Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise Experience 2016

WTJRC  Roof Top Stage DeckRoyal Caribbean Independence of the Seas Top Deck Stage Photo courtesy of WTJRC

Reggae fans endured several rainy days, almost laughably bad food and a few growing pains on the third edition of the Welcome to Jamrock Cruise. But those who were willing to overlook the glitches were rewarded by a week of almost universally strong full-length sets by artists in a lineup that rivaled that of any land-based reggae festival.

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.

The first night’s departure was delayed due to luggage loading issues. Among those who didn’t get their bags delivered until late in the evening were Chaka Demus and Pliers, who apologized for their lack of stage attire. Although one of the only cruise acts who weren’t working with their usual band, the duo showed that their combination of Chaka Demus’ wordplay and Pliers’ sweet singing is still a potent one as they offered their 80’s and 90’s hits, a few roots covers, Chaka Demus’ 80’s combination with Admiral Bailey “One Scotch” and an extended “Murder She Wrote” which nicely mixed in the riddim-sharing “What A Bam Bam.”

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.

WTJRC 2016

WTJRC Stage Photo: Courtesy of WTRJC

Toots Hibbert WTJRC 2016Toots Hibbert Photo: Noah Schaffer

By the time Toots and the Maytals took the stage the show was running many hours behind and most of the audience had gone back to their cabins. The few who remained were treated to some vintage ska and rocksteady expertly played by many of the same musicians who recorded with Toots in the 60’s and 70’s. The cruise concluded a long year of touring which saw Toots return to the stage for the first time since he was hit by a bottle in 2013. In the interim his voice and gospel-inspired stage presence have only grown stronger.

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.

PictureShinehead photo: Noah Schaffer

Tuesday afternoon saw reggae-themed exercise and yoga classes and the first daytime sets from Hawaii-bred JBoog and an extremely strong live band set from Shinehead, who utilized Dean Fraser and the Blak Soil Band and a jaw-dropping freestyle rapper named Supernatural who made up rhymes about any object that audience members brought to the stage. 

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.” 

Tarrus Riley CHronixx WTJRCTarrus Riley & Chronixx Photo: courtesy of WTJRC

With almost no break Tarrus Riley bounded on stage and didn’t let up for nearly two hours. He paid tribute to his recently deceased father Jimmy with “Love and Devotion.” J-Boog showed up for a duet as did Chronixx on “Gimme Likkle One Drop.” But even those exciting moments were no match for a wedding proposal which was offered — and accepted — on stage during “She’s Royal.”

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.

Bounty Killer WTJRC 2016Bounty Killer Photo: Courtesy WTJRC

The night finished with the two 90’s dancehall giants, Bounty Killer and Beenie Man, each displaying their very different personas. Bounty, who has perhaps mellowed out a bit, pontificated on both political protests and his favorite kinds of gals. The dapper Beenie Man offered one of the most complete performances of the week, drawing from a wide musical palette that included jazz, rock, the soca anthem “Rum & Red Bull” and “Redemption Song” with guest spots from several members of the Marley family. The excellent vibes continued into the night as King Jammy’s sound played the many early dancehall hits that he created.

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.

PictureBunji Garlin photo: Noah Schaffer

The clash pitted defending champs Mighty Crown against three other competing sounds: Tony Matterhorn, Fire Links and King Turbo. It quickly became apparent that while the other sounds were mostly playing their usual dubplates or even just 45s, Mighty Crown had been busy recording a special cruise-related dub plate by every performer who had been on the ship. A massive forward greeted a plate by Bunji Garlin in which he reworked “Differentology” to boast about how when Mighty Crown would meet the other sounds “we throw them overboard.” The other sounds quickly crumbled while the Japanese sound picked up yet another trophy.

Speaking of Bunji, he opened the final day with a daytime soca set that revealed his strong freestyling abilities. 

PictureKabaka Pyramid Photo: Noah Schaffer

With Jr. Gong’s set moved, a new schedule was made up which was only partially publicized. (The ship’s in-house reggae radio station mentioned the change but the PA system announcements gave the old times even as the show was about to start.) That meant that some were unaware that Kabaka Pyramid was starting the night several hours ahead of the printed time. Those who caught wind of the change saw a powerful performance full of his own politically charged material as well as a medley of 90’s cultural deejays like Sizzla and Capleton and an MC battle with a band member.

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.”

That left it to Jr. Gong to finish the night before the largest crowd of the week with his usual hit-packed set plus his new “Nail Pon Cross.” Special treats included his young son singing Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” a cameo from Dean Fraser and the reappearance of Ragga on “Book of Life” and “Could You Be Loved?”.

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.

Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise 2017

Cabins are on currently on sale for the 4th annual Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise 2017 which sets sail November 13 – 18, 2017 onboard the Royal Caribbean Independence of The Seas.  This year presents another outstanding Reggae and Dancehall line-up including Damian “Jr Gong” Marley, Stephen “Ragga” Marley, Sizzla, Jah Cure, Luciano, Freddie McGregor, Stephen McGregor, Chino McGregor, Bounty Killer, Tarrus Riley, Cocoa Tea, Busy Signal, Popcaan, Inner Circle, Richie Spice, Tanto Metro & Devonte, Pressure, Spice, Raging Fyah, and Iba Mahr.  Sound Systems include:  Stone Love, Renaissance Sound, Mighty Crown, Tony Matterhorn, Kingston 12 HI Fi and more to be announced!   

Noah Schaffer is a freelance digital editor/writer/radio producer and Roots/world music writer for  Artsfuse.org in Boston. 
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