Came Dancin Across the WaterJam Cruise Recollections, Photos and Drinking Game
The first time I was in the presence of Rodney Holmes he was scowling at the TV, but tonight he is happier than a pig in shit. And it’s our little secret. While the masses take in the aggressive weirdness of Les Claypool seven stories above, a small gathering of sweaty bodies stares in awe and succumbs to the addictive pulse of Holmes and a new friend named Adam Deitch. The two grin at one another with a professional courtesy that borders on glee. We’re in a swank lounge dubbed the Jam Room for a week at sea and the band on stage has no name. Steve Kimock is up there somewhere, sitting on the floor virtually unnoticed by those just passing through on their way to the casino, but if you listen closely, he’s killing it. Moments ago, Soulive’s Eric Krasno stood patiently aside waiting for his chance to rejoin the collective, and when an opening presented itself, he took his turn on bass. But this is no novelty act. The guitar virtuoso (from a band with no conventional bassist) is laying down the funk like it’s his job. The unplanned outfit that performs before us is as good as it gets in improvisation land and it’s a lineup that could sell out a theatre in most cities, but tonight it’s only a side show on this floating oasis they call Jam Cruise.
As one ages, it seems that music festivals require a cost/benefit analysis. Is it worth sitting in all that traffic? Is the line-up so good that I’ll tip-toe through mud all weekend long? Is this an event so important that I’ll forgo a shower for three days not to miss it? Do I really need to see these bands so badly that I’ll camp in ninety degree heat within earshot of drum circles and drunken sing-alongs? Okay, I’ll admit it. Unless you’ve dug up Lennon, Marley or Garcia, the answer is generally no, no, and no. My friends have called me a hotel hippie for years. What can I say? I love air conditioning, ironed shirts and fine dining. But I also love great music, and there is finally an event for snobs like me, not to mention every other festival freak that can afford a ticket to paradise.
“I went on my first cruise five years ago and thought, Wow wouldn’t this be a great place to hold a music festival?’ says Cloud 9 Adventures founder Mark Brown. “It had so much infrastructure already in place: sleeping quarters, food service, bars, restrooms, venues. I wanted to create a situation where both fans and artists could interact with respect for each other where basically everyone on the ship had a backstage pass. I envisioned creating an atmosphere for fans to have intimate shows with their favorite artists where after the night came to an end they could walk back to their cabins without drinking and driving, without going back to a tent in a muddy field, using nice restrooms instead of port-o-lets, sailing around the ocean to ports around the Caribbean with gorgeous weather instead of a field in the heat of the summer, eating unlimited food with five course meals instead of your typical festival concessions.”
What transpired during the week of January 6, 2006 transcended time and space. Literally. The cabins had no clocks, cell phones had no service and the ocean was our playground. It is for this reason that chronology has been thrown overboard for this particular series of jumbled vignettes. Yes, it’s generally “all about the music,” but this time, the overall experience exceeded that of the performances.
SUN IS SHINING
One morning we sit laughing and reveling in a room without a view. We haven’t slept since Jamaica, which seems like days ago now, but in reality (a term I use loosely) it was roughly 24 hours earlier. “Do you think the sun is up yet?” I ask, genuinely curious. No one seems to have any clue. Then it dawns on me. We may not have a window in our cluttered little room, but we do have the next best thing. “Turn on the TV!” And there it is on channel 13: a live video feed from the bow of one of the upper decks. It is indeed light out and has been for quite some time. Our perception of time isn’t even close to being accurate. We immediately run out of the room and head for the 12th floor, otherwise known as the Pool Deck, the site of the main stage. Once outside in the balmy Caribbean air, we notice we’re surrounded by several other larger cruise ships, all anchored just off the coast of Grand Cayman.
The infamous Rob Turner starts flailing his arms and screaming at a couple of ships off in the distance. “Wake up! Wake up!” He’s screaming like a madman, possessed by the approaching sun and the shimmering, reflective waters below. I wonder aloud if even one person on any of those boats has had a night even remotely close to ours.
TAKE IT EASY
Today is the first of the three shore excursions. It’s taking a lot of motivation to get out of bed, as last night was a long one, but I’m told we’re in Jamaica. Even prior to having coffee, I’m quite amused by the prospect of a boat full of hippies many of whom have taken careful travel considerations visiting the motherland of Rastafarianism. While Josh is eager to get off the boat as soon as we arrive, Rob and I are moving a bit more slowly. After a leisurely brunch, we stroll towards the mainland, unsure of our plan.
There are cab drivers everywhere offering to take us downtown, but we decline as many of them seem a bit shady. Plus, we’re paranoid about being dropped somewhere unfamiliar, getting lost and then literally missing the boat. So, we start walking. If you’ve ever been to Jamaica, you know that finding “smoke” is about as hard as finding a slot machine in Vegas. We’re approached several times and decline because of the sheer sketchiness of the whole scene. Then a white minivan passes and a jovial man with a thick Jamaican accent offers to drive us anywhere for a dollar. We quickly accept and get the hell out of there.
Our driver identifies himself as Earl and offers to show us some local flavor. Turner is eager to see Mick Jagger’s house up in the hills, which is high above the ghetto and overlooks the water. As we drive through town, we pass a billboard for Irie FM, “The 24-hour Reggae Station” and I ask Earl to turn it on. He happily agrees, “Yeah, mon.” We begin our slow ascent up the steep, misty mountain and an instrumental version of Bob Marley’s “Easy Skankin’” blares from the radio. Turner is in heaven. It is our quintessential Jamaican experience.
The Rain Song
Once back onboard, the vibe is noticeably different. Because nearly everyone had left the ship for the day, re-boarding suddenly feels like coming home to familiar territory. I was struck by this feeling of, “Oh right, we’re on a cruise.” Everyone is eager to share their different stories of Jamaican lore and it truly feels like the boat has a unified personality for the first time. Gomez takes the stage and our mighty ship pulls away as the waters turn rough and a steady rain begins to fall. Although the band is on fire, fans start turning away from the stage to stare up into the sky. I’m not quite sure what all the fuss is about until I notice the Jamaican mountains on the horizon. They’re jumping all over the fucking place. No, wait, it is us. The boat is rocking slowly and powerfully back and forth from bow to stern throwing off everyone’s center of gravity, the band’s included. But the music never stops. Our deliberate movements are in almost perfect rhythm with Gomez’s frolicking, English swagger, although their tempo is about four times as fast.
“It was going well and then it all started to go a bit crazy and then it got almost a bit farcical,” recalls bassist Paul Blackburn in a very thick English accent. “It just became a very funny moment because the boat was thrashing all over the place and stuff was falling one way and then Ollie’s drum kit was falling in on itselfcymbal stands breaking and whatnot.”
Gomez multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Tom Gray, who has been the life of the party thus far, is very animated as he describes his experience. “It was pretty scary actually. The guys were covering us in plastic and trying to keep electric wires away from the water. I was playing my keyboards and water was splashing up off of them. It was quite a bit of funThis is a whole new world for us. It is kind of like a capsule of the whole culture floating off into the wilderness. So I think we’ve kind of been baptized into the scene in a kind of full-on way. We’ve had to adapt pretty quickly. We’re on a boat with all these people that know, like chords and scales and things, we just turn [the volume] up. I feel like an alien quite a lot of the time. sarcastically I think I went naked yesterday. I started dancing. I don’t know what came over me. I started leaping from foot to foot in circles. Did you go naked?”
Later that night, just prior to dinner, a man passes by Baron and me and tells us what a great set we just played. I’m assuming it is our black-framed glasses that confuse him, as several of the Gomez band members wear very similar spectacles. Without hesitation, we play along and thank him for supporting our band.
THEY ARE THE EGGMEN, I AM THE WAFUL
Baron is hovered over four plastic keg cups, mixing up a few vodka tonics in our cabin. It is almost time for the musical event that many of us have been looking forward to ever since it was announced: The Brain Damaged Eggmen. The line-up consists of The Disco Biscuits’ Marc Brownstein and Aron Magner along with Umphrey’s McGee’s Brendan Bayliss, Jake Cinninger and Kris Myers. I’ve been walking around the boat telling everyone that this is the real reason I came on the trip in the first place. I’m half-kidding of course, but let’s take a closer look at what we’re about to witness. It’s a highly talented group of musicians who have never played together in this particular incarnation. They’re all exceptional improvisers and will be playing a set of The Beatles and a set of Pink Floyd. Who doesn’t want to spend three hours listening to live interpretations of some of their all-time favorite songs? It’s the type of thing you probably wouldn’t have a chance to witness anywhere else, but on a six-day festival on a boat, they get a headlining slot. Turner and I are debating what they’ll open with and getting more excited by the minute. I’m pretty confident that “Dr. Robert” will kick things off, while Rob is calling for a dyslexic “Helter Skelter.” We depart the room, giddy, hyped and ready for a party.
The first set (which opens with “Baby You’re a Rich Man”), is everything we had hoped for, with the added bonus of some extended jamming in between songs. While most of the song structures are played with extreme precision, the musicians’ personalities begin to shine through in the transitions. This is where things really begin to get interesting. In particular, “Norwegian Wood” is stretched out in a way similar to The Biscuits’ rendition of Floyd’s “Run Like Hell.” The melody is woven into a trance fusion framework that gets the audience even more frenzied, dancing with a reckless abandon. As a warm breeze sweeps across the pool deck and the light show wanders to the back of the boat, I take a brief moment to reflect. Does it get any better than this? A cynic could make the argument that devoting more than three hours to a bunch of cover songs is a bit cheesy. (One industry insider keeps obnoxiously barking “Jam Cruise Karaoke” throughout the night.) But you know what? Who cares what this is classified as? It’s fucking cool. And as it turns out, it is the highlight of the entire cruise.
Another standout moment comes at the conclusion of “Hey Jude,” which closes the first set. During the obligatory sing-along, dozens of other musicians and Jam Cruise staffers take the stage to join in for some heartfelt “nah nah nah nahs.” Many of them have cocktails in hand, festive attire and beaming grins as they recreate a moment reminiscent of “We Are the World.” Then the band stops playing and hands the vocals over to the audience. Sailing towards Mexico, unaware of our time zone or nautical position, we sing a capellahundreds strong. One has to wonder just how far our echoing voices carry out over the water. I’m overwhelmed with emotion.
“I felt such a part of something greater than me, greater than us all,” Jam Cruise Director of Marketing ad Artist Relations Annabel Lukins would later say. “There was something fantastic about being up there with many of my favorite musicians, friends and peers. It was clear that everyone on stage and everyone in the crowd was one, rejoicing and celebrating in the repetitive Beatles lyrics at the top of our lungs. It was a great moment in Jam Cruise history; one for the books and one that will never be repeated.”
Set break is yet another reminder of how perfect this whole scenario is. We casually stroll back towards our room, stopping briefly for a slice or two of pizza (it’s nothing gourmet, but it’s “free” and available 24-hours a day – or in this case, 25-hours – as I’m told we gain an hour tonight, but who’s counting?). It’s quite a treat to be able to go freshen up, sit down for a half hour and prepare for the remainder of the show. A regular expression for our clan becomes, “Regroup back at the room?”
Back at the ranch, we flip on Jam TV and continue the ongoing Aaron Schimmel Drinking Game, which lasts throughout the week. The Schim Dog is pretty tight with Dave Vann, one of Jam Cruise’s official photographers, so he tends to be around when Vann is shooting candids. Jam TV runs a photo gallery, which is updated daily and shows a rotating selection of shots from around the boat. Needless to say, Aaron is in a pretty high percentage of the photos. It’s become common to hear the phrase, “Oh, there’s Schimmel. Drink.”
The Floyd material in the second set is even more compatible with the musical style of the ensemble. Cinninger has David Gilmore’s signature tone dialed, specifically on “Comfortably Numb,” with its ethereal guitar outro dripping in sustain. White lights blind a sea of silhouetted fists raised in triumph as the band brings the haunting progression around one more time, and then another and another. It never gets old.
The band has really done their homework and it shows (two full rehearsals were held on the boat and one in Philadelphia). Every nuance of the complex, layered studio versions of these songs is represented in the live performance; for example, the vocal delay on a stirring rendition of Nobody’s Home,” sung beautifully by Cinninger. The next day at the foot of the Mayan Ruins, Brownstein talks about his preparations. He was clearly taking this very seriously.
“It was a big deal to me,” he says with his patented, gravelly voice; clearly one of the most imitated in the jamband scene. “I’ve been going to bed very early [midnight] every night on this cruise. The night before our set I played every song along with the CD and then went back and made a list of every mistake I made.”
Back in the Jam Room, Holmes is still bouncing up and down on his stool, unable to control his excitement. His enthusiasm catches me off guard as I can’t remember ever seeing him smile before. My first encounter with him was during the 2002 AFC Championship game, which happened to take place while The Steve Kimock Band was recording a set of music for the Jam Nation radio program in Hartford. We had the game on a large TV situated beside the drum kit. Rodney was very unhappy with the outcome of the game as his beloved Steelers fell to the New England Patriots. He played his ass off of course, because that’s what professionals do, but I will never forget how effortlessly he appeared to be playing the drums as he watched in disgust as Adam Vinatieri kicked that field goal. Three years later, Holmes seems like a new man. His eyes are locked with Deitch’s as the two plunge deeper into a dueling amalgam of funk and prog rock. They exchange subtle head bobs, a universal language among musicians, and are engaged in some sort of hyper-rhythmic telepathy. Or something.
“I was definitely flying by the seat of my pants,” recalls Holmes. “When you get a certain combination of guys together that kind of understand the same language, there’s an understanding that everyone has as far as when to bring to things down or build things dynamically and in different styles. When one guy creates a certain texture everyone sort of knows how to react to it from having similar experiences playing with different people and in different genres. It was fun because Steve [Kimock] and I never really do that kind of thing at the same time and there were some guys that were there that I had never played with before. It was just an excuse to get together, get a groove going and have a good time.”
The next day, Kimock strums a ukulele and chuckles at his recollection of the night. “I was really happy that I had zero responsibility for the thing. That was the fun part for me. It’s really different just getting up there and working off of fresh energy. People that you don’t even know, playing what you don’t expectI thought there was a lot of really good energy for a late night jam. It kept going in a wonderful way. There were a couple of people that helped pull it through some holes. For sure, I wasn’t one of them.”
MORE BREAD PLEASE
One of my favorite times of day on this little Caribbean jaunt is dinner. While some aspects of Jam Cruise are similar to a traditional music festival, a fine dining experience is certainly not one of them. Let me be clear on one thing: although the service and presentation is top notch, the food is mediocre at best. Sure, it looks delicious, but it is really rather bland. But there’s just something about having your ass kissed by men in suits that makes it ok. It is such a treat to be able to have a break from all of the music, catch up with friends at a fancy sit-down dinner and share stories over multiple bottles of wine. The white tablecloths, classical music and plush ambiance are a stark contrast to the festival atmosphere upstairs. Tonight, we’re discussing our day in Jamaica while our waiter, Guido, pours a 2003 cabernet into Josh’s glass, eagerly awaiting his approval. Josh, our resident connoisseur, sniffs it, swirls it counterclockwise and nods. The wavy-haired, pot-bellied Turner, who looks a bit out of place with his hair slicked back and his dress shirt tucked in, is entertaining the table with his impression of my sarcastic candor. As he nibbles on a bread stick and sips his wine, the table is in hysterics. Apparently the wait staff doesn’t quite understand American sarcasm and this becomes the theme of the week. With four baskets of dinner rolls already on the table, I ask Guido if we can please have some more bread. He is eager to oblige and quickly returns with a plateful. Turner’s on the floor.
The layout of the pool deck is not unlike that of New York’s Roseland Ballroom: the stage is at one end with a balcony that wraps around the upper deck. There are some obvious differences of course, such as the Jacuzzis at front-of-house, the pool towards the back and the lack of a side stage on the boat (not to mention the upkeep and sleek Italian design). One major improvement from past Jam Cruises is that the pool directly in front of the main stage is covered and turned into a dance floor, whereas in past years, unless you were treading water, the “sweet spot” was underutilized. It is also important to draw the distinction between what cruise organizers and festival promoters consider full capacity. A cruise ship is strictly limited by the number of beds on board. Because they are designed for luxury, the ratio of bodies to space is a lot different than that of rock concert. Even though Jam Cruise is sold out, there is always plenty of room. Even for the headlining shows, you can freely walk right up to the stage – or anywhere for that matter. There are perfect site lines everywhere, including the indoor theatre downstairs, which never seems to be more than half full. Our favorite spot at the main stage is about forty feet back on a raised platform. There isn’t one time the entire week that I feel crowded (well, maybe that time we all crammed in the elevator, but that’s another story).
In the media room on the final day at sea, a small number of reporters mills around talking with some of the artists. The word that keeps coming up again and again is “vibe.” The fact that so many barriers are broken down – both literally and figuratively – aboard Jam Cruise, helps create a genuine feeling of equality. There is no backstage and fans and artists intermingle throughout the week. Les Claypool, who is on his third Jam Cruise, feels comfortable enough in this environment that he and his wife decided to celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary at sea instead of skipping the event.
“We’re all in it together,” says Claypool. “We’re all sort of floating around here. There’s a communal feeling you get when you’re on a vessel floating out in the middle of nowhere because you never know when you’re gonna hit that iceberg and you’re all gonna have to rely on each other. And you get to the point where, theoretically, you might be in that drifter for a while and you’d have to draw straws because one of us might have to eat the other one at some point in time.” When asked if he would keep his band playing if the ship were to sink and have a sense of humor about song selection (“In my Time of Dying,” “Drowned”etc), he responds without hesitation. “I don’t have a sense of humor.”
HOW YA FEELIN’?
If there is a house band on Jam Cruise, it is Michael Franti and Spearhead. No one better personifies the overall spirit of the event. The music is upbeat, energetic and celebratory, and as the sun hovers low in the sky, the crowd is dancing as hard as I’ve seen all week. Franti and the band are jumping up and down in unison during “Stay Human (All the Freaky People)” and a group of select fans takes the stage dressed in exotic garb, holding various signs with positive messages. This may just be the theme song of the boat. Moments later a friend of the band, donning a tuxedo and sandals, is handed a wireless microphone and proposes to his girlfriend. The crowd goes wild as she accepts and they embrace. Cheers.
“We had just got on the boat in Grand Cayman and we didn’t have our sea legs at all,” explains Franti. “So you get up there and you start playing and you start to feel the first sways of the boat and you have this feeling in your head. It’s really different playing music because your equilibrium is thrown off so you start to feel like the music is coming at you from different directions. It was overwhelming for me.”
Perhaps Franti sums up Jam Cruise best. He is sitting barefoot on a couch as we pass Cuba, just hours before arriving back in the States. As he speaks softly, his stoic eyes well up with tears. “It’s a celebration of free expression; musical expression and also the freedom of expression of the people that are contributing to music. There are very few safe places in our culture where you can feel free. And I think that’s why the festival scene has flourished so much, not just the music, but the audience and the fans that take the festivals on and turn them into their own thing. The freedom of expression of the audience is a reaction to society at large. It’s a time when people can go away and not have to feel confined by the rigidity of American life.”