SWIFT KICK TO THE SOLAR PLEXUS
SWIFT KICK TO THE SOLAR PLEXUS / DAVE SCHOOLS
Confessions of a Jamcruise Convert
By David A. Schools
It was about 45 kilometers east of Costa Maya, Mexico when we hit the military checkpoint.
Several armed soldiers - teenagers - kept watchful eyes on us while an officer walked carefully around both vehicles. Another young soldier sat in a nearby hut, his weapon lazily trained on the passenger in the first vehicle. Just another day in Mexico, I suppose, but the recent cartel violence got me thinking - "Why the hell did we ever get off that damn boat?"
An interesting question, as for nearly seven years I had sworn the last thing I would do would be to get on that damn boat. But a year ago I agreed to two performances by The Stockholm Syndrome on Jamcruise 9 with one caveat: we could get off after our last performance so we wouldn't have to spend three more idle days on the ship.
What the hell was I thinking?
I was thinking the band could use the money and the exposure. After all, we had a new record coming out in February and Widespread Panic would be coming off of two New Year's Eve shows in Denver where the temperature was sure to be below freezing. How could a few days on the Gulf of Mexico beneath the warm sun be that bad?
I'll admit it; I'd always imagined Jamcruise as my worst nightmare - a real life ship of fools. Billed as an opportunity for music fans to see their favorite artists perform and to hang out with them as well, Jamcruise seemed like the kind of indentured servitude on the high seas I needed to avoid at all costs.
Don't get me wrong: I know without our fans I wouldn't have a gig and nobody would be reading this article. I love meeting the fans, especially the sincere ones; however my paranoid brain reeled at the idea of being trapped and at the mercy of the "other" kind of fan: the drunken, incoherent, and resentful tooth-grinder with flecks of dried spittle glued to the corners of his mouth who corners me and goes on and on about "That time at Red Rocks when Mikey materialized a double-helix rainbow out of his guitar during Chilly Water...."
This type of fan seems magnetically attracted to me at those times when I am least prepared to deal with him in a friendly way. Whenever I observe this species in his natural habitat, he always seems to be wandering in a dream-like reverie, searching for the room with the best party or a friend who was rumored to be holding the kindest buds on board. I wondered if anyone would actually miss one of these resplendently high denizens of the live-music-loving community if he were to "accidentally" fall overboard during a raging version of "Sugaree" as interpreted by The New Tomato Groove Orchestra. Isn't there an old philosophical saw that asks, "If no one hears a drunk hippie hit the water, did he really fall overboard?"
But there I was in the early morning light of January 4, 2011 with the other band members watching a crane hoist huge crates of sound gear 14 stories up the to the pool deck of the whitewashed skyscraper known as the MSC Poesia: the floating home of Jamcruise 9.
Images of "bon voyage" scenes from disaster-at-sea movies like "Titanic" and "The Poseidon Adventure" came immediately to mind, where happy people were about to embark on an exciting yet damned adventure at sea. Just when my paranoia had reached fever pitch, I saw the twin spiritual figureheads of our cruise: Col. Bruce Hampton (Ret.) and George Porter Jr. My mind eased, the clouds parted, and the sun came out accompanied by a horn section and a choir of funky background singers.
This might actually be fun.
Despite the early hour and huge crowd of excited revelers, we managed to get on board and find our stateroom. Of course, it was still being cleaned. In lieu of a much needed nap, we made a beeline to the poolside bar where I was informed by Robert Randolph that the acquisition of several drink ticket booklets would make my life easier over the next few days. The wife agreed, and the first boat drink soon followed.
After a hilarious mandatory lifeboat drill featuring clunky life preservers for everyone, it was naptime, though I couldn't really call it a nap per se. It was more like a few hours of fitful fever dreams enhanced by an endless loop on the TV featuring recorded performances from past Jamcruise events and interviews with musicians and partiers by the effervescent Cruise Director Julie McCoy (aka Annabel Lukins of Cloud 9 Productions). The sound of Bob Weir and his trio's strained poolside performance of "Sugaree," which drifted from the stage into my stateroom, finally forced me into the shower.
Before I knew it, 2 am was upon us. Not bedtime, but show time for the Stockholm Syndrome. That's right, 2 am show time in the cool, blue darkness of the Teatro De Felice theater. There was some nervousness in the dressing room, mainly because we couldn't find any paper to copy down Jerry's hastily scrawled-on-a-cocktail-napkin set list. On top of one of the lockers, I noticed a familiar black binding: the kind that Kinko's uses to put together a band's touring itinerary. Knowing that the back of every page would be blank, I reached for it.
Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw: an itinerary for several days of performances on a cruise event called SHIPROCKED.* Yes, it was a Heavy Metal cruise featuring Cinderella, Vince Neil, Tesla, and a host of lesser-known bands with brutal sounding names like Broken Teeth. The idea of funky, boogie-style jam music seemed to go hand in hand with the sunny, happy vibe of a Caribbean cruise. But Metal?! I laughed imagining all these middle-aged Metal bands wandering the decks during the daylight hours. Would there be full makeup? What about the preened hair? Would they have Aquanet-wielding stylists in tow? And what about the groupie thing? Would the sight of Vince lounging poolside in his trunks still thrill the ladies of the road? Would Tesla perform their famous acoustic version of "Signs" in the afternoon with colorful drinks for all? (Author's note: While doing research for this article, I found a video recap of Shiprocked and it looked like a real good time. Just like Jamcruise, people of all ages, shapes, and walks of life came out to see their favorite bands.)
I was ripped from my metallic daydream by our tour manager pondering the idea of a Goth cruise with an abandoned pool area and an overflowing psych ward. We copied down our set list and got on with our show, which, although a little rusty at first, finally took off after a few songs. I couldn't believe how many people were still there at 4 a.m. when the set ended. The music never stops on Jamcruise, except for a few hours around breakfast for food, power napping, and, believe it or not, personal hygiene.
The next few days were an unexpected pleasure. Being trapped on "the barge of doom" as I had been referring to it for the previous 7 years was nowhere near as horrifying as I had imagined it might be. My wife and I had a ball wandering the halls with our friends, plundering the ship, and generally being treated to a real good time. The Jam Room, hosted by a different musician each night, provided some of the best musical moments. Like when I found myself at 5 a.m. playing bass in a Buddy Miles inspired jam with some musician friends I didn't even know were on the damn boat. And although I never made it to the disco, I am pretty sure it NEVER stopped.
In the midst of my seven years' worth of cynicism, paranoia, and sarcasm, I had neglected to give Jamcruise a chance. It's not like a regular in-and-out festival in the middle of Nowhere, USA, but a cruise liner designed for relaxation, partying, and overall feeling good while meeting fans and catching up with your fellow tradesmen and friends in the business. This might be work, but it's nice work if you can get it.
Two days later I watched the sun come up as another floating city block eased into the dock in Costa Maya to the thumping bass from the disco two decks above. The party was over for me and soon I would be headed home to a mystery military checkpoint and a new year. And as the pink light faded into the bright blue sky of morning, I watched one lost and sweaty Jamcruiser repeatedly stumbling drink in hand across the aft deck, still looking for that elusive never-ending party room and completely unaware that it was happening all around him.
Due to our early departure, we were unable to attend the annual Jamcruise awards ceremony. I'm not sure what exactly we missed, but I came up with a few of my own:
-Best Musical Performance: Galactic's superior and energetic rendition of Swamp Dogg's "Total Destruction To Your Mind" featured Living Color's Corey Glover on vocals.
-Most Jealous Musical Moment: Jerry Joseph, Wally Ingram, and Eric McFadden perform an incredibly moving version of Blitzen Trapper's "Furr" in the jam room and wishing that I knew the tune well enough to join in.
-Most Personally Satisfying Moment: Bob Weir, Jay Lane and Rob Wasserman perform The Other One in the indoor theater venue. It was a humid night, I was lost in the decks trying to find my party and I was pulled into the venue by cool air and cool tunes. The seas were rough that evening and the bow was moving up and down quite a bit so it was amazing how drummer Jay Lane integrated the rolling of the waves into the tune's inherent 6 count.
-Non-Musical Event I Wish I Hadn't Missed: The Iron Chef contest pitts Karl Denson, Col. Bruce Hampton, and JoJo Hermann against each other in a battle of improvised culinary skill.
-Best Ears: Steve Kimmock, who displays a supernatural ability to join any band playing any style and actually make the music BETTER than it had been without him.
-Best Sanctuary: Shockingly, the Casino was not only the emptiest and quietest but it was also the one place to smoke a cigarette indoors.
-Best Original Costume: The ONE AND ONLY person who chose to dress like a predator (wolf) on the night where everyone else was dressed in zebra stripes.
-Most Hilarious Moment: Ivan Neville and George Porter Jr. discuss the meaning of "Who dat?" with Bruce Hampton in the artists lounge.
-Most Disappointing Natural Phenomena: A sudden late night thunderstorm roars out of nowhere and punches a big wet hole in Garage A Trois' set in the middle of a mesmerizing vibes solo by Mike Dillon
- Most Overplayed Song of the Cruise: "Sugaree." I love this tune, but hearing it performed by three entirely different bands in three days was a little much... even for this Dead Head.
-Most Surprising Realization: Almost 100% of the fan interaction I experienced was of the sincere kind. These folks were polite, never got in my face, and made me feel great about my choice to join the crew. I was happy to meet them all. Except for that one drunken woman who told me how much she loved my band and then proceeded to literally kick my ass.
*Read all about the heavy metal Shiprocked! cruise in the spring print issue of BLURT, on newsstands in mid-March. An edited version of this blog will also be in the issue.- Ed.
[Photos Credit: Brad Hodge]