When the "MSC Lirica" docked at Mexico's Costa Maya earlier this month, bewildered locals and vacationing families were met with the sight of 2,000 hippies stumbling down the gangplank. Among the Birkenstock-clad masses was Houston marketing manager Emily Cohen, who was just settling into a beachside bar when Les Claypool sat down next to her and ordered a round of Sol beers. Galactic drummer Stanton Moore partied nearby, while bassist Rob Mercurio got a massage under a palm tree. "I'm not a person who would go on a typical cruise," says Cohen. "But being able to leave your worries behind, relax in the sun, see your favorite bands and party till dawn is amazing."
For three years now, the annual Jam Cruise has hit the high seas for a bacchanal filled with live music, altered states and bingo. This year's, which ended in Fort Lauderdale, set sail for Jamaica, the Grand Cayman Islands and Mexico six days earlier with more than twenty acts — including scene stalwarts Claypool, Bela Fleck and Umphrey's McGee, along with non-jammers like Brit-blues band Gomez and indie rappers Digable Planets. In its biggest year so far, Jam Cruise sold 1,700 tickets, grossing $2.25 million. Its success has spawned a fleet of cruises, including two in February built around Dave Matthews (with Bob Weir and RatDog) and Kenny Chesney. In 2007, Maroon 5 plan to set a course for adventure, proving The Love Boat's eternal maxim: something for everyone.
Jam Cruise co-creator Mark Brown came up with the idea while on vacation in 2000. "I was on a cruise ship in St. Martin, and I saw these amazing venues, a place for a stage on the pool deck — except I had nothing in common with anyone onboard," he says. "But it had all the infrastructure that we needed to put a festival together."
For a lot of cruisers, opportunities to interact with their musical heroes are the trips' highlights. This year, the Disco Biscuits' bassist Marc Brownstein hosted bingo night, and String Cheese Incident drummer Michael Travis led a scuba-diving expedition. Fans and musicians are even invited to play together in a designated "Jam Room." For many, though, casual encounters are most memorable. "You're in line waiting for food, and you look over and there's Bela Fleck getting orange juice," says Umphrey's McGee guitarist Brendan Bayliss, who joined two members of the Disco Biscuits in a Beatles/Pink Floyd cover band. "There's something going on around every corner."
On the first Jam Cruises, drug policies were lax and promotions for the cruise included sly messages like "Anything's possible in international waters!" The no-holds-barred atmosphere changed after last year's cruise, when twelve passengers were arrested for drug possession as they boarded the boat in Florida.
"This year, we let the passengers know that there's pretty much zero tolerance for it," says Brown, who admits that drug use is inevitable, but that passengers got the message to be discreet. "We just can't tolerate it if we're going to be able to do these for years to come." And as the cruises have become more popular and expensive, the crowd has gotten older and a little more sedate. "It cuts out some of the bands' typical audience," Bayliss says of the cruise's $1,300 price tag. "You won't have people selling grilled cheeses to get money to get on the boat."