Jamcruise 2004:
Jammin' on the High Seas

by Susan Abel
Photos by Robb D. Cohen/robbsphotos.com

      As the cruise liner docked in Nassau, a commotion began. "What kind of flag is that on the stern? Isn't that illegal? That's coming down," were comments made by officials awaiting the arrival of what they thought was another typical cruise ship.
       They would soon find this wasn't a typical ship with your typical weekend cruise passengers. Instead of retirees, families, or singles seeking an independent diversion from their routine and often mundane lives, this cargo had a common purpose and shared a common passion. Instead of anxiously anticipating a shopping spree in the straw market, many of these passengers were staying on board to recover from dancing and partying with the Disco Biscuits on the main deck under the stars until 6:30 A.M., and to rest up for that night's line-up.
       For those that did want to explore the coral reefs and sandy beaches of the Bahamas, they got to do so in a very extraordinary way - with some of their favorite musicians dining and snorkeling alongside them…for this was "Jamcruise!" With a similar vibe to Woodstock, "Jamcruisers," united for a cruise of love - love of great music, food, and "fun in the sun." They were not disappointed.
       "The cruise experience is exactly what I dreamed it would be and more," said fan and passenger "Firefly" Finnegan, 27, of Long Beach, NY. She could be found front center at any show dancing like there's no tomorrow with friend and seven-year concert buddy "Lady Dazzle." "The music and vibe on this ship rocked it all the way through the Caribbean."
      It was unanimous. Fans, musicians, and organizers agreed the inaugural Jamcruise 2004 came through with flying colors. Sailing under a huge tie-died flag, the Imperial Majesty's Regal Empress disembarked from Ft. Lauderdale January 6, 2004 and sailed into history launching the maiden Jamcruise voyage. This was the first of two four-day back-to-back cruises with stops in Nassau, Bahamas, and Key West, FL.
       Ship's captain Dimitris Daoutis, who routinely runs short two-day weekend cruises on the 612-foot vessel, said he was a little concerned about the chartering of his ship for a music festival because of the poor reputation rock bands have, described the music this way: "We had a country music charter about seven years ago, but not this kind of music. This was something different and we didn't know what to expect. But there have been no incidents; I'd do it again. Everyone is having a good time - even my crew."
       Jamcruise marketing director Annabel Lukins said this concept was uncharted water, yet everything went better than expected. If you were on the cruise, she was the young woman running in all directions throughout the four days, but always with a smile and dancing every chance she got.
       "This cruise has changed lives forever - there's a sense of community, an energy and positive vibe on this boat I haven't seen before," said Lukins. The vibe on the ship was so strong even the formal and rather stiff ship staff eventually got in the spirit and began to sing and dance along with passengers and all melted into one.
       It was a sight to see this chartered cruise liner transformed into a music festival at sea. With one main outdoor stage and three live venues below deck, the Regal Empress hosted 22 concerts with 14 jambands performing around the clock to the delight of a sold out audience of 900 dedicated fans on each cruise. Talent included Galactic, Les Claypool's Frog Brigade, Karl Denson's Tiny Universe, Michael Franti and Spearhead, Keller Williams, the Disco Biscuits, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Rebirth Brass Band, Particle, Peter Rowan's Reggaebilly, Donna the Buffalo, the Codetalkers with Col. Bruce Hampton, Mofro, Bill Nershi and Liza Oxnard, Umphrey's McGee, Hackensaw Boys, Jerry Joseph, Yonder Mountain String Band, DJZ-Trip, RAQ, David Gans, Ming + FS, New Monsoon, and Tishamingo.
       Marc Brownstein, bassist for the Disco Biscuits, said their pre-sale allotment of tickets for the cruise sold out in one hour. "The same kids that come to every show are here, too," said Brownstein. The organizers came to them early on, and the Disco Biscuits took the invitation right away, and they'll be back next year. "The first set we played over four hours," Brownstein said. "It was great to have the freedom to do that. I think it was our best set ever."
       Fans from 47 states and five countries united for this unique musical experience. People of all ages and cultures and from all walks of life came to share their common love of music, bridging generational and social differences.
       Jenny Guss, 18, of Atlanta, GA, made the voyage with her mother, Nancy, and brother Josh, age 20. Josh found out about the event while browsing the website of his favorite band, Particle, for upcoming performances.
       "It's amazing - by far our best family trip ever," said Jenny. "It's been awesome with my Mom, because we never shared a music experience together before."
       Nancy said if her son and daughter were going, she was too. "This wasn't exactly my kind of music, but it is now. I'm really having a great time and it's nice to be able to share this with my kids."
       One young man who appeared to be right out of high school turned out to be a doctor, Matt Small, of South Bend, IN, on the cruise with his wife, Rachael, who was six months pregnant. He shared the consensus many shared onboard.
       "It was beyond any of my greatest expectations; I'm blown away," said Matt. "It's not just the bands - it's the fans and musicians all jamming and eating together. I keep bumping into Bill Nershi and Jon Gutwillig. I asked to take our picture together, that's my band, and he asked me for any requests." Rachael said this would be their last vacation before the baby. "It's a time together as a couple as well as about the music."
       Both cruises were promoted by Cloud 9 Adventures, Jomo Entertainment, Brown Coffee Productions, and Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruises. Patterned after the Blues Cruises, Mark Brown, Brown Coffee Productions, was the central figure that conceived the idea. Brown pulled Roger Naber, who had experience with the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruises, to collaborate with concert promoter Josh Moore of Jomo Entertainment to make the vision a reality.
       "It's giving cruisers more than they planned on or bargained for - it's the little surprises that make it so special," said Naber. "It's been a very successful venture and went off on schedule without any major problems."
       Moore said, "Every passenger and artist that has come up to me told me they want to be here next year. The bands really enjoyed themselves - and just think, this is only the first cruise - it'll only get better from here on out."
       Entrepreneur Jacques Lobato, of Delray Beach, FL, said he had been on a Blues Cruise and felt the Jamcruise was better. "They really did it right with so many different awesome groups, and there's more non-stop music. It's great, and it's all the people that chose to be here that makes it great," said Lobato.
       "Who ever thought of putting some of the best jam bands, all the food you can eat and great scenery together is a genius," said fan and passenger Roei Bachar, 20, of Atlanta, GA. "It's the best idea ever, I couldn't pass it up."
       For most of the musicians it was not only their first cruise but also a unique opportunity musically and personally. Richard Proctor, drummer with Tishamingo, was thrilled with the opportunity.
       "We were the smallest band on the cruise and we were tickled to death when we got the word we were on," said Proctor. "This is my first time on a cruise, and what a thrill."
       All the musicians agreed it must have been a logistic and technical nightmare setting up the stages and sound on a ship out at sea. Every musician interviewed said they were surprised how good the sound was, but admitted there were times it was difficult performing on a moving stage. Proctor agreed. "It was a little tricky drumming, I missed my pedal a few times," he confessed.
       Liza Oxnard, formally of Zuba, performed with Bill Nershi, guitarist for the String Cheese Incident. She said she almost fell over a couple times, but agreed technically the sound was excellent. It was her first cruise as well. "My favorite thing has been to catch up and jam with Bill," Oxnard said, "This has been very positive, a great opportunity to connect with other artists as well."
       John "J.J." Grey, vocalist and guitarist with Mofro, summed up the cruise this way. "It was very surreal playing music and at the same time looking over water as far as you can see with the moon hitting the water at night." Grey added, "There's a real relaxed vibe, very old school."
       Bill Nershi made some great observations and closing comments at the end of the cruise. "You can go see music at a club, but the coolest aspect about this is how unique the atmosphere is. High caliber bands on a boat in the middle of an ocean - the mix is really good between the band members and the fans sharing the experience. I'll do it again next year."
       All that were onboard Jamcruise I and II surely have their own stories to tell. Jump onboard next year's cruise and make your own memories. Reservations can be made at www.jamcruise.com for 2005. If you were onboard for the 2004 cruises you will receive preference. It appears there will be only one cruise but on a larger ship next year.
       They may have insisted on moving the flag from the stern to bow, but no one could have altered the spirit of this group.
       "We be jammin.' "

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