The formula is pretty much fail-safe: Cram 1,400 seasoned revelers aboard a chartered cruise ship with 25 hard-charging bands, lubricate briskly with around-the-clock boozing and recreational drugs, and spike it with the debauched lawlessness afforded by international waters. Sure, some tolerance for hyperextended solos and pinwheeling hippies is required, but for the music-loving hedonist, Jam Cruise is the ultimate indulgence.
Tickets to the four-day festival, which took off last week from Jacksonville, ran $800 to $1,400. The price kept the dreadlocked-and-patchwork set mostly at bay and drew predominantly young professionals willing to shell out for the unparalleled combination of music and amenities. A diverse artist roster ranged from blazing monster funkers Galactic to front-porch soul outfit MOFRO to electronic sound sculptors Sound Tribe Sector 9. There was still plenty of noodle in this soup, though, mostly in the form of influential acts like Aquarium Rescue Unit and Peter Rowan.
Where else but Florida could a cruise set sail in January? Last year's inaugural voyages were out of Fort Lauderdale; this year, Boca Raton-based promoter Mark Brown moved the party to Jacksonville. Over the first weekend of the new year, one marked by sunny, 75-degree days and cool, cloudless nights, the well-appointed Carnival Celebration and Jam Cruise 3 sailed into jam-junkie legend.
Jam Cruise is Brown's brainchild. For most of the year, the tall, boyish-looking 40-year-old father of two works out of his Mizner Park apartment, teleconferencing with three partners and a production crew that resides across the country. For Brown, Jam Cruise is a personal passion that has blossomed into a full-time occupation. Experiences as a fan at festivals of similar caliber like Bonnaroo and Phish's Coventry, as well as his time running three sold-out cruises, have given him the right mix of enthusiasm and experience.
"I was at Bonnaroo this year," Brown recalled, "and all I thought of was, 'I don't know if I could do this again.' I mean, I love the music, but I guess I'm spoiled now because I did two Jam Cruises last year. And nothing can compare. We're making it more exclusive, and just having that level of service and a bed to sleep in instead of walking back to your campground in three feet of mud is what makes it."
As the Celebration pulled out of port, Los Angeles' Ozomatli kicked off the cruise with a salsafied hip-hop dance party under a brilliant sunset on the pool deck. Without any warm-up, the boat erupted into a seething, garish display of costumes, face paint, Mardi Gras beads, Hula-Hoops, and loose-limbed dancing. For the folks here, almost all of whom live for live music, Jam Cruise provided the perfect binging opportunity.
Easily the most intriguing aspect of Jam Cruise was its setting. Being trapped on a boat in the middle of the ocean meant there was no separation between artists and fans. Seeing your favorite musician in a puffy, orange life preserver during the lifeboat drill equalized status. And the huge amount of interband jamming -- totally improvised, one-of-a-kind sit-ins -- kept the music fresh and unpredictable.
"I think Karl Denson had something like 20 people on stage with them, and Galactic had something like that too," Brown said. Freak bassist Les Claypool also invited a slew of guests to his stage, as did up-and-coming future jazz innovators the Benevento/Russo Duo. "Where else are you gonna see something like that?" Brown asked.
There may be other places, but none of them sails to the Bahamas. Saturday's afternoon shore leave in Freeport was a relaxing pit stop. MOFRO vocalist JJ Grey led a low-priced, deep-sea fishing excursion while Perpetual Groove band leader Brock Butler was part of a group snorkeling expedition. Other typical cruise encounters were bingo with former Phish drummer John Fishman and a Texas Hold 'Em tournament with Chicago prog-jammers Umphrey's McGee.
Clearly, everyone onboard embraced a commitment to having a good time. The ship sold more liquor on Thursday and Friday than on most four-day trips. Higher-than-usual commissions for servers meant they were as happy as the Jam Cruisers were drunk. One reveler offered puddles of liquid LSD to all comers. Chocolates with ground-up magic mushrooms were nibbled to the sound of Les Claypool. Pot smoke seeped out from under cabin doors, and hallways reeked of California kind bud that had been vacuum-sealed to avoid detection.
"These are my people!" Brazilian waiter Roberto Leitao said as a parade of trumpets and trombones squonked down the main staircase. Third Officer Giovanni Anastasi, a career sailor from Italy, also felt a surprising affinity for the jam fans. "The Jam Cruise is very wonderful," he said with a thick, lolling accent. "I think it would be very nice to work with Jam Cruise, one every month."
Ozomatli percussionist and MC Justin Porée was happy to play in front of fans who might not otherwise know or check out his band. "Our music appeals to anyone who likes to dance," he said, "and these people are crazy about dancing."
The logistics of keeping 100 musicians happily plugged in and amplified are staggering.
Sixty-five thousand pounds of audio gear and back-line equipment were brought onto the boat, Brown reported. "Each band couldn't bring in all their equipment -- it would just be too much -- so we gotta try to find some common ground in the equipment they could share so we don't bring on 24 drum kits.
"For us to set up that production in that short amount of time and have a 5:30 sail-away party with a band on the pool deck is just amazing."
By Saturday, the cross-jamming among bands had reached a level of delicious promiscuity. Soulive six-stringer Eric Krasno strolled from the tiny Endless Summer bar stage to the swanky, Vegas-like Islands in the Sky lounge with his guitar, adding warm, jazzy licks to each band he sat in with, while Seattle-based saxophone madman Skerik blew into every session he could. The midnight sets by the pool, featuring bands like North Mississippi Allstars and Garaj Mahal, were a round robin of guest musicians. Sipping tall, frozen piña coladas and sucking down comparably sized joints, the crowd couldn't have been more satisfied.
"You can tell from the music that the bands love it here," said Adam Kapasinski, a 33-year-old artist from San Luis Obispo, California. "It pushes the envelope of the musical experience."
On Sunday night, as the ship neared its Jacksonville return and a potential early Customs inspection, the energy level redlined. Warnings of agents on the boat circulated, and within minutes, vials of LSD and tiny baggies of powdered Ecstasy were emptied onto tongues and fingertips while glass bongs were passed among strangers. The party had reached its final fever pitch, and no one wanted it to end.
Galactic blew it out at 5 a.m. Monday in the massive, regal Astoria music hall. Amid the final revelry, Ethan Schwartz, one of Brown's go-to assistants and the Davie promoter responsible for the upcoming Langerado festival in Hollywood, summed it up well. "I asked this girl if she was having a good time, and she said, 'I would put it between two things: amazing and unbelievable.' I didn't meet one person who was not having the time of their life."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Brown had already started looking into band availability for next year's cruise. "The boat we're looking at for next year is definitely a little larger, and we're looking at three or four different ports right now," Brown said. "I'd like to bring it back down to South Florida and probably go over to Cozumel, Mexico.
"We want it to grow, but we want to keep it intimate and affordable."
Mark Topazio, a.k.a. Captain Toast, operations director and ceremonial ship's captain, put Jam Cruise into proper perspective. "There're other music cruises, and they're awesome," he said, "but the full charter where we take this boat over and rock it till dawn every night is unique."
As everyone disembarked Monday afternoon, exchanging hugs and emotional, hungover goodbyes, it was obvious he was right.