Originally published on http://blurt-online.com/
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Cayamo. The word itself conjures up a celebratory sound. It even leaves a rather indulgent impression, especially if said in the midst of a chorus of fellow revelers. Cayamo! Witnessing it firsthand, it becomes a veritable call to party hearty. CAYAMO!
That was certainly the case most recently as the fourth Cayamo cruise embarked from Miami, setting its sites for the Caribbean. Yet, it wasn't the destination that mattered; rather it was the journey to get there. Ensconced onboard, in the midst of over 2,000 partying passengers, were nearly three dozen of the finest Americana artists modern music has to offer, much less the finest contingent of musicians one will ever find on the high (at times) seas. BLURT was fortunate to be there for the third year in a row, documenting all the high (at times) lights over the course of an entire week. BLURT's own participation in a pair of seminars is also duly noted during the course of these proceedings, but it's the artists themselves, both singularly and in a seemingly unending parade of guest appearances and cameo occasions, that make Cayamo the most exhilarating experience a music lover could ever wish for.
To overuse a tired cliché, it rocked! Then again, words, ordinary or otherwise, don't do this event justice. Nevertheless, we'll try. What follows then, is our day-by-day rundown of Cayamo 2011.
[Ed. note: to see our photo gallery from the 2011 Cayamo! please go here.]
DAY ONE, Sunday, February 13
The first introduction to any cruise is always somewhat disconcerting. There's much to learn about the ship's layout, and this year it was especially challenging as the ship of choice had changed to the Norwegian Pearl after the last couple of years spent on Norwegian's Dawn. With a music cruise as intensive as Cayamo, however, preparation becomes even more of a necessity; since several concerts occur simultaneously, it's essential to thoroughly plan a personal schedule so that one can catch as many acts as possible, while contending with conflicting performances at the same time. Some of the shows are set in stone; each passenger is given assigned seating to one of three main stage shows that take place every night in the Stardust Lounge, an onboard theater with a seating capacity in excess of 1,000. In addition, there are special "hot seats" that allow a repeat ticket to one of the headliner shows with upgraded seating. Plus, the special alumni perks allow entrance into special performances that are apart from general admission. The opportunity to trade tickets made this location the most flexible of all in terms of planning a course of concert action, and passengers posted notes at a central bulletin board offering to exchange tickets for a show more to their liking.
In general however, Cayamo cruisers are responsible for setting up their own schedules, and in our case that often meant darting madly between shows on the pool deck, in the atrium, in Bar City, the Bliss Lounge and more consistently, the Spinnaker Lounge, where the majority of the must-see acts made repeat appearances. The latter venue often became a particular challenge; with an array of artists that included Richard Thompson, Loudon Wainwright, Allison Moorer, Scott Miller, Works Progress Administration, Ellis Paul, Shawn Mullins, Lucy Wainwright and ex-Men at Work mainstay Colin Hay, demand often exceeded seating capacity. Some shows were wisely moved; tickets to Loudon Wainwright stretched from deck five to deck 13 at one point, but nevertheless, the rule of thumb was first come, first served, and grab your seat as quickly as possible when inside.
Once the boat set sail, the music began in earnest. Shawn Mullins, a perennial Cayamo favorite, kicked things off on the pool deck with a set of songs that included highlights from his excellent new album, Light You Up. The crowd, already stoked, greeted the set warmly, and when Brandi Carlile, another icon adored by the Cayamo crowd, made the first of several cameo appearances, the audience predictably roared its enthusiasm
Later, it was off to Bar City (a strange name for a lounge, I reckoned, in that this particular city had no police or fire department or other internal governmental workings as far as I could see) to catch a talkative and charming Lucy Wainwright with a special guest appearance by dad Loudon, followed by Shannon Whitworth, one of the more promising newcomers on the cruise. The night ended with a performance by Work Progress Administration, or WPA, the indie super group that made its bow on Cayamo 2010 with mainstays Glen Phillips (Toad the Wet Sprocket), Sean Watkins (Nickel Creek), and Luke Bulla (Lyle Lovett). As a bonus, last minute special guest Dan Wilson sat in and played a couple of his spectacular songs as well. It made for a perfect cap on a day that was exceedingly satisfying, to say the least. Astonishingly, this was only day one!
Star sightings: Richard Thompson, with wife Nancy Covey, standing idly by during the boarding ritual; the aforementioned Glen Phillips, chatting at the service desk onboard; and Shawn Mullins, responding to a fan's inquiry about his general state of being by affirming, "Man, I've had a great year!
DAY TWO, Monday, February 14
Being Valentine's Day -- by any standard, an ideal day to cruise and listen to music -- the ship was festooned with streams of hearts and plenty of references to romance as well. I co-led a seminar on pop music's greatest love songs, sharing the spotlight with another journalist and playing samples of songs that we felt fit the occasion. My choices included Van Morrison's "Have I Told You Lately," the Beatles' "Here, There and Everywhere," "To Love Somebody" by the Bee Gees and "Unchained Melody" from the Righteous Brothers. I worried that my selections might seem a bit pedestrian to this sophisticated crowd of music aficionados, but when my partner offered Olivia Newton John's "I Honestly Love You," I figured my own hipness factor couldn't take too bad a beating. In truth, she did trump me with a song from Ani DiFranco and this very cool band from Seattle whose name I can't recall. She also knew how to program her music via IPod while I was forced to rely on a mix CD. Hey, just saying the words "mix CD" makes me feel kinda cool anyway.
Besides, by this point, everyone was in ecstasy, not the least of which the stars themselves. "It's invigorating to play for so many new people," remarked David Ryan Harris, a supremely gifted singer/songwriter and another holdover from a couple of years before. "It's also great to just sit and watch the other artists and be a fan. It's great to be stuck on a boat and casually observe all these other artists I love and respect."
Sam and Ruby, first time performers on Cayamo, echoed Harris' enthusiasm. "I can do this!" Ruby affirmed. "It's like band camp. You make friends right away and they become friends for life."
Much of the afternoon was spent crowded into the Bliss Lounge with several hundred other new friends, witnessing the end of Kevn Kinney's set as he sang, "This one's kinda like you... A little bit lost, a little bit blue." With his cowboy hat, hefty girth and long black hair, he created the impression of the stereotypical cosmic cowboy, but his amusing stories suggested he could also be everybody's best buddy if they and he were so inclined.
Scott Miller and Will Hoge, two excellent Tennessee singer/songwriters shared the stage next, swapping songs and stories for a session recorded for World Café. Both men boast a terrific catalogue of original material, and a good reservoir of wit as well. Miller, who is originally from Virginia, remarked that his wife is from neighboring West Virginia, adding, "When you get married you always have to give something up. In my case, it was half my jokes." However, despite his jocular personality, Miller's songs are infused with heartrending pathos, particularly "Lo Siento, Spanishburg, West Virginia," a tale of transformation in small town America, and "Freedom's A Stranger," an affirmative anthem even the Boss would likely love to call his own.
Our first show in the Stardust occurred that night, with John Prine taking the spotlight, accompanied at one point by the ever-present Brandi Carlile. Looking older and grayer than I had recalled, he nevertheless put on a great show, with the weary ballads "Angel from Montgomery" and "Hello In There" providing the emotional highlights. The crowd roared its approval, fully cognizant of the fact that they were witnessing a venerable old master at work.
Ellis Paul, up in the Spinnaker, provided another tender touchstone, his expressive vocals and tight two-piece backing band adding poignancy to a remarkably revealing set of songs. Damn if I didn't have tears welling up in my eyes from the first song on. The man's a treasure, as surely as James Taylor or Jackson Browne, and one can only hope someone recognizes that fact and clears him a passing lane on the road to the big time.
Keith Sewell, another one-time member of Lyle Lovett's touring band and a former foil to Ricky Skaggs, provided the musical nightcap with a rousing set of Bluegrass revelry. "Man, this is the best festival in the U.S.," he proclaimed. "Hell, it's the best festival in the world!"
We couldn't agree more.
Star sightings: Hanging with my new best friend Scott Miller, introduced in absentia by Mic Harrison, a Knoxville pal and Scott's onetime band mate in the late, great V-Roys.
DAY THREE, Tuesday, February 15
There was clear indication that overindulgence has already set in. My wife Alisa and I spot a semi familiar face on the stairwell. "You were terrific yesterday," Alisa enthuses. He thanks us and scurries away as I turn to her and ask, "So who was that?"
"I don't really know," she replied. "He did look kind of familiar though."
I run into the Steep Canyon Rangers at an interview session as they slowly, sleepily drift into the conference room. A group of best buddies who happen to be adept at old fashioned bluegrass, they've become stars of a genre that's become more and more popular with mainstream audiences in the past decade or so, a trend they attribute to the crossover acceptance of artists like Dolly Parton, Elvis Costello, Steve Earle and Robert Plant. The band's own jumpstart to fame and fortune coincided with a fortuitous partnership with Steve Martin, a subsequent world tour and a string of television appearances that has swept them into the late night and early morning talk show circuit over the past several months. Their new album with Steve Martin is scheduled for release in March, and with a cameo vocal by Paul McCartney, it's likely to bring them even more well-deserved attention.
Colin Hay proved a no-show for our interview session when it's disclosed that he's complaining of a stomach ailment and has been confined to quarters. I suppose that made him a Man from Down Under (the weather), although fortunately that would prove momentary.
A few songs with Glen Phillips solo in the Bliss Lounge led into a much-anticipated Richard Thompson show in the Spinnaker, another of the undisputed highlights of both the day and the week as a whole. Droll as always, Thompson charged into a string of classic works from his repertoire - "Misunderstood," "Turning of the Tide," "Walking on a Wire," "Wall of Death," "Feel So Good," "Misfortune," a searing take on "Vincent Black Lightening" and an emotional "Who Knows Where the Time Goes," penned by his late partner in Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny. Once again, I catch myself batting away a glistening tear. Thompson likened being on a boat to a Jimmy Buffett moment, but happily decided a traditional sea shanty will suffice instead.
An hour in and its over, and RT clears the stage for the first formal set by Scott Miller, who, in his usual aw-shucks country boy way, charms the crowd, which is rapidly warming to him after only a couple of songs. "It's one thing to make fun of the beast," he offers as he trades on some homespun philosophy. "It's quite another to try to outrun him." Fortunately, there's no need for any sprinting. By the end of the trip, he will have sold out of all his CDs at the merch store and raised his profile considerably among the Cayamo crowd. I go over to congratulate him afterwards and find him surrounded by admirers, a good thing and well deserved.
We'll take in a double header in the Stardust tonight, beginning with a rousing show by the Indigo Girls, who seem to have brought their own contingent of fans with them. Brandi Carlile makes another obligatory appearance with her two gal pals and they end their set with an anthemic "Galileo." As the fans exit the theater, it's impossible to spot anyone who doesn't have a smile frozen to their face.
Steve Earle follows and he proves as incendiary as ever with a band that includes wife Allison Moorer, dBs drummer Will Rigby and a husband/wife duo dubbed the Mastersons. They offer riveting renditions of "Copperhead Road," "Guitar Town" and the incendiary "The Revolution Starts Now." Yet, despite the high energy, Earle seems notably less insurgent and lots more accessible, casual and almost offhanded. "I've gotten a lot of second chances," he allows.
The night concludes with a hilarious set by a rubber-faced Loudon Wainwright, now moved to the Stardust to accommodate an overflow crowd shut out of his earlier show in the Spinnaker. "I'm Steve Earle's half brother," he declares, eliciting a roar of laughter. He references his role in the film Knocked Up, generating further hysterics when he announces, "You're looking at Katherine Heigl's gynecologist. Man, we just had to do that scene 30 or 40 times." Songs about over enthusiastic fans, prescription medications and the inevitability of aging, as well as ongoing pleas to snatch up his offerings at the merch table provided further reason why the crowd to convulsed with laughter. Wainwright redefines the entire concept of being laugh out loud funny.
Star sightings: None today really, but after colliding with waiters repeatedly for days, I actually witnessed two servers crashing into one another. Still, I love those guys and gals. The plea for "washy washy" as they sprayed my hands with disinfectant is destined to become my mantra.
DAY FOUR, Wednesday, February 16
We make landfall in Tortola, take a wonderful private tour, briefly hit the beach and enjoy a relaxing lunch before making our way back to the ship. We miss sets by Will Hoge and the now fully recovered Colin Hay, but do make our scheduled show with Brandi Carlile in the Stardust. Sixthman's head honcho Andy Levine, the founding father of the company that launched these theme cruises some ten years prior, intros her with a cryptic reference to her unbecoming behavior that afternoon, suggesting that her return next year may be in doubt. The crowd's baffled, being that she's been a Cayamo staple since the beginning. Nevertheless, there's growing suspicion it's all an inside joke, and as she takes the stage following a thunderous drum solo, she's clearly nonplussed about any idea of a conflict. As always, she incites the crowd with her rock ‘n' roll posturing and proves herself the ever-enduring star. She then briefly turns the stage over to "The Twins," the gawky, baldheaded Hanseroth brothers who are at the core of her backing band. They perform a note perfect rendition of "Sounds of Silence," after which Brandi asks, "Isn't that the creepiest, most beautiful thing you ever heard." The audience roars in agreement.
We catch a reprise of WPA in the Spinnaker and stick around for Kevn Kinney's Truck Stop, which, its banner aside, proves to be a surprisingly tender slate of rotating performances from Will Hoge, Shawn Mullins and Ellis Paul. By now it's late, and after an active day of sightseeing, we're clearly ready for bed. But what a way to wrap things up!
Star sightings: Brandi Carlile on her way to an excursion, holding her niece's hand; and Dan Wilson, unrecognized until it was too late, as he hurried off to catch a tour bus. Also, chats with Ruby of Sam and Ruby, and the ever-amiable David Ryan Harris.
DAY FIVE, Thursday, February 17
The morning arrives in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, and we awake early to catch a catamaran for some sailing and some soaking up the sun. An abundance of rum punches makes us oblivious to the sun's rays and I return to the ship looking like a lobster. I'm not bothered by it at all - at least not at this point - and opt to catch the Celt combo Enter the Haggis, who are stirring up a storm on the pool deck. Indeed, the waves are rising and the boat is rocking - literally as well as figuratively. Patty Griffin, the evening's headliner, makes note of the rolling motion during her set that night, declaring, "If I fall over, I'm going to keep on singing." Having just been accorded a Grammy the previous Sunday, she doesn't allow her serious stature to get in the way of some silliness. "Whenever I find myself in a precarious situation," she says, referring to the tossing and turning, "I find it helps if you just go ‘wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee'." The crowd takes the cue, and from that point on, her show is punctuated by "wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeee's" throughout.
Exhausted, we opt for an early evening retreat. But the ocean keeps on pounding.
Star sightings: Steve Earle and Allison Moorer having lunch with baby John Henry at the next table. They took turns taking their meal from the buffet line, but when the baby starts getting antsy, they opt to leave. "The baby tells us when it's time to go," Earle explains. Also sighted: Luke Bulla, on our sailing excursion, accompanied by a lady friend who kindly buys Alisa a drink; and Sam, of Sam and Ruby, who's made his way over to the beach and now wonders how he'll get back to the ship. Take the catamaran back with us, I suggest. "I'm not brave enough to be so bold," he replies. Presumably, he got back safely anyway.
DAY SIX, Friday, February 18
Or maybe not. Sam was to have been the special guest for my Bob Dylan seminar this afternoon, which would find him strumming his guitar and doing a Dylan song. Then again, the seasickness bags that draped the entrance to the elevators was not a good sign so he could have been a casualty of the motion. The waves rocked the boat and the passengers were finding it hard to keep their balance... and in some cases, their meals. Fortunately, nobody lost their lunch during my presentation or I might have taken it personally. Of course, encapsulating Dylan's 50-year career into less than an hour of talk time is a major challenge, but the crowd seemed pleased. I was stopped several times by those who had attended my seminar, and I got to stretch my fifteen minutes of fame throughout the rest of the cruise. For once, people weren't gawking only because my fly was unzipped. Heck, I even got to sign an autograph. (Note to editor: I also got in plenty of plugs for our beloved BLURT.) [Ed. note: Ya done good, kid. You can keep your job for another year.]
One perk of doing a presentation in the Spinnaker was the assurance of great seats for the concert that followed, which happened to be by none other than Allison Moorer. With hubby Steve Earle's band in tow, she put in a blazing set that included the stunning "Alabama Song," Crows" and "Hard Place to Fall." As Earle waited in the wings, she clearly couldn't help engage in a bit of one-upmanship. Recalling her Oscar nomination for her contribution to the soundtrack for The Horse Whisperer soundtrack, she noted that at the time they weren't married. "Who's that little bitch?" she remembers him saying. "He's still waiting on his nomination," she said ruefully, and with no small amount of glee.
Other shows of note that day included a now fully recovered Colin Hay, accompanied by his wife and the Steep Canyon Rangers for some stripped down renditions of his newer songs, as well as old Men at Work standards. Chuck Canon proselytized in Bar City, singing, "God doesn't hate Muslims, God doesn't hate Jews, God doesn't hate Christians, but we all give God the blues." A second Steve Earle show, possibly even more stirring than the first, followed in the Stardust. A reprise of Shawn Mullins took place soon after. The evening was capped by Buddy Miller, a Cayamo constant, accompanied by a band that featured Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars on drums, Joel Guzman on accordion and the lilting harmonies of Patty Griffin.
Star sightings: Seeing Loudon Wainwright in the Stardust, I jokingly mentioned to him that I was also his biggest fan, but I wouldn't harass him like the stalker in his song. I also got opportunity to speak with Will Rigby, who not only graced me with my first autograph of the cruise, but also promised that a new dBs album would make it way to store shelves by year's end.
DAY SEVEN, Saturday, February 19
The last day of any event, especially one as grand as this, is always bittersweet. Knowing that in 24 hours, you'll be back to an ordinary life, bereft of the camaraderie of the other Cayamo passengers, the magic of the music and the superb hospitality afforded by the Sixthman staff, makes a return to reality all the more difficult.
Fortunately, our final day was a full one, beginning with an afternoon spent at the beach at Norwegian's private island, Stirrup Cay. The music was, as usual, plentiful that evening as well, particularly the pair of Alumni Shows that began with the teaming of Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright, who were cleverly billed for the occasion as "Loud and Rich." The duo leaned heavily on covers - "You Ain't Going Nowhere," Sloop John B," and "Love Hurts," which Loudon introduced by remarking, "Now that Valentines Day is long gone, let's get negative about love." These two were indeed an odd couple, and for their first show ever as a duo, they worked remarkably well together, a kind of musical take on Martin and Lewis as it were. Prefacing one of Richard's songs, Loudon suggested it might be older than most of those in attendance and then asked that the lights be turned up in order to get proof. Seeing the crowd, most of whom were well into their 40s, 50s and 60s, he shrieked with horror. "My people!" he exclaimed. Later, after asking Richard what it was like to meet the Queen, from whom he had received the Order of the British Empire honors, Loudon suggested he'd be lucky to meet the surviving members of Queen.
You had to be there.
We took in a second Buddy Miller show immediately after which Miller, a clear Cayamo Cruise favorite, noting that it had been two years since his heart attack onstage and the subsequent triple bypass surgery which prevented his Cayamo appearance in 2009. He humbly offered thanks for the cards and emails he received from well-wishers and then noted that among those urging his speedy recovery was guitarist Steve Bruton, who sadly succumbed to cancer only a short time later.
Afterwards, we hightailed it to the Spinnaker for a standing room only performance by Scott Miller. Scott had really worked his way up to the Cayamo hierarchy in a very short time it seemed. There was then a scramble for seats for an encore performance by Richard Thompson, forcing me to sit on the on the floor and crunch myself in a compact position that precluded any possibility of comfort. Midway through, someone whispered, "Lee, behind you," as they prepared to exit and graciously give me their seats. I'm not sure who it was, but if you're reading this - thanks!
Star sightings: There were a plethora of farewells after Thompson ended his set. He autographed my album after I had taken the opportunity to chat with his wife Nancy, who, by the way, organizes Festival Tours, a jolly trip to the U.K. for Fairport Convention's anniversary gigs at the Cropredy Festival. It was also picture taking time with Buddy Miller, who played on Thompson's encore; the aforementioned Mastersons; Cody Dickinson, to whom I paid complements for the North Mississippi Allstars' latest album, and, finally, my new pal Scott Miller, who repaid my affection with a solid kiss on the cheek. The sentiments are mutual, Scott, I assure you.
So that's it. Another year with a wonderful Cayamo adventure. As my friend Dan reminded me on Friday night, there really is no way to aptly describe this cruise to those of have never been on it. I've attempted to do so of course, but if you're swayed at all, I'd also suggest you partake in it yourself next year. As stated earlier, it rocks... even when the seas are calm.
Read more at http://blurt-online.com/