolin, and a harmonica. The revolving lineup jammed for well over an hour. Rather than getting impatient over leaving, Julie McCoy had to make an announcement kicking us out. We were having too much fun with the jam session.

Do we have to go? A very Festival Express moment

1. "Like Last Cous eating cheese" – Jennifer Hartswick, Upstairs buffet, 1/12.

I have a bad habit. Some people smoke, some people drink, I change the words of songs to be about my cats, my friends, and I. One thing that’s evolved over the last year is a variant of "Night Speaks to a Woman." It started out being about me going to sleep ("Night night to a Zzyzx you once knew") but then grew to get the extra line, "Like Last Cous [13] eating cheese." It’s amazing that I haven’t been dumped by now, seeing how I sing this nearly every night.

On the last day of the cruise, there was an autograph session. I noticed that Jennifer was signing and I figured this was my one chance to get her to sing my variant on her line. At first she would only do it if I sang along, but when I explained to her just how bad my voice was, she agreed to do it as a solo act. Where else but on Jam Cruise can you get artists to sing parody versions of their songs?

So, was the experience repeatable? Well it’s not exactly the same. Last year I was blown away by an experience like no other I had ever had, this year I found myself comparing things to the previous year. However, since most of my top ten list from last year would have been the second or third best moment on Jam Cruise 3 (after bingo with Fishman and/or the moment where the Seahawks took the lead while Brock Butler was raging "Na Melody"), I’d have to answer yes. I don’t know if they can continue to top themselves every year, but I’m more than willing to find out.

Note: I have a few videos that I took on my camera. The quality isn’t always the best and the files are large, so I’m storing them on a site that isn’t really designed for it. These links might only work on a Windows machine but they’re fun to watch.

Jennifer Hartswick singing about my cat

The climax of "Hey Jude" from the Brain Damaged Eggmen

Kim Manning skating through the Jam Room, 1/12

End of the boat jam

Correction:

Last month I suggested that the Grateful Dead should release one of "Playin’" -> "Uncle John’s" -> "Morning Dew" -> "Uncle John’s" -> "Playin’"‘s from 1972. Many people emailed me to inform me that Dick’s Picks 24 has this combination. I have no excuse since I own this cd.

[1] Hurricanes, hot and humid summers, and it’s much harder to find vegetarian food here. When I’m lying in a pool in January watching the palm trees sway, I do have to admit that I’m tempted.

[2] Fortunately, this problem was fixed on later days. The music was just as loud as that second day, but it was a lot more interesting. It was a huge improvement to boat life. That’s the advantage of the six day cruise, they can take some time to get the bugs out of the system.

[3] For all of the praise of Keller Williams in earlier paragraphs, it’s only fair to point out that he does have a bad habit of occasionally pandering to his audience. I suppose that’s just the flip side of just going on stage and having fun, but he occasionally performs pretty cheesy double entendre songs or odes to smoking an incredible amount of pot. On the other hand, I love "Gatecrashers Suck" so I suppose that it all depends if it’s your interest that’s being pandered to or not. At least it was made up for a little by changing the lyrics to "White Rabbit" to be about Flintstones vitamins.

[4] Oh wait, my tour guide constantly told me that in Jamaica, they don’t have problems, they have "situations." Of course, she also said that they don’t have shantytowns, they have, "Look over there on the other side of the road at some not that interesting building!!!"

[5] To be honest, I’m not convinced that there is much of a Jamaica left beyond pandering to people who want to hear about Bob Marley without having to understand the economic and political conditions that inspired a lot of reggae. Perhaps if I had gone on the Bob Marley tour, I’d have a different impression (a car crashed into the tour bus, which led to people having to see real interactions, not staged ones), but Jamaica didn’t feel that much different than a pre-Katrina New Orleans. No, people shouldn’t have to live in poverty in order to appease Americans’ desire for an exotic "other" to exist, but it would be nice if there were options to Western culture that weren’t Islamic extremism.

[6] I hope you’ll forgive the understatement there.

[7] They were playing material from side 4 of the record. How often when you listen to the album do you go far past "Comfortably Numb?" On the other hand, they do deserve some credit for playing "Another Brick in the Wall Part 1" and not Part 2.

[8] Every week you choose one team. That team has to win their game or you’re kicked out of the pool. The last person still in gets the money. The trick is that you can’t choose the same team more than once, leading to some interesting strategy.

[9] Literally. Monkeys throw feces at people.

[10] For the most part, they were divided into three groups. During some of the stops, he would announce the names of missing passengers so that people could let him know if we had seen them. That was valid. However, sometimes he would announce an event that was right there on our schedule to read, as though the reason people were seeing music instead of going to see a ventriloquist was because we weren’t aware of the option; we know how to read a schedule. There were also a few unfortunate events on the boat (people tagging their rooms, some theft), and while it made sense to let us know to keep a lookout for the missing objects, the constant hectoring over the actions of a few people both made the problem seem more widespread than it was (and therefore gave a different impression of the crowd onboard than was deserved) and gave the actions of the jerks the attention they wanted. Why not just discuss with them the matter in private – you know where their room is after all – instead of making it harder for the people who just wanted to see music to do so. It felt very much like we were in kindergarten and the teacher wanted to punish everyone due to one person doing something wrong.

[11] No, I don’t usually walk around barefoot all week the way I did on the boat.

[12] You go the second time because you think that it couldn’t be as bad as you remembered from the first time.

[13] My cats are named First Cous and Last Cous. Well they’re both named Cous (after Cous Cous) but one is the first cous and the other the last.

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.

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. 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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