It has now officially been almost TWO MONTHS since disembarking the MSC Divina, and still, with a solid chunk of time to process and reassimilate, I am still convinced there is not a sufficient way to encapsulate the experience that is Jam Cruise into words. However, an attempt must be made…if only for the crucial reason to have another piece of physical evidence that the days between February 6th and 12th on the ship were in fact, not a dream, but indeed a reality.
Jam Cruise has always been a bucket list trip for me. For years, I’ve heard tales of the insanely epic musical collaborations, the behind-the-scenes kickbacks with artists, and the undeniable magic of this one-of-a-kind floating festival experience. For years, I held off going, usually due to the duration of the event and the price tag. In fact, when the option was actually in sight for the first time for the boat’s 19th sailing, the final ‘YES’ did not arrive until November. However, once official Cloud 9 emails began sliding into my inbox, my inner (and outer) voice shockingly exclaimed, “I AM GOING ON JAM CRUISE” repeatedly for months. Although, I knew the reality of the trip and this personal accomplishment would not truly sync in until I was physically at Port Miami on the morning of Sunday, February 6th.
The Journey to Jam Cruise 19
Now, before I overly gush my heart and soul about Jam Cruise, let’s simply address the pillars of what makes JC the true creme de la creme of expeditions for live music lovers. Jam Cruise is everything you love most fused into one impeccably curated event. It is a vacation, a music festival, a never-ending costume party, a cruise, and a summer camp for adults – all beautifully wrapped into one.
The length of the trip, which is typically five nights, but slated for six this go-around, truly allows individuals to immerse themselves in the experience. The duration is just enough to ease from the “real world” into the bliss of presence, to serendipitously slip into the “I can do whatever the heck I want and be totally myself and celebrated” mindset. This length of time is enough to make a true difference in a life, to actually kick a nervous system into parasympathetic, responsible party mode…to allow for surrender to the Jam Cruise flow, surrounded by a few thousand incredible humans, artists, creators, innovators, lovers, and music appreciators – all attempting to do the same.
I already knew that Jam Cruise was going to be a true full circle moment, a return back to more purpose, a welcome push out of my comfort zone, and a re-committment to loosening up and really embracing fun, a “best week ever” type thing, you could definitely say. I metaphorically pinched myself as I packed and prepared – “I really get to pack all of my favorite clothes and run around with all sorts of friends on a boat listening to the most epic jams with some of my favorite musicians?” I thought. With a fine selection of handpicked wisdom, advice, and humor from the amazing “lifers” and “repeat offenders” on the Jam Cruisers Facebook group, I embarked on an adventure I had been unknowingly training for a decade plus.
The six-night outing departed from Miami, making two stops, one in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, and one in Grand Turk. There were three official theme days established by Cloud 9 and three unofficial theme days set up by the cruisers. This made for a dress-up, costume-filled boat the entire span of the trip. At any other point in my life, I would have been in slight distaste for a theme every single night. However, in this seemingly pivotal turning point of a once hard personal preference, the themes fit seamlessly with clothes I already had and the costumes become one of the best parts of the cruise for me personally! Seeing everyone and their one-of-a-kind spectrum of self-expression and creativity (or not – which was also cool), was absolutely delightful, entertaining, engaging, and oh-so…F-U-N!
And while music is the dominating spearhead of the festival-at-sea, Jam Cruise also features top-tier teachings and offerings via programs like Masters Camp at Sea, Wellness at Sea, a full schedule of “activities”, which involve a beautiful slew of summer-camp inspired slots of time watching or participating in exceptional and mostly ridiculous shenanigans with fellow cruisers and artists. Since the cruise is truly what they say, “a marathon, and not a sprint,” we shall marathon this rambling and personal recollection of possibly unreal events into a day-by-day playbook for you to divulge yourself in. Enjoy. ;D
DAY 1: ALL ABOARD JC 19 – Unofficially “3 Years of Sparkles”
Three years of anticipatory excitement buzzed palpably in the air at Port Miami as thousands of eager Jam Cruisers underwent the process of actually boarding the cruise ship. With the unofficial theme of “3 Years of Sparkles,” it was no wonder there was quite a special sparkle in the air. Glittery, colorful humans flung themselves into long-awaited reunion hugs and hellos and virgin cruisers relied on the “repeat offenders” to show them the way, as everyone enthusiastically found their appropriate place in the embarkation process. An enthusiastically beautiful frenzy to behold, thousands of attendees, staff, artists, and crucial teams made their way through the line, passing customs, obtaining their coveted cruise card, and lastly, crossing the threshold onto the grand MSC Divina. Embarkation complete.
Now once you’re on board, the first step is finding your cabin, setting your things down, hootin’, hollerin’, high fivin’, and then briskly strollin’ to the Atrium to attach your credit card to your cruise card so that you can keep the thoughts of responsibly at bay for the week. The Divina was obnoxiously more grandiose than I had pictured, with mirrored walls all over the place for maximum vanity and friend-making opportunities, crystal staircases (real Svorkskey in the Yacht Club – IYKYK), a true “luxury floating hotel” vibe (also known as a cruise I guess).
An inaugural Jam Cruise right of passage is drinking a BBC, which is a blended Bailey’s Banana Colada (but fresh banana and a floater Meyer’s rum). As I began acclimating and slowly running into dear friends and meeting new instant pals, while waiting in the bar line for my first MSC bartender and BBC experience, the reality of being on motherfunkin’ Jam Cruise 19 seeped into my beaming, sensitive, overly excited being. As joyous interactions and synchronistic introductions occurred at every turn and everyone began to ease into the wildly wonderful vibe of Jam Cruise and find their shipmates, the three-year wait was FINALLY over and it was all happening.
Just around sunset, throngs of enthralled, sparkling Jam Cruisers began spreading their shine across all floors and stretches of the Divina. Bubbling cumulus clouds draped behind the pulsing Miami skyline as smiling people took pictures or got their pictures taken (shout out to the epic photo team whose photos will be used throughout this piece), letting the anxious excitement of the reality sink in as the party truly began. Well, technically the pre-party with Karina Rykman was a mini kick-off, but also technically, Jam Cruise doesn’t actually start until the official toast and George Porter Jr.’s opening set on the Pool Deck. As the Divina set sail southeast into the open sea and the Magic City skyline slowly kisses the dark horizon, we waved ‘ta-ta’ to life as we knew it.
A small disclaimer: The thing about the schedule (and the “not schedule”) on Jam Cruise, is that incredible music and insanely cool jams that will never happen again are happening pretty much at the same time every day, all day and all night. It is simply impossible to catch it all. There is pure magic popping up and down every corridor and on each new floor you step to. You can have your “plan” and set sets to catch, but when it comes down to it, you are at the mercy of the Jam Cruise flow, the magnetic draw to the moment you were called to be in, you know, all that spiritual energetic hoopla nonsense. One huge positive that veteran festival goers will relish in though, is that pretty much every band on Jam Cruise plays at least two sets, sometimes even three, so if you miss the first, you may be able to see them again.
Okay, back to Day 1 now…
George Porter Jr. & the Runnin’ Pardners gracefully cast us away into the oceanic abyss, sharing the deep-rooted sounds of his funky majesty, sprinkling in favorites from The Meters, Hunter/Garcia, and Bill Withers, as the gracious breeze set the tone for a week at sea. Next up was The ominously genius Fearless Flyers (Nate Smith, Joe Dart, Cory Wong, and Mark Lettieri), in the bow-ly beautiful Pantheon Theater, an act I had somehow yet to had the undying pleasure to witness in real life. Lettuce followed by showcasing a full force in a funk-forward set on the Pool Deck. As seasoned vets on the ship, their set was a welcomed breath of returning home to the funk, gooey center of the live-music lollipop. The rest of the night was literally chock-full of hard-to-choose musical selections, with The New Deal, The Bamboos, and Neighbor all sharing set times, followed by undeniably talented supergroup The Word, SunSquabi, and a “new” band, Cool Cool Cool, that you must familiarize yourself with. I had recently seen The Word at Denver Comes Alive so I blasted off to Jamtronica-Future Fun trio Sunsquabi, before heading to an intimate triple Cool-ing in the Jam Room.
Well, shoot…looks like we are going to take another detour here, as I think it’s necessary to set the mood for a few of the special spots that deserve a more, in-depth nod to set the scene.
The Black and White Lounge a.k.a. the Jam Room:
Masters Camp at Sea by Day & the Juiciest Jams by Night
A flashy and expansive room with low ceilings and high class, the Black and White Lounge features an odd but attractive clubby-lounge vibe with a once-was-cooler decor that you end up sort of loving after you spend so much time there in the wee hours of the morning. Large but intimate gathering spaces with white pleather seatings and curved booth spaces presented great zones to kick back and have conversations with epic jams in the background. The white-tiled dance floor was in itself an entire vibe, just look up and there’s a spherical ceiling made of mirrored glass ascending in the middle, spliced with led lights leading up into what is essentially the wormhole of jams past. Anyways, the Black and White Lounge a.k.a the Jam Room was host to some of my absolute favorite musical memories on the boat, each night hosted by a different artist who was able to completely curate the late-night tunes for everyone who was not getting their DJ on up top in the Galaxy Disco. The Disco was sadly a place I only went to twice for a total of 30 minutes, and not because it wasn’t legendary, I just found myself in the Jam Room nightly.
During the day, the Jam Room was host to the incredible Masters Camp at Sea. What I like to describe as the ultimate opportunity and experience for aspiring musicians and curious fans alike, Masters Camp at Sea presents the chance to take classes, watch, and participate in jam sessions with some of the best “masters” in their class. This completely immersive and enriching offering allows people to get up close and personal with top-tier musicians and humans that are there to share their wisdom and guidance, as well as give you a supporting nudge in the direction of your musical dreams. This year’s program featured “Masters” Isaiah Sharkey, Nikki Glaspie, Reed Mathis, Peter Levin, Vaylor Trucks, John Medeski, George Porter Jr., Adam Deitch, Robert Randolph, and Roosevelt Collier (yeah…WHAT?!). Master Camp at Sea is presented by Jam Cruise and Music Masters Collective Inc. a non-profit created with the mission of producing one-of-a-kind music events fusing education and inspirational live performances, as well as bridging the gap between artist and audience.
The Spot: Late-Night Deck Pickin’ for the Soul
The iconic “Spot,” located outside on the deck not far from the Jam Room, is a Jam Cruise staple whose “hosting” badge was awarded to The Sweet Lillies this year. Imagine a cross between a busking scenario and a pickin’ party that lasts into the wee hours of the night and can feature some mind-blowing string jams with the unlikeliest and most unthinkably brilliant groupings of players rotating throughout the evenings…and you have The Spot.
The Atrium: The Classiest & Tackiet Piano Lounge You Ever Did See
Located in the lobby of the Divina, where a small circular seating area doubles as one of the most intimate and epic “stages” of Jam Cruise, The Atrium provides viewers with a truly unforgettable concert experience. Towering three floors, this legendary space presents ample room to view whatever magic is happening from multiple floors, just take the circular crystal staircases up and down to find the appropriate spot for your senses to feast. And at least once on the cruise, you had to incubate yourself into the glass elevator that takes passengers up and down to get a real one-of-a-kind viewing of the entire Atriatic spectacle. Picture this – you’re watching George Porter Jr. jump in on upright bass for “Insane in the Brain” with The Sweet Lillies or three members of Lettuce taking turns solo-ing with The Fearless Flyers, all the while witnessing insanely happy adults dressed in costumes having the time of their life going up and down the glass Atrium elevator – literally a priceless sight.
Okay, okay, okay…back to the daily run-through.
DAY 2: First Day at Sea & an Offical Theme of the Decade You Were Born
Aaah, the first full Day at Sea on the Divina with the theme of “Decade You Were Born”. This meant you had thoughtfully and awe-inspiring costumes from all of the decades strewn about the boat for roughly 22 hours. A musical outfit I became fancy to on the boat is Utah-based Pixie & the Partygrass Boys, fronted by a badass babe Pixie and spanning string-centered tunes in the form of bluegrass, Americana, pop, rock, you name it. They kicked off day two with an energetic set on the Pool Deck right around “lunchtime” (cause societal norms and times are out of the equation on JC). Then it was time for a split set: the first half was heart-warming storytellers The Lil Smokies, who so humbly bless their authentically sophisticated Americana Roots sound to the world.
I had been very excited to finally catch Daniel Donato, who was playing his solo acoustic solo at the Garden Pool, stripping down his cosmic country sound to a backyard pool level for a slight peek into his guitar prowess that would be fully showcased as the week carried on. One of the bands I was also very excited to see (for the sheer rareness of the opportunity) was Cymande, a renowned British funk group that is a pillar in the making of the genre back in the seventies. Lamentably, their Pool Deck set was pretty much fully canceled due to unsafe weather (thankfully they had another set scheduled for the Pantheon Theatre later on). After just a slight but understandable small bummer, we were graced by a hauntingly stunning Fruition trio set in the Atrium, which featured some of my favorite harmonies in all the lands.
The Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio gave us a schooling in pure SOUL, organ-ically guided classes in the land of jazz, funk, Motown, blues, you name it. Lucky folks were also able to see The Revered Matthew Rieger (amazingly talented multi-instrumentalist and artist also in The Lil Smokies) in the Atrium or Mihali (good vibe curator and also insanely talented multi-instrumentalist and singer also in Twiddle) in the Golden Jazz Bar (a spot I wish I’d have a clone for so I could have spent more time in), while the rest of the boat was getting their dinner or costume on, or in the Panthenon (due to weather) for the not-to-be-missed Neal Francis set (damn that’s a run-on but we love it). Resurrecting a vintage sound reminiscent of the best in R&B, funk, and the like, Francis brings a heartfelt enthusiasm that’s hard to deny, from his songwriting and lyricism to his stage presence and the talent and camaraderie apparent throughout the band.
By far my highlight of the night and one of the top of the week for me was The Fearless Flyers, whose Pool Deck show was moved to the Atrium (wow thank you concert Gods), for a tremendously packed, face-melting set of literal genius, which is when the sit-in’s by Lettuce’s Eric “Benny” Bloom, Ryan Zoidis, and Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff occurred. Karina Rykman brought her infectious high spirited energy and bass playing to the lounge, while there was also a Honey Island Swamp Band set and West Seattle All-Star jam of legends in the Jazz Lounge (wow it pained me to miss both of these). I had signed up for Positive Legacy (don’t worry – I will get to that soon) scheduled for 9AM the next morning, but there was no way in any universe that I was missing an Andy Frasco & the U.N. set my first time on the boat (it may have been Andy’s birthday or something?!).
A frontman, songwriting, and piano-playing fool who wears his heart on his sleeve and is endlessly kind and giving, Andy Frasco and his radical band [Ernie Chang, Floyd Kellogg (half-time), Shawn Eckels, and Andee “Beats” Avila], delivered a rambunctious, A-FUNc-tion throwdown for the ages. By the end of the set, I had lost my dope glasses, found my dope glasses (surprisingly not crushed), was kicked in the face (lightly by a crowd surfer named Floyd), and strutted myself down the Frasco-directed aisle in the crowd after a man dressed as David Bryne in his iconic giant grey suit (who I later met eating breakfast the in his “regular” form – s/o to you, can’t remember your name). With a full heart and exhausted body, I attempted to sleep before my only early wake-up call of the week.
DAY 3: Port Day in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic with Positive Legacy and Unofficial Theme of LOVE!
Bright and begrudgingly early with a massive headache from lack of sleep and maybe one or two too many drinks just a few hours before, I put on my closed-toe shoes, grabbed my sunscreen and water, and dialed my buddies’ room to make sure they were up for our highly-anticipated adventure in the gorgeous country of the Dominican Republic. Since 2004, Jam Cruise has incorporated Positive Legacy, a non-profit whose mission is to integrate live music and service to positively impact the communities in the destinations Cloud 9 visits. Made up of a day of service, an insanely cool charity auction, and other fun extras, Positive Legacy was hands down something I knew I wanted to participate in when I first heard of it years before finally making it on the boat. This year’s positive legacy was spearheaded by an awesome guitarist and native Dominican Ricky Giordano, who plays with Karl Denson and helped coordinate the happenings for the service day.
Excited and eager to see what was in store for the day, two bus fulls of 75 cruisers, the musicians involved, and a small but mighty crew of volunteers headed towards Project Esperanza where we teamed up with the incredible Bachata Academy for a day of service, learning, fun, and unbeatable community. We broke up into different workstations to assist with projects around the land like sifting dirt to create stucco and build a wall, helping build the foundation for an aquaponic vegetable garden, digging and transporting dirt and rocks to help clear space, and other tasks that were necessary for the growth of Project Esperanza. All the while, students from the Bachata Academy and musicians from KDTU and other bands broke off into their perspective instrument stations for an enriching musical lesson for all involved. We were also treated to a delicious homecooked meal, dancing lessons, and awesome demonstrations of Bachata-style music, all capped with an epic jam from members of Fruition and Pixie and the Partgrass boys to celebrate the accomplishments of the day.
Sweat and dirt-covered and tired as hell, but so, so full of joy, my bestie babe Megan and I made it with just enough time to soak in the rays and jump in the refreshing waters of the northern shore of the country. Ah, thank you ocean medicine! I immediately felt ready to tackle the evening portion of Day 3. I retired to my cabin for a much-needed solo hour to shower and to get my rainbow tie-dye dress, pink heart sunglasses, sparkly platform Vans, and “Howdy Honey” trucker hat on. Now, a trusted source and four-time cruiser from back home had told me never to miss a Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe Pool Deck set (like I would anyways…) so I rallied with my close homies to get the funk down on the deck to a LIFER legend (Yes, Karl has been on every single Jam Cruise). In what I assumed and prepared for and also very quickly cemented as truth, is that you are averaging around 20,000 steps a day. Which is what I LIVE for, to be honest. I funkin’ love walking, but also, that’s a lot on my aging and aching hooves, joints, and overall body (I think most of us were in the same … boat…). Anyway, I ran from bow to aft and up and down from the Pool Deck to catch bits and pieces of Little Stranger, Reed Mathis, lespecial, and then made sure to be in attendance for ALL of the Trouble No More set.
The night peaked during the Lettuce Pantheon revival – surrounded by the babliest of core babes, and then hundreds of Lett-lovin’ folks just as fanatic as me, I die (and reincarnate into a more powerful being of love and realness and light, blah, blah, someone shut me up please). Anyway, if you haven’t seen Trouble No More, it’s probably because you don’t live in one of the maybe 10 cities they’ve played only once at. This eight-piece outfit has formed their own adaptations of the Allman Brothers Band legacy, delivering their poignant and spirited versions from the Southern Rock icons’ extensive catalog. I haven’t even got to what makes the band the most special and why I’ve been wanting to see them play so badly. It’s uh, the people in it, consisting of Brandon “Taz” Niederaurer (guitar, vocals), Daniel Donato (guitar, vocals), Dylan Niederauer (bass), Jack Ryan (drums), Lamar Williams Jr. (vocals), Nikki Glaspie (drums), Peter Levin (keys) and Roosevelt Collier (pedal steel).
I’m pretty sure I was instantly enraptured in the absolute presence and grit of this audible octagon. They carried listeners to the precipice of rebirth, completely reviving the spirits of the Allman Brothers but in a fashion fit for 2023 in the middle of the ocean on a cruise ship. That is when I really got to see each of these players (most of which I hadn’t had the true pleasure of seeing play for more than a sit-in or a half-listen) shine their freakin’ superpowers. I scored an insanely awesome spot to view the scene from, feeling drenched in a thick layer of gratitude as I endeavored to breathe it all in and be in the moment.
Switching scenes back to the intergalactic musical mission happening in the Theater with Lettuce, I was not, for various and obvious reasons, able to pull myself away to catch any of Polyrhythmics set on the Pool Deck (oh, boohoo). Post-set, I kissed my babes goodbye and jaunted on over to the Jam Room for a dun, dun, dun, dun – Shawn Eckels led Jam Room set til 5AM. Now if people weren’t hip to Mr. Eckels before this Jam Cruise, they surely are devoted fans now. Also the guitarist and integral part of “the U.N.” (of Andy Frasco), Shawn is a half-distinguished guitar player who is highly underlooked in my opinion, but very quickly changing that narrative one sick guitar solo and stage antic at a time. The Eckels-led jams were sick as hell (to be expected), but it was also just dope to see Shawn popping up all over the boat for exciting sit-ins throughout the week.
DAY 4: Officially “Fat Thursday”: Purple, Golf & Green, it’s Mardi Gras Day at Sea
Oh, Mardi Gras! An early start to the day brought a fruitful amount of fun to choose from: a thunder drum meditation, Ba Duan Jin with Karl Denson, Dogs in a Pile playing on the Pool Deck, an acupressure workshop, a boat-wide scavenger hunt, and a “Shake That Brass” workshop with Polyrhythmics. ALL of that to choose from…and ALL before 2PM?! Complete Insanity. Unfortunately and fortunately for me, Thursday was the day I ended up having a much-needed “chill” sesh. I napped, ate, showered, and powered through as the halfway mark for the trip suddenly crept up on us like unwelcome cold sweats in the night. I threw on my Mardi Gras colors and affirmed to myself in the mirror that “I was a capable bad b**** who was going to have the best evening ever” as I packed the essentials into my mini backpack, bolted in my sparkling Vans up two flights of stairs across to the cafeteria for a “driveway” pizza slice, and briskly walked to the Pool Deck just in time to catch my ultimate faves Fruition for a full band shindig. The sun beat down in thick rays as heartfelt harmonies, raw guitar rippage, and joyous songs filled the saline atmosphere, as I pondered to myself (in my head and probably out loud to a friend nearby) “damn…is this real life”?
A set I heard was insanely epic but I sadly missed (in lieu of an equally as cool time) was the Honey Island Swamp Band, playing a “Dark Side of the Swamp” set with special guests like Neal Francis and Mike Dillon. However, my 6’o clock hour led me to meet some buds at a spectacle I could not miss, Eric Benny Bloom’s Really Really Tacky Show. Let me tell you what, splendidly tacky it was. People should really let Benny have his own live variety show because everyone in the audience of the three-level atrium (which was THE best setting for this) was absolutely enthralled, laughing, and slightly shocked. The Bloom house band played a slew of genre-spanning bangers with Ryan Stastik on bass, DJ Williams on guitar, Michael Carubba on drums, Kenneth Crouch on piano, and Shira Elias on backup vocals. Nowhere else have I heard more hilarious insults, sultry trumpet solos, and songs by Frank Sinatra and Garth Brooks, as well as the theme songs to both Friends and Cheers.
Neo-Jazz-Soul-Hop group from Richmond, Butcher Brown, set an entire sunset mood on the Pool Deck – thankfully I caught the last bit, before scooting back across the boat to the Theater for the long-awaited Cool Cool Cool show. You might recognize these high-energy players from Turkuaz, as this newly birthed group is sailing seas uncharted. With a pleasurable sit-in by Roosevelt Collier and their captivating cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” I left the Theater anything other than Cool. The excitement just energizer bunnies its way into a space where time is completely irrelevant on Jam Cruise. With confusing changes as the boat crossed time zones from Atlantic and Eastern and vice versa, sleep schedules become completely wack and any sense of normalcy starts to shine its irrelevant grin at your brain as it tries to sort out what’s up and what’s down. A feeling and state of being I honestly had anxiety about surviving through, but once you let the flow of Jam Cruise truly encapsulate your human form midway, the pure childlike joy takes ahold and third and fourth winds start to support the glorious madness against the gravitational pull towards your cabin bed.
All that being said, after an incredibly noteworthy and extra funky Dumpstaphunk Pool Deck showdown, I finally found myself walking up the authentic Skavorksy crystal staircase in the famed Yacht Club. There are a few iconic spots on the boat that you hear about and selfishly want to make it to at least once on your journey and the Yacht Club is one of them. While I had a few friends staying in Yacht Club, it’s a little-known secret that the bar is stacked, open, and free (of course only if you’re with Yacht Club members). I ironically had my worst drink of the week there (LOL – no shade on Yacht Club, it was what I ordered that was not good). While the energy of the Fat “Tuesday” (but really Thursday) Second Line pulsed along the pool deck, bringing straight up New Orleans to the Divina, I strolled my way over to the Atrium to check out the Pickin’ Lounge, presented this time by Ben Weiss (mandolin, Pixie & the Partygrass Boys). Complete with members from The Sweetie Lillies, Pixie & the Partygrass Boys, Kyle Tuttle on banjo, and a lot of other dope artists that I don’t know the names of (sorry), this sweet lil’ jam was pretty much the ideal fusion of funk and bluegrass and I couldn’t have been more delighted.
So in between catching a little bit of Galactic and a lil bit of The Lil Smokies, my sweet best friend babe and I were chilling at the bar in the casino waiting for a drink. Now, repeat offenders and lifers will tell you (as will the Jam Cruisers Facebook group) of the incessantly amazing kindness and joy the MSC staff bring to their jobs and how much fun they can be. Well, my friend and I experienced a true highlight of the cruise as we watched three boa-lad, water gun-toting, pink-sunglass wearin’ MSC staff members make a James Bond entrance down from the crystal staircase, play fighting each other, literally laugh-crying the entire time, barrel rolling on the floor, and putting on a complete show as they threw each other bottles of booze and brought everyone who had the pleasure of being there into a state of almost-pee-your-pants childlike laughter.
Okay, enough of that fun, it was time to get serious…Dead serious. No really, with Joe Marcinek’s Dead Funk Summit. Now if you aren’t familiar with Joe Marcinek, who is quite the musical virtuosos and ringleader. A man with a heart of gold, Marcinek tours like none other, always bringing an incredible rotating cast of equally talented players with him. This time, it was funky Grateful Dead tunes with people like Goerge Porter Jr., Tony Hall, Nikki Glaspie, and Ian Neville. I ran back across the boat to groove my way through (another) Neal Francis set (can’t get enough), before finally witnessing the captivating essence of synth-wave goodness Doom Flamingo. A newer band composed of Kanika Moore, Ryan Stasik, Sean Bing, Thomas Kenney, Mike Quinn, and Ross Bogan, this lively band has been laying an impenetrable foundation in their live performances, with powerhouse queen Kanika Moore leading the way.
Although bed was screaming my name, I sauntered for the thousandth time to Jam Room for the session that could not be missed with the godfather of funk and the godfather of Jam Cruise, Mr. George Porter Jr., knowing that tomorrow morning we would all wake up to the beautiful sight of Grand Turk island. The port stop in Grand Turk was a much welcomed added destination for Jam Cruisers, and I must say, a highly-ranked reason for me to get on that boat. Precisely so that I could get off it and get my body into the crystal turquoise waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The capital of Turks and Caicos, Grand Turk, is a historical hub for Bermudian salt collectors and the salt ponds and marks of the island’s Colonial history can be seen throughout the beachfront capital of Cockburn Town.
DAY 5: The Beauty of Grand Turk and Unofficial Studio 54 Disco Night
By this point in the trip, my constantly tugging desire to recharge alone with yoga, breath, music, and walking, was screaming in my face. To avoid any irritation or annoyance being projected on my lovely friends, I opted to veer from the group for a few hours to solo adventure in true Sydney fashion. I joined a few fellow cruisers for a cab ride (thanks to the sweet couple who gifted my fare on the way into town) into the very quaint and sparse downtown area of the island, before hoofing it directly to the sandy shore. Being the water baby I am, I spent a few serene hours slowly making my way back towards the cruise port, stopping at every single gorgeous stretch of beach along the way.
I recharged my batteries via salt, sun, and sand, as I attempted to etch every fractal of that view into my mind, oozing gratitude for that moment, for the entire trip so far, and for the continued epicness still to come. Every so often, I’d exchange a special moment with an island local or a familial Jam Cruiser, who was also totally sponging up the sensational sea-nery and relishing every moment on actual land. I eventually walked to the singular road that golf carts and cabs were carting cruisers to and from the port on, and thankfully, a sweet lady with an Astro van of cruisers pulled over and allowed me to join the ruckus inside the vehicle. Shout out to the group in this cab, who also randomly gifted me my $5 cab fare as we gassed each other up for being awesome and hopped back into the tourist port trap of “Margaritaville”.
After I re-boarded the Divina, a much-needed siesta and recoup was in order before the evening kicked off with the sunset pool deck edition of my favorite rowdy rockers, Andy Frasco & the U.N. I regrouped, rested up, and recharged – ready to soar in the slow-burning disco fever Studio 54 night would entail. A huge aspect of JC that I appreciated was the fact that the “crowds” everywhere you went were filled with the most friendly, attentive, and lovely folx. I felt generally so safe, secure, seen, heard, and loved 99.9% of the time. As I joyfully sauntered up to the front of the A-FUN crowd, it took less than a minute to find my Frasco-loving aficionados. The set contained some of the heart-punching favorites and a wildly rockin’ guitar threesome sit-in with Eckels, Mihali and Brandon “Taz” Niederauer (the 20-year-old guitar prodigy and Yale student who has been on the boat since he was a wee shredder). “Give it up for the guitar players – fuck yes” exclaimed Frasco after each player shredded their faces off and proceeded to drop into genuine childlike playtime, dragging each other across the floor, doing backward rolls, and grinning from ear to ear all the while not letting up on the licks.
A perma-grin on my face, I stayed in the general vicinity with my babe Kelsey as we eagerly awaited the long-anticipated phoffman set, which ended up proudly being my FAVORITE SET OF THE ENTIRE WEEK (a very close call and for a slew of reasons that would bore you but ignite my innermost soul’s flames). The phoffman set was made of Paul Hoffman (mandolin, lead vocals, Greensky Bluegrass), Andy Dunnigan (dobro, vocals, The Lil Smokies), Matthew “The Reverand” Reiger (guitar, The Lil Smokies), Jake Renick Simpson (fiddle, The Lil Smokies), Tyler Thompson (drums, Fruition), Jay Cobb Anderson (guitar, Fruition), Jeff Lenoard (bass, Fruition), and The Horn Section (arguably the hardest working horns on the boat this year), composed of Chris Brouwers (trumpet), Greg Sanderson (tenor saxophone), and Josh Schwartz (baritone saxophone). It was the synchronistic fusion of Hoffman’s ooey, gooey songwriting and lyrical honey with the hard-hitting guitar gang, and the robustness of a full band PLUS horns closer to the end….ooooooweeeeee! I would have been fine dissipating from this earthly plane after this “Horny Fruity Smokie Phoff” musical experience – highlights include lots of Greensky classics like “Leap Year,” “All I Need,” and insane jams you just had to be there for.
Sadly, I had to opt to miss the Honey Island Swamp Band (again), Fackin’ A (Mike Dillon’s newest super genius group with the lespecial dudes), and the second Trouble No More set. However, the universe handed me a spiritually moving incident in the form of an Oteil & Friends set, which encapsulated the breezy beautiful night flawlessly. The supergroup opened with Kool & The Gang’s “Let The Music Take Your Mind,” a fitting mood to set for really the entire Jam Cruise experience. The musical magic carried on through Allman Brother’s Band staple “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” before Jen Hartswick wooed us as she does by taking the reigns on Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart,” before a “Dark Star” that will long be unforgotten. The feeling of love and acceptance was tangible and the set ended with a memory of two beloved cruisers who had set up a surprise engagement (he said YES!) via Oteil that was capped off with a more than suiting “They Love Each Other.”
A four-fold banger was on our plate next, as I nonchalantly swiped drive-by pizza slices to and from Cymande’s theater set to Pixie & the Partygrass Boys in the Black & White Lounge to a not surprisingly cool Little Stranger set on the Brews at Sea Stage that ended with the dudes galavanting through an ocean of dancers and up the staircase to the top deck where they de-clothed and retreated to the hot tub – mic drop – literally. The disco daze continued with blips and pieces of Umphrey’s Mcgee rockin’ the pool deck to a proportionally large crowd, Karl D funkin’ it out in the Theater, and a sardine-packed Jam Room throwdown lead by Prince “Taz.” I called it around 4AM to prepare for the final day of Jam Cruise 19 (holds back reluctant tears).
DAY 6: COWBOYS Vs. ALIENS for the Last Galactic Hoorah
I awoke on Saturday morning with a bittersweet belly full of gratitude for how the week had divinely unfolded. We had all made it to the final frontier…and the official costume theme that had been most excited about….Cowboys vs. Aliens. For the first time ever, I custom-ordered an outfit – a cosmic bodysuit and full-length, fringe-lined gloves of my dreams (shoutout to Coquetry Clothing). Paired with sequin boots, my genuine Texan cowgirl hat, and my honky-tonk sass attitude, I was giddy’d up. But first, I accomplished my goal of attending at least one curated yoga class, where I happened to run into my four dear buds, all from Denver. Our bodies at a point were, even with my somewhat consistent workout regime and relatively healthy diet and lifestyle, wrecked. We all needed endless hours of pampering i.e. massage, hot soaks, steams, stretching, and sleep (soon, young grasshoppers, soon). The yoga classes were part of larger “Wellness at Sea” program, which offered an incredible variation of workshops, classes, open forums, and offerings on self-care, mindfulness, energy work, and more throughout the week on board.
Curated by Rebel + Muse, power duo teachers Melanie and Kaleo Wassman (the later part of Californian Rock band Pepper). A juicy ground-centered flow targeted the back, which we all delighted in as we inhaled life force into each scrumptious asana pose. Even though I was running on fumes, I decided to completely seize the last day, not wasting a minute and sponging up every last glorious moment with cruise friends, fond and fresh alike.
The one absolutely necessary “to-do” checkbox on the last day is to PACK UP YOUR THINGS! That way, when they somewhat aggressively but still politely urge you off the ship bright and early around 8AM…sharp, you are ready to go! I knew I wanted to avoid packing in a rush on a head full of Jam at 5AM, so I made sure all my items were properly accounted for and zipped back into my handy air compression packing bags, with all other small items and mementos from the best week ever safely tucked in pockets and bags for later moments of surprise flashback bliss upon the arrival home. After I very proudly had all my belongings 90% ready for disembarkation, I threw on my favorite string bikini and headed to the pool deck for a long-anticipated FULL day of fun in the sun.
This was the schedule that Saturday afternoons are made for – Karina Rykman rockin’ out pool deck blazing while just a hundred yards or so away Mihali was gracing us with a swoon-worthy solo set on the quaint garden pool stage on the Divina’s bootiful tail end. The cherry on top of parading back and forth throughout the allotted 75 minutes of each artist’s time, was having the absolute ride of my life on the swirling water slide that I, unfortunately, had not yet ridden. Making up for lost slide time was crucial and I’m happy to report I got seven solid slides in, recruiting three newbie sliders including new homie and Karl Denson guitar player Ricky Giordano for one of the LAST slides of the entire festival. But wait, back to the blissfully immaculate sun-drenched afternoon – composed of a solo phoffman set before the undeniably loveable Yacht Rock sunset escarpment.
The acoustic phoffman set saw Greensky frontman on guitar, playing sweet sentimental nothings that officially burst my overflowing soul into a million pieces into the salty ethers of the sea. No for real though, his set was highlighted with a personal top-ranking song in the love category “In the Morning Light” (co-written with Mr. Billy Strings), my top-ranking Greensky Bluegrass song “The Four,” “Courage for the Road,” and heartbreaker “The Reverend.” A loveable dose of lighthearted Yacht Rock, which beamed tunes synonymous with the name, was led by Lebo and composed of insane talent like The Horn Section, Ivan Neville, Nigel Hall, Shira Elias, Sammi Garrett, Karl Denson, Kellen Asebroek, Jay Cobb Anderson, Robert Mercurio, Mimi Naja, Jan Hartswick, and more I am rudely not able to recall. Bubbles caressed the air as sweaty and smile-decked Jam Cruisers grooved and bobbed their way through such a FUN Yacht Rock setlist, which included Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgetting,” Jackson Browne’s “Somenody’s Baby,” Olivia Newton John’s “Magic” sung by the insatiable Sammi Garrett, and Toto’s “Rosanna” to name a few.
It was a culminating moment as the sun set gracefully on the western front of the shoreline, bringing that inevitable feeling that the final hoedown was in hot pursuit. I didn’t mention it before, but bands like Fruition, Andy Frasco & the U.N., The Motet, SunSquabi, and Lettuce, were some of the first bands I ever interviewed as a doe-eyed, completely naive music journalist. So being able to attend Jam Cruise, seven plus sun cycles later, after years of observing, appreciating, and supporting the evolution of these bands and individuals who supported my always-itching side passion, was a literal waking dream come true.
While I went back to my cabin to change out of the slide suit and into the cosmic cow-lady bodysuit, seal the deal on my packing mission, and link with the inner crew to rally for the last hoorah, that sadly meant missing Neal Francis’ atrium set (boo), the Dave Watts Super Jam (double boo), and the final silent auction happenings for Positive Legacy (triple boo). It’s okay though because my three new best friends and I toasted our bottle of champagne that we had delivered to our room and took some important moments to hug, thank, and enjoy each other’s company without thousands of people around. Once we were saddled up and ready to ride, we opted for some Butcher Brown in the lounge before catching the not to be missed second Oteil & Friends set in the theater.
In what I was finding was fitting Jam Cruise fashion, next up were FOUR sets we had to begrudgingly either choose from or choose to full send for (which the second is of course what I opted for). OH, a heaping dose of O.G. electro jam outfit Sunsquabi, a generous spoonful of progressive Afro-Funk Polyrhythmics, a gulp of funky goodness Galactic, and topped off with a band I had been waiting what felt like too long to finally see – lespecial. If you had to classify it, which you really can’t, this “heavy future groove” trio is bringing something entirely their own to the scene and catching quite the fan base with each live show. Made up of Luke Bemand (bass, synth), Rory Dolan (drums, samples, vocals), and Jonny G (guitar, keyboards, samples, vocals), this band brings you to the terrifying edge where fans of Tool, Primus, 00’s classics, and psychedelic jam improv can relish in uncharted sonic territories that bring out a brute of buried primal energy that had been asleep a little too long (read this in-depth review of a recent lespecial show for a more sensory dive).
JC19 would not be fully circled without staying up all night and getting way downer than down at the Roosevelt Collier-led jams. An unbeatable way to seal the jam jar, these late-night sonic collabs featured the supergroup lineup of my personal dreams I didn’t know I had, with both Shawn Eckels and Taz on guitar at certain points, Adam Deitch on drums, Brad Miller on bass, Greg Sanderson on sax, and more, exploring unknown realms beyond the physicalities of the earthly world. I’d find myself glistening in sweat, dancing my booty off with dope ass friends, and then I’d snake through the sardined crowd and pop out for some fresh air and more familiar faces at pickin’ The Spot.
We were able to rally a crew of about 10 up to the Galaxy Disco for one last hour of fist pumps, humorous antics, and appropriate shenanigans that would be tipped off with some final slices of pepperoni pie and fresh-cut fruit in the cafeteria. The last few hours on the boat are a certified, sorta confusing, cluster pluck situation of half the people trying to get TF off the boat as soon as possible and half the people taking their sweet leisurely time, cause “what’s the damn rush?” Anyhoo, I got lucky as hell and found my disembarkation buddy near the front of the line. I somehow hauled all my luggage to meet them and by a twist of glorious fate you may say, we somehow ended up in an Uber, across the city, and checked in to our beachfront hotel and in full lounge mode by 10AM…?! Uh okay, universe, I see you, and I thank you.
Join in on the Best Week Ever & Pre-Book Jam Cruise 20 TODAY
It honestly has created overwhelmingly welcome surges of dream-induced feelings aimed to stick a finger in my cloudy memory recall from the trip, as well as a fond longing for a stretch of time that will never be comparable to any other trip I have or will ever take again. There is positively no way to recap or even put into words the inexplicable cosmic alchemy that occurs on this boat, yet here is my mediocre and way too long attempt to recount it in a digitally digestible format.
The environment and space that Cloud 9 (s/o to the queen of queens, Annabel Lukins Stelling), the MSC staff, and every member involved in curating Jam Cruise has cultivated for the attendees, allows people to fully, safely, and abundantly BE themselves…to relish in joy, fun, and all the things that set our souls on fire. It is truly incomparable, especially when you then add in the luxurious and obnoxiously awesome features that come with the cruise aspect of the passage. Access to the spa, 24-7 buffet, a cozy room and bathroom, amazing staff and wait service, the choice of balconies, Yacht Club, etc. – these amenities create the level of comfort that we as “professionals” deserve to enjoy during this marathon week of the best in high-caliber stimulation of all things live music, connection, and…the love of the JAM.
One of the best musical adventures of my life…until Jam Cruise 20 that is.
I mean, I always thought Jam Cruisers were a little pushy when insisting their music cruise was “the best,” and “you have to go, there’s nothing like it”. And within the first day of the festival, I already knew I was locked in for life (which may have been a subtle underlying reason I waited so long to showcase my sea legs). Now, with around 10 months until the famed 20th anniversary of this absolutely unique floating festival, we’ve already recruited handfuls of eager Jam Cruise virgins to join in on this truly one-of-a-kind Cloud 9 throwdown. There’s no such thing as too much time to plan, so pre-book your cabin today and get to dreamin’. And if you luckily find yourself in New Orleans during Jazz Fest, head to the Toulouse Theatre for the Jam Cruise 20 kick-off party and lineup announcement show with Stanton Moore, Ivan Neville, and friends.