After sell-out sailings in the first two years this year’s cruise saw a switch of both carrier and boats to Royal Caribbean’s Independence of the Seas. With nearly double the number of passengers there was far less artists mingling than was reported in prior years and no formal meet-and-greet sessions aside from a Stephen Marley CD signing. Most artists got on the boat, performed, and then deboarded at the next stop.
Perhaps more problematic was the stage setup. While many music cruises hold their concerts in sit-down theaters, Jamrock features an outdoor stage on the top deck. Unfortunately the pool area used for staging was filled with obstructions and offered a very limited space in front of the stage. Strong rain and winds forced the music indoors for three of the five nights, and while the ship’s theater was a comfortable room with good acoustics it also meant that those who didn’t arrive early were standing in awkward spaces straining to see the entertainers.
After what would be just the first of several lengthy band changes the Zinc Fence Band appeared and started their segment with Kelissa who has a powerful voice and plenty of lyrical fire. Chronixx then played a typically tight set that showcased the remarkable number of strong tunes he’s recorded in a relatively short period of time.
There were plenty of hard-partying passengers on board and they ate up the performance by the king of party dancehall, Sean Paul. While in the past I’ve seen shows where Sean Paul had trouble keeping up with his fast-paced hits and his team of dancers, he seemed much more in synch this time.
The late night sound system dances were held in two venues, the main promenade (which felt like attending a dance in an upscale shopping mall hallway) and an intimate lounge. Legendary New York sound Downbeat the Ruler was playing for fewer than a dozen attendees but that didn’t stop Tony Screw from digging into his crates for some choice cuts which were enhanced by special guest Shinehead.
At dinnertime on Tuesday passengers began appearing in some impressive all-white outfits. But a downpour resulted in a last-minute shift to the indoor theater. Although it caused another late start the sound crew did manage the move the entire production down 13 levels quite quickly.
The night started powerfully with Romain Virgo, who brought along a talented band and his large number of recent hits. The Blak Soil Band ably backed Marcia Griffiths who had the audience rocking with her solo hits, the songs she sang with Bob Marley and a giant “Electric Slide.”
Mr. Vegas closed out the night and along with his dancehall favorites added the gospel of “I Am Blessed” and rocksteady covers like “Girl I’ve Got a Date.” The variety was nice although the covers seemed to result in rushed versions of his own hits like “Miss Someone.”
Wednesday morning the boat docked in Montego Bay. Most passengers quickly decamped for the beach, and given the smells on the boat later that night it was clear that MoBay’s weed hustlers were more than aware that 4,000 reggae fans were spending the afternoon in their city. The stop also provided a chance for Jamaican artists with visa woes to board the ship.
Once again rainy skies forced a move to the theater, with the show starting with two artists who actually can tour the US: Assassin aka Agent Sasco and Sanchez. A late-running dinner caused me to miss most of Agent Sasco. Sanchez’s golden voice and classy stage presence worked well in the sit-down theater environment. (The only hit he skipped was “Frenzy,” and it was notable how the anti-gay themes that dominated reggae a few years back were completely absent all week — minus a single comment from Mighty Crown during the sound clash.)
Whether Jah Cure would even make the boat was the matter of some speculation given his arrest and court appearance in the Bahamas 24 hours prior to his appearance. The charges, which were related to a hotel fight, were dropped, and Cure ended up appearing third rather than closing out the night (one of several unannounced schedule changes which surprised fans). His impassioned set ended with a rousing “Unconditional Love” and proved that if he ever can put his legal woes behind him and earn a US visa he’ll be a top headliner at any reggae event.
Thursday saw the ship dock in Ocho Rios, but heavy downpours meant that few were able to do much exploring of the city. In between showers I was able to patronize the Live Food Lifestyle Vegan Corner, where a fresh salad was a welcome respite from the boat’s poorly executed food offerings.
Some of reggae’s finest veterans were waiting to board when the shipped arrived into Ochi. Once again the show was moved inside. Unfortunately, despite a good young band and a great catalogue Half Pint’s opening set found him in poor voice. Hopefully it was just a cold. A large percentage of the passengers were from Bermuda, and they turned out in force for Collie Buddz.
It had been years since I’d seen Steel Pulse and I was delighted to find that David Hinds and co. are now back to using a real horn section. Hinds was one of the few artists who mentioned the election outcome (Buju Banton’s potential release from prison was a more frequent stage patter topic) and their dub-heavy set addressed racial matters head on with songs old (“Taxi Driver”) and new (“Don’t Shoot (Hands Up, I Can’t Breathe”).
While cruise host Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley was slated to close the evening, it was decided to postpone his appearance a night so he could use the outdoor stage. That meant an earlier start for the sound clash. The ship’s skating rink turned out to be a perfect clash setting thanks to its open floor and a vibe that called to mind the many reggae dances held at Brooklyn’s now-defunct Empire Rolling Rink.
Speaking of Bunji, he opened the final day with a daytime soca set that revealed his strong freestyling abilities.
Once word of the early start spread a larger crowd was on hand for Junior Reid, who deftly mixed hip-hop with conscious roots and some Black Uhuru classics. Mavado’s long set show was popular but failed to include the variety his dancehall peers had offered earlier in the week.
Stephen “Ragga” Marley took things down a notch with a laid-back ska and soul-inflected set that included both his new tracks and some rarely performed selections by his father including “Selassie is the Chapel.”
While the ship was due back in Florida early the next morning a few hardy souls stayed up for one last taste of Shinehead, this time spinning essential rub-a-dub vinyl rarities with his Kingston 12 sound system cohort DJ Papalotl.