We wait 51 weeks a year, for the first week of January, for the ship to set sail for ports south and warmer weather.
From far and wide Jam Cruisers come, congretating on a floating, movable concert venue to enjoy the sun and the magic that happens when over 25 acts collide aboard a cruise ship where anyone and everyone co-mingles on stage.
Jam Cruise 2009 was once again held on the MCS Cruise Line, this time with a larger ship, Cloud 9, that accomodated 800 more cruisers; the sold out cruise a real tribute to business sense and marketing.
On the other hand, there were many first timers who failed to observe the basic common rules of etiquette. The expense kept many away for the first few years but as one cruiser put it, Jam Cruise only costs $3 a day: save $3 a day for 360 days and you are on the boat!
Embarking was more problematic this year than in previous ones and departure was held up until everyone was aboard. Cruise Director Annabel Lukins did a nice job this year of spacing out the bands, and while Medeski, Martin and Wood was throwing down their extremely technical jams on the pool deck, playing opposite was Leftover Salmon in the large theater with Lettuce sandwiched in between. Two hours later fans had to choose between The New Deal, Tea Leaf Green and Les Claypool. And this was just the first night.
Morning broke around 11:30 and the Jam Cruise denizens staggered out into the sunlight somewhere towards the Western end of the Cuban coast. The treat for such effort? The New Mastersounds, ALO, Dumpstaphunk and Brock Butler.
During another Les Claypool set after dinner, the bassist joked with the crowd, "I don’t want to call any of you virgins because let’s face it, none of you are virgins on this boat!"
The music powered on into the night for another five hours with Porter, Batiste and Stoltz, Emmitt-Nershi Band, Garage A Trios, The Lee Boys and Grace Potter & The Nocturnals.
In the morning, the boat was docked off the coast of Mexico, with Belize off the starboard side of the ship. Here, at 18 degrees south, it’s endless summer. Many took advantage of the excursions, such as tubing or visiting Mayan ruins. On board the ship, one of the funniest moments of the cruise happened as over and over again, an announcement was made on the ship’s PA: "Leslie Edward Claypool please come to the reception desk." He was due to leave the ship in Belize and had not disembarked.
At the end of the day Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe set the background music that took the ship out of port and northward. Next on the Pool Deck Stage was Keller Williams with Moseley, Droll and Sipe. One of the most talked about shows, it seemed to feature more free form jams, something lacking since the departure of Umphreys McGee and The Disco Biscuits.
The ship took a quick trip up the coast to Costa Maya and offered another chance to do a little snorkeling, kayaking, and sitting on a smallish beach right off the docks as well. Bonerama set the tone for the evening’s departure from Mexico and following their trombone chorus was Grace Potter’s Pool Stage appearance.
Grace Potter came out with a particularly energetic show which seemed to be a crowd favorite. She was followed by Tea Leaf Green, who delivered one of their more inspired shows. Jam Cruise seems to bring the best out in bands. Sandwiched in was Michael Franti. If that wasn’t even enough, Lettuce, Garage A Trois and The New Deal all played before the sun came up.
The music came fast and furious on the voyage home. First up were the Lee Boys, who seem to have become a festival favorite these days. More solo acts were on the bill, as Brock Butler and Jackie Green each played on the Pool Deck 2. Green is one talented yound man, reminiscent of those wonderful Austin, Texas songwriters and with hint of Bob Dylan. Franti got his Pool Stage performance, and the super jam was hosted by Robert Walter. The New Mastersounds played opposite Denson, Galactic, and Keller Williams. Even though it’s a festival on a boat, it had the same issues as those on terra firma: one spent a lot of time either choosing what to see or running from end to end of the ship every few minutes. There was too much to see, hear and experience.
There are always problems on any cruise, and they were on Jam Cruise as well: unruly passengers, wookies, schwillies and just plain rudeness. However, the Cloud 9 staff seemed to work miracles in keeping things together.
The cruisers disembarked without serious issue and made their way home, most headed to the airport to return to real life and freezing weather. As jam Cruises goes, is wasn’t perfect. Fans still want bands that weren’t scheduled, better food and service, quicker boarding time, and fewer obnoxious fans who don’t respect for we, as staff and passengers, have tried to create.
But, as far as festivals go, it’s still the best thing afloat.