The 9th annual—10th actual—Jam Cruise set sail on the MSC Poesia from Ft. Lauderdale, FL last night (the cruise hosted two ships its inaugural year). More so than ever, the veteran destination event has embraced its own roots this year, not only presenting longtime Jam Cruise veterans like Galactic, Karl Denson, George Porter Jr., Steve Kimock, Zach Deputy, and Skerik but also veterans of early year standouts like Umphrey’s McGee, The New Deal, String Cheese Incident’s Michael Travis, Perpetual Groove, Keller Williams and Railroad Earth.
Bringing things full circle, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band—who kicked off the very first Jam Cruise in 2004—officially kicked off this year’s musical festivities with a set on the pool deck at 6:30 PM. The group nodded to the early evening’s theme with several “sail away” songs and nods—and also hosted the week’s first of countless sit ins by inviting onetime Dirty Dozen Brass Band trombonist Big Sam Williams to play throughout their entire show. Founding Meters bassist George Porter Jr.—who played Jam Cruise for the first time in 2005 and quickly blossomed into somewhat of the ship’s spiritual godfather—watched his fellow New Orleans brethren from the audience and also watched Big Easy upstarts Trombone Shorty & Orleans Ave. from the crowd.
A highlight of every Jam Cruise is the ship’s early evening grand piano sets on the ground level of the ship’s multi-level atrium. As he has in years past, Jam Cruise vet Robert Walter reconfigured his solo piano performance as a jazz set, featuring newly bearded Galactic drummer Stanton Moore on snare and brushes as well as Karl Denson on saxophone and flute (adding to the show’s jazzy feel, the three musicians split a bottle of wine during their segment). Moore has actually already played a Jam Cruise show on dry land when he sat in with New Mastersounds at Ft. Lauderdale, FL’s Revolution Live during a Jam Cruise pre-party. After a short break, the evening’s festivities continued with the aforementioned Trombone Shorty set in the ship’s marquee Teatro Carlo Felice Theater and a packed, Sublime-influenced performance by The Heavy Pets in Jam Cruise’s bar-like Zebra Lounge.
Beginning with Steve Kimock, Donna Jean Godchaux and Peter Rowan a few years back, Jam Cruise started to dip into the Grateful Dead’s inner circle and finally nabbed longtime members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann in 2011. The latest member of the Dead to play the cruise was touring keyboardist—and Yacht Rock-approved ‘80s hit maker—Bruce Hornsby who offered an almost two-hour set with his Noisemakers on the ship’s pool deck stage beginning at 9:30 PM. While it usually takes “guest musicians” a few days to embrace Jam Cruise’s fraternal spirit, Hornsby kicked off the collaborations early on by inviting his onetime guitarist Steve Kimock to sit in for the first half of his set. George Porter Jr. also made an early-set appearance, playing bass on “Go Back to Your Woods.” Shortly after—during a dulcimer mini-set that included a song from Hornsby’s new musical—Ivan Neville also played grand piano with the Noisemakers. After he put down his dulcimer, Hornsby joined the Dumpstaphunk leader behind the piano for a few trade-off solos (he also made a point to reference an episode of SNL where Hornsby, Neville and other New Orleans vets backed an ailing Robbie Robertson on a version of “The Weight”). Near the end of his set, Hornsby also honored Jam Cruise spokeswoman—and Jambands.com columnist—Annabel Lukins’ request for “White Wheeled Limousine.”
As Hornsby’s set wrapped-up, a majority of the Deadheads in attendance made their way down to the Teatro Carlo Felice to see 7 Walkers. While its focus has shifted between jam and groove/funk over the years, Jam Cruise has remained one of the few festivals with direct ties to the scene’s often-divergent New York/Berklee, New Orleans, Athens/Southeast, San Francisco and Denver/Boulder pockets. One of the few groups with legitimate ties to all those mini-communities is 7 Walkers, so it makes sense that the band’s guests ran the gamut. Partway through their performance, 7 Walkers—whose lineup features Porter, New Orleans-bred singer/guitarist Papa Mali, Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann and Willie Nelson sideman Matt Hubbard—invited out Big Sam Williams for a jam leading out of “He’s Gone.” The trombonist remained onstage for the American blues classic “Junco Partner” (best known for being covered by Dr. John and Professor Longhair) before New Orleans guitarist Anders Osborne, baritone saxophonist Brad Houser and Aquarium Rescue Unit singer Co. Bruce Hampton—whose usual Jam Cruise position is in the casino—all took the stage for “Turn on Your Lovelight.” Houser also performed on “New Orleans Crawl” while Porter led 7 Walkers’ core lineup through one of his favorite Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter originals, “Sugaree.”
One later addition to Jam Cruise’s lineup was the funk/groove group Lettuce, who filled in at the last minute for UK-based Simon Posford when he had some trouble entering the country. In a lucky turn of events, all of Lettuce’s core members were already onboard the ship with the exception of saxophonist Ryan Zoidis. Guitarist Eric Krasno and keyboardist Neal Evans were confirmed to play with Soulive, drummer Adam Deitch had a spot with Break Science and the group’s other members were booked as guest musicians. Zoidis booked a last minute flight to Ft. Lauderdale from the Northeast and Lettuce played a high-energy show in the ship’s Zebra Lounge. In addition to Zoidis, Lettuce’s horn section included recent Royal Family collaborator James Casey, who has replaced Sam Kininger at recent gigs (trumpeter Rashawn Ross is currently recording with Dave Matthews Band and also missed the gig). Several guests joined Lettuce during their set, including Soulive’s Al Evans, Living Colour singer—and touring Galactic member—Corey Glover and Royal Family collaborator Nigel Hall, all of whom sang over a cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up.”
The collaborations continued as the night moved on. Jam Cruise staple Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe performed a marathon set in the ship’s theater that stretched until 4 AM. During his set, Denson moved from saxophone to keyboards as Hall & Oates’ John Oates emerged on guitar for an extended jam segment. Oates remained onstage while Denson returned to the front of the stage to perform selections from his recent Sticky Fingers cover project, including a take on The Rolling Stones’ “You Gotta Move.” The song also featured Robert Walter on keys (since Chris Stillwell plays bass with Tiny Universe, three members of The Greyboy Allstars were onstage for the jam). Meanwhile, the ship’s signature Jam Room started to get going with members of rising jambands Toubab Krewe and The Heavy Pets onstage.
Perhaps the evening’s unofficial headliner, Umphrey’s McGee—whose early Jam Cruise sets were instrumental in winning the young group both new fans and support from fellow artists—returned to the cruise for the first time since 2007 for a two-set show on the pool deck stage. New Deal keyboardist Jamie Shields emerged during the first set for “Jimmy Stewart” and the band offered a choice cover of Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die.” Later in the night, Umphrey’s McGee also nodded to the Brain Damaged Eggmen project (which was created for Jam Cruise 2006) with a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond.” Umphrey’s McGee bassist Ryan Stasik also embraced the ship’s festive atmosphere by wearing a gold helmet onstage and sporting a bootleg Pabst t-shirt that referenced his recent marriage.
Jam Cruise will continue today with encore performances by Bruce Hornsby, Umphrey’s McGee and many more.