On January 8th, 2020 I woke up at 9am and was already exhausted. It was day two of Jamcruise and I had been completely, utterly spent when I crawled into my bunk a mere 4.5 hours earlier. I needed much, much more sleep and thankfully, mercifully, and quite unexpectedly I fell back into a deep slumber and stayed that way until the beautiful hour of 1pm. What a blessing.
M’lady and I headed to breakfast where we munched on muffins and gazed down upon the small private island resort thing that the ship was parked next to, replete as it was with transplanted palm trees, buttressed beaches, and huge lines of people waiting to get back on board. For Jamcruise we had pre-decided to follow the Apocalypse Now ethos: Never Get Off The Boat. One thing’s for sure – there was little-to-none Bahamian culture to be extracted from such fakery and illusion.
After breakfast – whattya know – it was already time for the musical day to get started so off we went to the pool deck to see Keller Williams’ Grateful Grass, which was quite good. The stage was stacked with excellent players from one side to the other, especially the nylon-string guy on the far right and the banjo player at far left. I soon noticed something I found quite odd: Keller was playing with his guitar tuned down a full step. So for him all the songs were in A instead of the standard bluegrassy key of G. I figured if I met him over the course of the cruise I would ask him about it, but on second thought I doubted that he’d tell me* if I did.
The sun was shining so bright and the music was so summer-y and pleasant and familiar that I broke a little wait-until-after-dark promise I had made to myself and grabbed a frosty IPA. And it was so tasty I soon grabbed another.
Just as Keller was finishing up I left to go find the poker tournament, which I found had been rescheduled to Friday, and despite feeling a nasty omen I went to the casino to make up for it. I soon decided that the only way I could mitigate my steady losses was to make repeated excursions to the bar, but despite this strategy I still lost $300. Ouch. It was only while lying awake in my bunk many hours later that it occurred to me that I had been playing Blackjack with a Spanish deck (I believe it’s called), which has no 10’s and thus requires a completely different strategy; one I am clearly unfamiliar with.
I got out of there and met m’lady at our daily Masters Club session where I watched a parade of players cycle through a two-chord vamp for the next hour while I pounded free craft beers that clocked in at a hefty 9% alcohol per volume. Soon I was personally hitting about 9% alcohol per volume as well, and I think I went to bed.
I certainly woke up, and when I did it was 2am. Well now, that was unintended. I jumped out of bed and went for the midnight brunch that had been prepared as the nightly segment of Chef’s at Sea. Clearly the featured chefs were limited by the buffet materials that were available to them, so it was basically the normal breakfast staples with melted cheese and jalapeños and the like on top. I ate my fill and went the pool deck and found m’lady, who was no shortage of surprised to see me up and rallying.
Onstage was one of the new darlings of the Jam scene, a quartet called Pigeons Playing Ping Pong. I’m always skeptical about bands with lousy names – which Pigeons Playing Ping Pong certainly is and has – and I soon discovered that I was right again. Sure they can play, but there is basically no songwriting going on at all**. That said, the drummer was exceptional. Shortly after I arrived he took a solo with the band playing along and a) it was amazing, and b) he slightly sped up until near the end of the solo when he noticeably slowed down. So the guy proves how great he is by purposely making the biggest drummer error of all – morphing the tempo. It was both funny and clever.
We left in search of higher musical ground and found it at the last half of Garage a Trois, which was fantastic. When we walked into the theatre the sax player was in the process of harmonizing with himself in perfect rhythmic unison, his left hand wailing on the sax while his right hand mimicked every note on a keyboard. I had never seen anyone do that before. He also played his saxophone through a distortion pedal which made it sound exactly like an electric guitar – another cool first. Of course Stanton Moore was killing it on the drums and Charlie Hunter was just wild on his curious guitar/bass device, as he always is. Garage a Trois made me very happy to have crawled out of bed.
When they ended I walked back to the cafeteria to fill our water bottle and caught PPPP still playing on the pool deck. The drummer was taking a proper solo this time, with the other guys crouched down in front and man, I gotta say: if there’s a better drummer in the Jam scene I don’t know about it. He’s not so good that he saves the band (for me, anyways), but he’s probably most of the reason why people think that Pigeons Playing Ping Pong are so good. I find it painful to even type their name, let alone say it out loud. It sounds like a name a band of twelve-year olds would come up with.
Next up was the end of our night. We went bunk-side sometime around twenty after four or so. After an hour or so somebody pounded on the door but it was a wrong number.
*I once had an awkward interaction with Keller; we were trapped together in a rainstorm and I asked if we could pass the time doing a short interview for the Ottawa Bluesfest blog. He said “no” and for the next half-hour anytime I said anything to him – just conversationally – he refused to open his mouth to respond, so determined was he not to grant me an “interview”. I walked away thinking he was a complete dick, and I’m sure he thought the same of me. I still don’t know who was right…maybe both of us?
**I gotta say, songwriting is the big thing that I find seriously lacking in Jam music, and one of the reasons why Phish is undisputedly at the top of the pile; they actually write songs. Want proof? There are Phish songs that their phans don’t like. That proves they have songs and not just grooves. This is extra-ironic because the Jam scene started around the Grateful Dead who were possibly the best songwriters in the history of rock music. Try playing a Dead song on, oh I don’t know…the flute and it will still be beautiful. Try playing a PPPP*** song on the flute and let’s hear what you get. But I suppose there’s a reason why they are called “Jambands” and not “Songbands”.
***Even their acronym is moronic.