John Oates is known for his finely-crafted chart-toppers with Philly soul duo Hall & Oates, but he spent all of last week in a much different capacity on Jam Cruise – as one of the ship’s honored Artists at Large. Now in its tenth incarnation, this year’s Jam Cruise set sail on January 9th from Fort Lauderdale for a week on the high seas, with port stops in Haiti and Jamaica.
On board the 24-hour floating music festival, Oates sat in with a wide range of bands and artists, at times performing cuts from his own catalog while, at others, branching into true improvisational territory. He sat in with revered jammers Umphrey’s McGee, performed with New Orleans royalty in an all-star Sly Stone revue and even played his own Hall & Oates hits with a yacht-rock tribute band. The experience left Oates with a desire to perform on more music-oriented cruises in the future – and to loosen up and jam more often.
“Before I met Daryl [Hall], I was playing guitar for 12 or 13 years,” Oates told Rolling Stone in the ship’s wine bar, shortly after it sailed past Haiti. “Folk, blues, traditional music, ragtime, a lot of stuff. And that music is, as you know, very free and very organic, and that’s really where I come from. I think I brought this more rootsy Americana thing to Daryl’s doo-wop and urban R&B thing. Combining it is really what we are as Hall & Oates. So Jam Cruise is actually a comfortable place for me. My jamming skills and my improvisational skills have improved immensely as I’ve gone more solo, because I’ve had this opportunity. When you jump in the water with these great musicians who are here, they’ve raised the bar on a lot of levels. I feel like I’m a lifelong musician and I have to step it up. It’s a good challenge for me.”
The Sly and the Family Stone tribute featured a lineup whose collective reach includes work with the Rolling Stones, Lenny Kravitz, Galactic and many others. With his Fender Telecaster in tow, Oates soloed on “Family Affair” backed by members of the Neville family, Soulive, Karl Denson, the Lettuce horns and a rotating cast of others from the New Orleans funk community. “I’m a huge Sly Stone fan, so I knew that music going in,” Oates said. “The album There‘s a Riot Goin‘ On is one of the greatest albums of all time.”
More surprisingly, Oates was already familiar with Umphrey’s McGee’s jam odyssey, “Booth Love,” before even getting on board the boat – an unlikely pairing, perhaps, though he’s actually performed it with the eclectic rockers several times before. “They’re one of the most musical bands I’ve ever played with,” he says. “They’re very adventurous, they’re all unbelievable players, and talk about raising the bar – standing next to [guitarist] Jake Cinninger is not easy. He’s a monster.”
While all of Oates’ appearances were enthusiastically received by the sold-out crowd, the most celebrated moment came when he emerged with the Omega Moos, a yacht-rock tribute band consisting of members of Umphrey’s McGee and the New Deal. The side project has always highlighted Hall & Oates material in their sets, and there was no hiding their pure joy as they performed three of those cuts with Oates himself – “Maneater,” “Out of Touch” and “I Can’t Go for That.” Following a rehearsal earlier that afternoon, Oates said, “We’re going to have some fun with it. It won’t sound exactly like the record, but it’s not supposed to.”
In other words, he was really getting into the spirit of the jam ethic. The experience left him wanting to further explore his improvisational chops. “I’ve been asked to do various types of cruises,” he says, having turned down Blues Cruise and others in the past. “They won’t be as much fun as this one, I can almost guarantee you. But I’d like to at least give them a try.”
But first, Oates said, he’s preparing to release a live album this February, recorded at Sirius XM Radio, called The Bluesville Sessions. “It’s basically my blues band’s live set,” he says. After that, he’s looking forward to getting back to what he’s most famous for – structured songwriting. “I don’t know where that writing is going to take me yet,” he said, grinning. “But we’ll see.”