Jam Cruise has become one of the pinnacle events of the live music scene. Each winter, the ship departs from Miami, touring around the Caribbean and hosting some of the biggest names in the jam and funk scenes during a weeklong musical celebration. Created by Cloud 9 Adventures, those who have been on the ship are no doubt familiar with Annabel Lukins, a vibrant and captivating firecracker of a woman who flits between sets and serves as the Jam Cruise’s MC and Director of Artist Programming.
Annabel was hired as Cloud 9’s first employee in 2003, helping to grow the company from a small start-up to one of the biggest destination-event producers in the music scene. In addition to Jam Cruise, the company hosts many other multi-day music experiences abroad, including Panic En La Playa, Strings & Sol, Holidaze, and Holy Ship. During this time, Annabel has become a powerful presence in the music industry, boasting close relationships with pretty much any musician you can name in the live music scene and earning herself the title of the “artist whisperer.”
At the end of the month, the fourth-annual Brooklyn Comes Alive will host the first-ever on-land edition of the Jam Room, Jam Cruise’s renowned nightly improvisational session. Live For Live Music got the chance to speak with Annabel. During our conversation, we spoke about Lukins’ history coming up in the music scene, her relationships with artists, Jam Cruise, and what to expect from the upcoming inaugural on-land Jam Room sessions. Read on below!
MLN: You’ve become a prominent figure in the live music scene. Across your career, you’ve done a little bit of everything in terms of marketing, stage management, and more, but seemed to settle into Artists Relations early on.
Annabel Lukins: Yes, I feel that exploring many areas of the business has helped me progress over the years, but taking care of artists is truly my happy place. And after over a decade of holding a title of Director of Artist Relations, I now put “Artist Programming” on my email signature. But really, what is a title? I feel like my personality and strengths have allowed me the luxury to pave my professional path. So what is Artist Programming? I help books the bands and special guests for the events that I have helped build over the years. I also help curate the music schedules.
But my main event—my baby—is Jam Cruise. I’m the cruise director, the Jam Cruise mom, the on-board hostess. I’m Julie McCoy, and if you’re young to know who that is, look it up. I take care of the musicians and serve as the ship’s MC, so I’m the one that the passengers and musicians get to know. I’m always running around 24/7 like a chicken with her head cut off—dancing and fixing problems and making people happy. It is such a joy to be around so many phenomenal people for so many days.
That’s my role on board, but we all wear many hats at Jam Cruise—we’re a small company doing great big things. Being there from the beginning, I have been able to watch Cloud 9 grow. To me, the progression of a successful company is to empower people to support you, and I have an amazing team that knows exactly what to do and possesses skills that I am not as strong at. For example, I hate spreadsheets. I do ’em when I have to, but rest assured I will delegate when I can.
I’m a people person. I can charm the pants off of most anybody. I’ve heard from many, many, many artists that they don’t like to say “No” to me. “Because it’s you, okay.” That is an asset to Cloud 9 and to myself, but don’t ask me to sort a complicated excel sheet. You’ll end up doing it again yourself later and cursing because you actually thought I might be able to handle it. [laughs]
Nigel Hall Serenades & Dances With “Julie McCoy” On Jam Cruise
[Video: Annabel Lukins]
Ming Lee Newcomb: Can you talk a little bit about how you came up in the music industry?
Annabel Lukins: I worked as an intern at PolyGram Records in New York City in college. My job was to call radio stations once a week and make sure they had our artists’ singles in rotation. One day, a memo got sent around saying Steve Miller was coming into the office. At that time in the mid-’90s, Steve Miller’s Greatest Hits was probably one of the most played albums anywhere, and I was a huge fan.
I missed the fine print in the memo that said “Do not approach Steve Miller for any reason.” Actually, I probably saw the fine print. It was hard to miss, because it was apparently bolded and in all caps with asterisks before and after. [laughs] I’m not a great rule follower.
Anyway, I saw Steve Miller coming in as an opportunity to get his signature on my CD. When he walked out of his meeting in the President’s Office, he asked, “Hey, does anybody have a garbage for my sandwich?” I happened to be right there. I grabbed a garbage bin and said, “Here, Mr. Miller. I’ll take this for you.” He said, “Thank you. What’s your name?” I said, “My name is Annabel.” He said, “Hi, I’m Steve.” I said, “I know.” And I said, “Mr. Miller, I’m so sorry. Would you mind signing my greatest hits CD?”
It was like I had kicked a puppy. The entire office like, “Uhhhhh.” They all were shocked that I had blatantly disregarded the memo. I ran down the hall, skipping and smiling, grabbed my greatest hits CD, and he signed it. I possibly got fired after that, but I didn’t care because it was at that moment when I realized that I was comfortable around musicians. It took me a long time and a lot of Grateful Dead and Phish shows before I found my place in the music business, but it was at that time that I knew I was going to make it on some level.
MLN: You’re an example of a woman who’s not just succeeding in the music industry, but who is also thriving. Can you talk a little bit about your experience as a woman coming up in the music industry?
AL: When I was starting, there weren’t many other women to look up to, so my mentors and my influences were all guys. I had multiple experiences with men trying to beat me down, saying “You’re just a woman, and you’ll never make it.” That was just the way I was raised in the business—call it tough love—and I had to seek advice from men on how to be strong. Ultimately, people trying to tear me down only gave me more confidence. Their negative words became words of influence as opposed to insecurities. But, I had to go as low as I possibly could before I could pick myself back up and realize that what they were saying was not true. I stopped being afraid, but I think that you have to be afraid before you learn how to grow.
Now, I try to mentor women that I see potential in and bring them up. I try to teach them everything I learned and everything I know now and send them on their way. I have multiple women that are just crushing it in the music industry, and I am proud to say that I truly helped them achieve their goals and follow their dreams.
MLN: Now, let’s shift to Jam Cruise. Just to have it from the horse’s mouth and for those who might be unfamiliar, what is the Jam Room?
AL: Years ago, members of The New Mastersounds came to us and said, “Jam Cruise is one of the only opportunities we get to see musicians that we love for more than five minutes. We want to play together. Can you give us that opportunity?” So, we created a venue called the Jam Room where we set up backline and musicians could go in and jam with each other. After many years of just seeing who showed up, we decided that finding a host to get the night started was a little more electric, so that’s what we’ve done for many years. It’s great! I choose somebody who can kick it off and then the rest is a free-flowing experience of improvisation that can go in many directions. As we like to say, these are the moments on Jam Cruise that have never before and will never again happen anywhere.
MLN: How is it different from your standard super jam?
AL: The Jam Room is all improvisational music with no rehearsal. Artists can ask other musicians to come in and play with them, but that’s usually the extent of the planning. So while super jams are incredible for people to see different musicians coming together, there’s usually a theme, there’s usually a set list, there’s usually a rehearsal. On Jam Cruise, in the Jam Room, there isn’t. I think that’s why Live For Life Music asked us to help curate the Jam Room at Brooklyn Comes Alive. We can choose hosts, but they’re not going to rehearse or put a setlist together. They’re going to ask people to play and then that’s it. Whatever else happens is up to the universal music gods.
Cyril Neville, Ian Neville, Taz, Nikki Glaspie, Robert Randolph, & Roosevelt Collier – Jam Room – Jam Cruise 2014
[Video: Nunu Zomot]
Ming Lee Newcomb: What are some of your favorite moments or favorite combinations that you’ve seen in the Jam Room?
Annabel Lukins: I’ll tell you one. Ed Williams from The Revivalists asked me to be a Jam Room host. He may be in the jam band scene, possibly a little bit less known than Karl Denson or whatever, but he’s a monster. I knew he’d be good, but I had no idea his session would be that good. It was one of the best Jam Room nights we’ve ever had. And I specifically remember laughing in the Jam Room at four o’clock in the morning listening to these musicians play together in a way that they never had before, thinking to myself, “This is Jam Cruise.” And to this day that Jam Room, it will go down as one of my favorites. Ever.
Let’s see. I can do a couple others too. Whenever Col. Bruce Hampton led, he was amazing. His entire outline of life is improvisational: “Everything is nothing, and nothing is everything.” There was never going to be one single note that was planned. Plus, so many people are attracted to his weirdness. He was barely a human, and so everybody wanted to see what it was like to play with an alien. Made no sense, but made total sense, like you get it, but you’re confused. That’s just who he was. That’s the epitome of the Jam Room.
Then, Nikki Glaspie was also one of my favorites. She completely broke the rules of the Jam Room. She had a setlist, she had a rehearsal. I knew about it, but I didn’t stop her. These Jam Cruise artists are like my children, and I don’t let them get away with a lot. I’m a tough mom, because someone has to keep everybody in line. But, Nikki is such a brilliant musician—I have so much personal and professional respect for her—that I let her get away with the organized Jam Room. And it was so good! So over-the-top good! Mindboggling. She’s so precise, and her ear is truly on another level. It was amazing.
MLN: Can you talk a little bit about what it means to you for this tradition on Jam Cruise you helped foster, the Jam Room, to be taking on its own life off the boat?
AL: Well, honored. Because of the Jam Room and because of Jam Cruise in general, tours and bands have been formed. Two people who are in different bands play together in the Jam Room and then they end up forming their own project or going on the road together.
Also, what is improvisation? How do people benefit from music that is completely unique? It allows people to not only focus and pay attention but also let go. They want to hear every single note, but then, they also want to let the music take them to a place of peace and calm that is completely independent of anything else— they’re just in the moment. You know, we all get so distracted by life. Sometimes being surprised is fun, you know? We know what a lot of pop songs are going to sound like, and, I mean, that’s fine, it’s great. It makes the world go round. But these spontaneous moments are extremely rare and should be cherished.
MLN: How did this partnership with Brooklyn Comes Alive evolve?
AL: I think we all have the same goal, you know? I mean, we live for live music—all of us. People who love Jam Cruise also love your organization as well. It’s funny because when I lived in New York City, I started an email called “The LMA’s” or “The Live Music Addicts”, where I’d figure out what shows were playing in New York City and put a list together. There wasn’t a list server back then; there was barely email. I gathered people’s emails and sent out the calendar of the New York City music shows for the week. I put an asterisk next to the ones that I was going to, which was most of them. And it caught on; everybody asked to be on my LMA list.
I’d either be at Wetlands or the Lion’s Den five days in the week. We all came together and professed our love for live music, and now you guys come in and take it to a whole new level, which is so wonderful. I love reading the articles that you guys write because they’re so filled with passion, like you get it. You’re not news writers—you’re music fans—and it makes a complete difference because you guys live for live music.
MLN: Speaking of relationships, you talked about being called the “artist whisperer.” How have you fostered those relationships with musicians over time?
AL: Well, I look past musicians’ instruments. I connect with their personalities. I find out about their lives. That actually helps me learn more about them as musicians. Why do they play the way that they do? What are the ticks in their personality that influence them to be a certain way? I like to spend time with them outside of the venue. I’m not a person who goes backstage after a show. I wanna go before it starts because that’s when I get to spend time with them. I want to go to dinner with them. I wanna talk on the phone with them.
George Porter Jr. and I have just have an affection for each other that has been nurtured and strengthened over the years—not just on Jam Cruise, but outside of that. Ivan Neville is one of my closest friends, and we talk on the phone all the time and share in the joy of each other’s lives. Anders Osborne is one of my best friends. We met when I was in college. The personal road we have trudged together is intense and beautiful and long-lasting.
Anders Osborne – “Annabel” (written for Annabel Lukins) – Jam Cruise 14
Annabel Lukins: Those are three of them. But then there are people like Tom Hamilton, Marc Brownstein, Aron Magner, Joe Russo, Eric Krasno, Brendan Bayliss. These are people I grew up with at Wetlands. Wetlands was a family, a community. Peter Shapiro and I know each other from high school. We’ve been friends almost longer than he’s been friends with anyone else, so I see him in a different light than others do. To so many people, he’s an icon, but to me, he’s “Shappy”—the Pete Shapiro that I grew up with—and I love and appreciate him for what he’s become and he feels the same way about me.
I put my heart into each person, and I empathize with their stories. Everybody has a story, and I think one of the things with the Steve Miller situation was he’s just a guy that has a story. You’re a woman that has a story, I’m a woman that has a story. Sometimes when people revere these musicians, they put them on these pedestals. They become their idols, which is great, but I really like to get to know musicians as people. We create relationships, community, family. My parents are dead, and my sister lives in New York City. So besides my sister, husband, and daughter, I don’t have much of a family anymore. I need to create my own family, and I do that with musicians—it’s important to me. Somehow, my heart is able to expand in ways that sometimes other people’s aren’t able to simply because it’s hard to be vulnerable. But it’s worth it to put myself out there completely.
MLN: George Porter Jr. is one of the hosts for the inaugural on-land Jam Room session at Brooklyn Comes Alive. He’s been a staple on Jam Cruise for years. You’ve already mentioned him, but can you talk a little bit more about your history with him and his history with the Jam Room?
AL: George has been on almost all of our cruises. He is just one of the most influential musicians in the jam band scene, the live music scene, and the New Orleans music scene. All of these are important to Jam Cruise. He’s one of the forefathers of funk. Who wouldn’t want to play with George Porter Jr.?
So we bring him on and I make him a Jam Room host every year. His sets are some of the most unique ever, because he never, ever asks people to sit in with him. Usually, hosts say, “Hey I’m hosting the Jam Room tonight, you want to come and play?” And they’re like, “Oh yeah, sure I’d love to.” But people just show up because it’s George. He also really never plays a lot of known songs. Songs will develop within the jams, but he doesn’t like the music to stop, whereas sometimes sets will start and stop and start. He likes it to just be a jam, and that’s what it is: that’s the Jam Room.
George Porter Jr.’s Jam Room – Jam Cruise 2014
Ming Lee Newcomb: What about the other Jam Room session at Brooklyn Comes Alive hosted by Karina Rykman and Turkuaz’s Craig Brodhead?
Annabel Lukins: George Porter Jr. represents the New Orleans side of things. For the other session, we were thinking about what other area envelops the vibe of Jam Cruise? Brooklyn, New York. So, we approached Karina Rykman and Craig Brodhead cause we want this other side to be a bit edgier with a little more rock.
Of course, Karina can play with whoever, like Marco Benevento. She is a ridiculous bass player, so vibrant and energetic. Plus, I really wanted to have a female on the team of the hosts, because I thought that was important. It goes back to what we were talking about and the male-dominated music industry. And then, Craig is just a team player. Craig is a great musician, great guitar player. He’s just an all-around positive guy, and he kicks ass. I thought having that rock side of the Jam Room was also gonna be super fun, so that’s why we did that. The rest again will be up to the musical universe.
Karina Rykman Experiment – “Voodoo Lady” Jam – Littlefield – Brooklyn, NY – 12/21/17
[Video: Karina Rykman]
Ming Lee Newcomb: What type of music do you like to listen to personally?
Annabel Lukins: It’s pretty obvious that I’m a jam band girl. However, Bon Iver is one of the most influential artists in my life. I am so emotionally moved by his music and even traveled to his festival in Eau Clair, Wisconsin, by myself on an 18-hour mission where I slept on the floor of the airport. I was 43 years old at the time, so I must really love them to subject myself to airport-floor sleeping at my age. Bruce Hornsby opened for Bon Iver. They have an incredible connection, which I think is wonderful. Bruce Hornsby, Béla Fleck, Phish, and Bon Iver are my favorites. If you want a fifth, you can add the Grateful Dead because if it wasn’t for Jerry Garcia, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
Bruce Hornsby, Justin Vernon, Aaron Dessner, & Brad Cook – “Black Muddy River” – Eaux Claires 2016
[Video: Joel B]
Ming Lee Newcomb: Can you talk about some of your favorite musical moments that you’ve been a part of or that you’ve seen?
Annabel Lukins: This is a very big question. Let’s see. Béla Fleck and Bruce Hornsby did a duet—I think it was in either Fairfield or Hartford, Connecticut, in the ’90s? I was probably in my teens at the time. Seeing them together, just the two of them, playing each other’s songs was a musical highlight of my life. Plus, I was with my father, who really was the catalyst for me falling in love with music.
Another one is Phish at Big Cypress, with them playing all night. I had a really cool and random job so I was able to go backstage. I babysat some of the staff’s kids during the day, but had each night off for the shows! That’s a win-win, right? I remember eating scrambled eggs and french toast at five o’clock in the morning, and it was the best breakfast I’ve ever had. I remember any time I had to go to the bathroom—this was way before cell phones—it was like, “Okay, if I’m not back in 20 minutes, come looking for me.” I remember having a flashlight, stepping over bodies of people that were passed out.
It wasn’t so much about the music as it was about the experience of being there: how fun it was for all of us and how exciting it was to celebrate the Millennium together with Phish playing until 7 in the morning. It was probably one of the best experiences of true freedom.
Phish – Big Cypress
Annabel Lukins: I’ll also add the first Grateful Dead show that I ever went to in ’91. I had gone to Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and chose that school because I had this vision that I was supposed to follow girls and be in the cool sorority. I don’t think in my heart that I wanted that life, but I didn’t know any better—that was just the path that was laid out for me, as far as I knew. It was a rush night in college, and we were supposed to be at all the sororities. This beautiful, tall girl with long blonde hair and tie-dye and Birkenstocks on came up to me and said, “What are you doing tonight?” And I said, “Well, we’re supposed to be rushing.” She said, ” Well do you want to go to a Dead show?” And I was like, “Sure.”
I walked into the Dead show, and I immediately fell to my knees. The first thing I said is, “Where have you people been?” Everything changed at that moment. I never joined that sorority. I never went back to the life that I thought I was supposed to lead. The life I was meant to lead became clear and true for me, and instantly, I was set on a brand new path.
I would also say U2 at Bonnaroo 2017. From the first note, I was instantly catapulted back to my childhood when U2 was one of my favorite bands. They were an anthem for my life growing up. I’ve seen them many times, but there was something about Bonnaroo and U2. I worked at Bonnaroo 16 out of 17 years, and having Bonnaroo get U2 as a band was really special. There’s an expression, “Dance like nobody’s watching,” and I literally had people watching me—because they were feeding off of my energy, because I just was so happy listening to that music in a place that I’m so comfortable in. Maybe that was part of it too: a comfortable band in a comfortable place. It was extraordinary. I’ll never forget it. It was so cool.
U2 – “Beautiful Day” & “Elevation” – Bonnaroo 2017
[Video: Brian Ruschman]
Annabel Lukins: And I have one more. It was September 10th, 2001. We were at Wetlands, and the iconic club was closing in two weeks. Everybody went to Wetlands every night before it closed, because there were special shows created for the final days. That night was Mike Gordon, Stanley Jordan, Warren Haynes, and DJ Logic. We were all there until 4 in the morning. It was an incredible show, but little did we know how much impact that show would have on our lives, because the next morning was September 11th.
We all went home that night, and our friend worked at one of the firms where everyone died—we just assumed he was dead. And because none of us could talk to each other, because there were no landlines, no cell phone, no internet for over a week, we just assumed the worst. The only way we could communicate with each other was to go personally and see each other and connect with each other face to face. There was no public transportation. We were on lockdown. Somehow, the word got out that Garage A Trois was playing at B.B. King’s Blues Club. We—this is the New York City Freaks—all somehow communicated with each other that we were all gonna meet there.
We all went, and in walked our friend Greg! I have chills thinking about this. We all were in complete shock and disbelief—we were so confused. We were all so happy to see each other, we were all so connected. We said, “What happened, you should be dead!” and he said, “I know I should be dead.” He told us that he went home that night at the Wetlands at 4 o’clock in the morning, wrote a note to his boss, and said he was gonna be taking a half day. His life was literally saved by rock and roll, and so are all of ours.
The fourth-annual Brooklyn Comes Alive is set to host the first-ever on-land edition of Jam Cruise‘s famed Jam Room. The festival will return to Brooklyn’s beloved Williamsburg neighborhood on September 29th for an all-day music marathon at Brooklyn Bowl, Music Hall of Williamsburg, and Rough Trade. Inspired by the vibrant musical communities of Brooklyn and New Orleans, Brooklyn Comes Alive brings together more than 50 artists, allowing them to carry out passion projects, play with their musical heroes, and collaborate in never-before-seen formations. For more information, ticketing, and to see the full schedule for Brooklyn Comes Alive 2018, head to the festival’s website here.
Brooklyn Comes Alive is sponsored by Denver-based company, Pure CBD Exchange, which creates and sells a number of CBD/cannabidiol products (What is CBD?) from concentrates, tinctures, extracts, lotions, creams, and more. The use of CBD has gained much notoriety as of late, for use as both a health and wellness supplement and to treat conditions such as epilepsy, PTSD, cancer, and a number of mental disorders and is also used for anti-inflammation, nausea reduction, sleep aid, and more. Pure CBD Exchange was co-founded by Gregg Allman Band organist/keyboardist and Brooklyn Comes Alive musician Peter Levin back in 2017.
Pure CBD Exchange focuses on low-THC cannabis products with high CBD content. They work within the Colorado Industrial Hemp pilot program to distribute non-psychoactive tinctures, extracts, lotions, and more all over the world. The company has featured by companies like VICE, High Times, Leafly, and more.