AMERICANA RULES THE WAVES Cayamo Cruise 2010

A recap of all the musical
goings-on, brought to you from somewhere between Miami
and Costa Mayan Mexico.

 

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

 

This year’s cruise
(Feb. 21-25) included Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Brandi Carlile
and John Hiatt… and those were just the headliners. The support acts would
likely be considered first tier anywhere else – especially when the names
include Robert Earl Keen, Buddy Miller, WPA, Darrell Scott, Shawn Mullens, Vienna Teng, Edwin
McCain, Stephen Kellogg and Rachel Yamagata. Clearly, we’re already breathless
with anticipation. As Darrell Scott would remark later during his opening night
set, “If this festival was held on land, it would be the best ever.”

 

Day 1: Sunday,
February 21, 2010

 

My wife Alisa and I meet our friend Dan and his bevy of four
beautiful young women who have gathered at his apartment after winging in to Miami from various far-flung locales – Colorado,
Oregon, Arizona
and Las Vegas.  I’m immediately impressed; Dan’s gathered quite
an impressive crew of traveling companions, and the fact that he’s a single guy
immediately draws on a scenario remarkably similar to that cheesy reality show,
“The Bachelor.” Still, I’m a married guy, and in the first feat of endurance
I’ll endure in day one, I attempt to refrain from any action that can be deemed
as being flirtatious, at least in Alisa’s eyes. On the other hand, sucking in
my gut seems somewhat mandatory. If you’ve started to keep score, those would
be today’s first and second concession to self control.

 

Dan and one of his guests grab a ride from a friend, leaving
Alisa, three of the other girls and me, the sole remaining male, to take a cab
to the port of embarkation. No sooner do we arrive than we find ourselves
embroiled in a crisis. It seems Alisa has left her make-up bag back in the car
which we’ve parked at Dan’s condo. Because we’re talking women’s make-up here,
any decision I’m mulling about whether or not we need to go back to retrieve it
quickly becomes a moot point. The girls disperse and Alisa and I jump back in
the taxi to retrieve the precious cargo.

 

Fortunately, Dan’s apartment is nearby. Unfortunately,
however, a simple $18 cab ride has escalated in cost to well beyond that
otherwise reasonable figure and is now closer in proximity to $50. Obviously –
and reasonably – Alisa foots the cost.

 

Arriving back at the port, we quickly join a burgeoning line
of passengers waiting their turn to go through security. We’re handed health
questionnaires asking for two bits of information in particular – have we
experienced any severe flu like symptoms in the past 24 hours – specifically
uncontrolled bouts of diarrhea – and have we had any up close and personal
encounters with anyone claiming to have swine flu… as if someone would approach
us and happily announce, “Hey, guess what, I have the desly and contagious
swine flu! Now give me a big wet kiss!”

 

Naturally, the answer would be a resounding ‘no’ to both,
even though admittedly, I’m trying to repress a cold and I’m gripped by sniffles.
However, Alisa, for whatever reason, answers ‘yes’ to both. Fortunately, I
catch the error in enough time so as to avoid being quarantined. Acts of self
control three and four then follow, three being the fact I restrain from
telling Alisa she needs to start paying closer attention (in which case she’s
likely blame it all on me and embarrass me in front of everyone in the queue)
and four, my need to refrain from sneezing so that the security folks don’t
actually think there’s a guy on board who’s going to infect the entire ship
with some ghastly malady.

 

Luckily, fate seems to be on our side. A short time after
we’re checked in, the computers go down and there’s an hour delay in boarding
for those behind us.

 

As we make our way onto the
ship, we’re greeted by high-fives from Andy Levine, the head of Atlanta’s Sixth Man
organization, under whose auspices Cayamo and several other music-themed
cruises operate. Andy, always an amiable fellow, engages in a brief exchange
over the current pronunciation of ‘Cayamo’ – whether its ‘KUY-YAMO’ or
‘KAY-YAMO.’ “Why don’t you just call it ‘Fred’?” I suggest. Okay, not very
funny, but it does elicit a chuckle.

 

 

As anyone who’s ever taken a
cruise before well knows, two of the biggest lures are the abundance of food –
which in my case will further hamper any ability to suck in my gut in front of
Dan’s friends – and all the friendly folks from various Third World countries
whose only aim in life seems to be welcoming the guests and appealing to them
to have the vacation of a lifetime. We quickly indulge their desire by
attacking the buffet line which offers an otherwise unwieldy combination of
carved roast beef, hot dogs, sushi, pizza and various international fare. And
that’s just the appetizers! My plate alone would likely feed half of a small
Asian nation.  What the heck – it’s a
whole hour and a half until dinner.

 

 

Oh yeah – there’s music
too!  We make our way to the atrium to
catch the final couple of songs from Edie Carey, a sensitive singer/songwriter
type whose mournful repertoire seems a somewhat curious way to kick-off the
festivities. We’re much more enthralled by Katie Herzig, who we initially
encountered on last year’s cruise.  Her
music is instantly infectious, a combination of winsome material and a pliable
vocal that propels her sweet melodies ever upward and makes them worthy of some
clapping along.

 

 

Katie’s set finishes just in
time to scurry to our cabins where we find only one or our four pieces of
luggage have made it to their destination. It’s curious, we think. All of our
suitcases were handed to the porter at the same time. Was my blue bag separated
from the others due to bad behavior? 
Suddenly we grow concerned about the fate our missing possessions.
Clearly, a tie-dyed tank top and green cargo pants aren’t going to be enough to
sustain my wardrobe throughout the duration of this cruise. There are rock
stars onboard! I gotta muster up some cool!

 

 

Still, there’s no time to ponder
that notion. It’s time for the mandatory safety drill, the purpose of which
seems to be watching fellow passengers lose their way to their assembly
stations, giggling at how silly they look in their lifejackets, and watching
while the crew patiently attempt to keep their charges from strangling
themselves with the safety straps. Quite an educational experience indeed. We
do, however, meet our neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Judge, he being the CFO
of our much beloved Blurt.  CFO in this case, stands for “Cash For
Others.”  In other words, he’s the guy
who decides whether there’s enough cash in the coffers to pay humble writers
like myself. I immediately come to the uncontestable opinion that Stephen is a
guy I oughta be nice to.

 

 

After fulfilling our obligation
to look like total boobs in front of the crew, we scurry to the Spinnaker
Lounge to catch the first in a series of showcases. Spinnaker, of course, is
nautical speak for “Scramble to find the best seat even if you have to climb
over other passengers and spill your beverage on them as the venue in general
admission, so good luck in finding two seats together.” Or something like that.
Fortunately we manage to plant ourselves on stage left in anticipation for
Glenn Phillips’ lead-off set. Phillips, formerly of Toad the Wet Sprocket, is
now affiliated with an indie super-group of sorts, WPA, but here he’s offering
his only solo show of the cruise. A self-effacing master of instantly
infectious melodies, Phillips has a lot of fans in the audience, all of whom
indulge him as he tries desperately to keep his guitar in tune and not stumble
over his lyrics.  Clearly, any missteps
only add to his charms.

 

 

By contrast, Darrell Scott shows
himself to be something of a perfectionist, given his nimble guitar playing and
equally adept keyboard work. Singing in a soulful croon, he parlays an
affecting blend of blues, ballads and an occasional cover via Johnny Cash’s
mournful “I Still Miss Someone.” By now, I’m in a sleep-like state, but the
music transcends my sudden exhaustion and sends me soaring with elation.

 

Still, we opt to forego Shawn
Mullins’ set for now and head up to our cabin for a quick nap. It’s nearly 9:00
when we awake. After a quick but satisfying meal, we hurry to the Stardust
Theater, the ship’s major venue, for our 10:30 headliner show by John Hiatt. We
arrive on time only to discover the concert is delayed an hour – to 11:30 to be
precise – due to a back-up in the show schedule, which in turn, can be traced
to the delay in boarding caused by the computer breakdown earlier. Stephen
decides he’s too exhausted to stay awake during the gig, but Alisa and I
venture on, consoled by the fact we had a nap earlier in the day. We’re
rewarded by a superb performance, one which finds Hiatt’s vocal — as rich and
pliable as molasses — intoning a generous array of his standards – “Master of
Disaster,” “Perfectly Good Guitar,” “Drive South” et. al. interspersed with
selections from his brilliant new album, The
Open Road
. Equally entertaining are Hiatt’s rubbery facial expressions
which only seem to accentuate his deadpan humor.  “Thanks for staying up late,” he says. “I
know it’s past your bedtime.” As the show coincides at 1:30 AM, we know its
past ours. We head to our cabin and collapse. 
Day number one of Cayamo cruise 2010 has come to an overdue conclusion.

 

 

 

Day 2: Monday, February
22

 

Okay, so I’m exhausted.

 

For good reason too. Day Two of Cayamo has consisted of both
a frantic afternoon and evening. Sure, this is a plum assignment, but being
onboard a luxury cruise liner, stuffing oneself in the buffet line and then
attempting to muster up the dexterity to dash back and forth between shows in
various venues can be demanding. For all Cayamo offers – and trust me, it
provides an abundance of riches for the true music enthusiast – it is not all
that relaxing.  Taking advantage of all
the music requires a great deal of planning and strategizing in order to catch
every performer that’s worth seeing – and frankly, that’s the great majority of
them. Consequently, the exertion in terms of sheer brainpower – something yours
truly isn’t always adept at – is enough to send one’s energy level into
overdrive.

 

Trust me on this too – providing these daily blogs means a
certain dedication to a strict work ethic, all in the name of reporting an
accurate assessment of the day’s activities. So the first order of business
this morning is meeting with our press rep/camp counselor/sometime baby sitter,
Becki Carr, who does a fantastic job of steering half a dozen befuddled
journalists through a course of action. For example, were it not for Becki and
my wife, Alisa, these blogs might not even get posted. There are technical
difficulties galore when it comes to trying to get an email connection from a
ship, including all kinds of limitations that I couldn’t begin to explain…
except to say one when one forgets his user name on his personal email account,
all the miracles of cyberspace suddenly fall by the wayside.

 

The first music of the day comes
courtesy of a special “alumni show” featuring a one-off duo acoustic
performance with Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt. While the two trade songs back and
forth, it’s their natural rapport that strikes the most distinctive chord. As
someone would say later, the two may have invented an entirely new
entertainment genre called “sit-down comedy.” 
It goes something like this:

 

Hiatt: “We don’t know what we’re
going to play.”
Lovett: “I was trying to guess what you were going to play. I’ve guessed, but I
won’t be able to tell you if I’m right until later.”

 

Okay, maybe you had to be there.

 

Nevertheless, the patter isn’t preplanned,
although having just returned from a joint European tour the two mean have
apparently sharpened their skills when it comes to trading zingers… and compliments.

 

Hiatt: “Did you have a good time?”
Lovett: “I had a good time because of you. You’re a very nice fellow!”

 

Suffice it to say, the deadpan
sentiment likens the duo to a kind of accidental Smothers Brothers.
Consequently, as the crowd files out of the theater, most declare it to be one
of the best showcases of the cruise thus far.

 

The afternoon is dedicated to getting up close and personal
with several of the headliners via World Café sessions that are being taped for
replay in early April, followed by mini press conferences attended by the
artists and the small contingent of journalists onboard. They provide not only
an ideal opportunity to ask probing questions like “So, Emmylou Harris, what is
your favorite item in the buffet line?” or, “Hey, John Hiatt, did you ever get
so seasick you actually barfed from the pool deck?”  I’m joking of course… it was Hiatt who was
asked the first question and Emmylou the second…

 

Nah, fooled ya again!  Blurt would never give me this big-time
assignment if they had to worry about the kind of questions I was going to ask
the headliners. Then again, my editor probably figured I’d be able to remember
my user name too. 

 

Consequently, what follows are some of the more memorable
random comments of the afternoon:

 

 Alisa (Lee’s wife): “I’m feeling woozy… I have
to get some fresh air.”

Me: “Damn it… I could
swear I knew my user name!”
Alisa: “Gurgle, blurp, garoosh, blech… I may be dying here, but you’re an
idiot!”

 

Oops, I guess I turned my digital recorder on too soon.

 

Fast forward to some of the observations of the artists
involved:

Robert Earl Keen: “Coming from Austin, I had a
fear of Nashville.
But what I am today is a direct result of the experience I gained there.”

John Hiatt: “I don’t write specifically for other people.  I don’t know how. When I’m asked, I always
end up doing poor imitations of other people’s songs.”

Emmylou Harris: “I love Cayamo.  It’s
such a great opportunity to sit in with friends. It’s kind of like a cross
between a festival and a prison break.”

 

Buddy Miller: “I met my wife Julie when I was auditioning
for a band in Austin.
She said, ‘Don’t hire that guy,’ but they hired me anyway.”

Keen: “I don’t mind doing other people’s songs. After all, I didn’t invent
songwriting.  And I’m sure not the only
guy that’s doing this thing.  I just want
to do material I feel really good about.”

Hiatt: “Bring The Family was a
turning point for me. I finally had begun to get sober. I stopped drinking, I
stopped doing drugs and all of a sudden I had a lot of time on my hands. I got
out of my own way. Before, I had zigged when I should have zagged. So I figured
I’d use all that extra time to create.”

 

Harris: “I finally gave myself a raise a few years. It meant
that I could work less and spend more time at home with my dogs.”

Keen: “My favorite writers? Richard Thompson, Loudon Wainwright, Nick Lowe… I’d
have to throw Norman Blake in there too. 
And there’s a new guy I think is really good named Adam Carroll.”

 

Hiatt: “It’s my nature to get restless. I have the
billy-goat syndrome. I always want to know what’s on the other side of the
fence.”

 

Miller: “What makes an album a Buddy record rather than a
Buddy and Julie or simply a Julie album? The fact is, Julie’s slow.  This last record started out as her record,
then it was my record, and then ultimately it became both of our record.”

 

Harris: It’s hard for me to write. I have a terrible fear of
the blank page, but I know I have to get past it.”

 

Keen: “I think it was Emerson who once said, ‘Imitation is
suicide, but self-imitation is worse.”

 

Harris: “When I write a song, it has to pass the truth test.
If I’m writing from personal experience, it has to encompass a situation that
everyone can relate to. The lyrics have to have that truth to it.”

 

Of course, insight is one thing, but the music also has to
speak for itself. 

 

The three shows we saw later that evening provided proof of
that point. Buddy Miller with Emmylou Harris as a special guest, proved that
the man had lost none of his instrumental dexterity despite being sidelined by
a heart attack and his subsequent triple bypass surgery. “I had no idea what it
involved,” Miller remarked at one point. “I told the doctors, ‘Fine, I’ll have
the surgery, but I have to be back on the bus when it leaves in the morning.'”
Clearly a crowd favorite, Miller swayed the audience’s emotions, not only through
a superb performance, but also in giving them the joy of welcoming him back to
Cayamo after last year’s unfortunate absence. The show was further stoked by a
surprise guest appearance from Shawn Colvin, a featured performer from last
year’s cruise who wasn’t booked for any appearances this year. Nevertheless, by
gracing the stage unexpectedly with Miller and Harris, the Three Girls and
Their Buddy amalgam came just short of a complete reunion.

 

WPA’s performance followed Miller and company in the Spinnaker
Lounge, and the sight of the seven members onstage, including the Watkins duo,
Sara and Sean, and steel guitar player Greg Leisz, elevated Glen Phillips’
already amiable presence to new heights. 
The band’s mix of pop, roots and bluegrass makes for a remarkably
seamless set and yields one sure standard – “Always Have My Love.”  It’s already a song on which they could rest
their reputation.

 

Finally, we capped our evening with Emmylou Harris’
headlining gig in the Stardust Theater. The ever-faithful Buddy Miller provided
an ethereal ambiance, with songs such as “Pancho and Lefty,” “Red Dirt Girl,”
and “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight” generally enhancing the sleepy
haze we were quickly falling victim to. 
Emmylou was superb, of course, but at the end of a hectic, action-packed
day, the mellow vibe was kind of akin to the evening’s last lullaby. Encore
over, we headed straight for bed.

 

 

 

Day 3: Tuesday,
February 23

 

 

It’s gonna be another long day…

 

Try as I may, there’s no sleeping in. For starters, there’s
the booming voice over the intercom that’s suddenly managed to pierce the quiet
sanctity of our stateroom. “Good morning, ladies and gents, and welcome to Belize.”
It’s our cruise director, of course, who I’m convinced they’ve hired due to his
cheery, charming English accent and not because he’s aware that on these kind
of cruises, people like to sleep in late and aren’t especially anxious to hear
a cheery, charming English accent – or any other dialect for that matter — at
eight in the morning. Okay, so going to bed at 12:30 AM the night before hardly
qualifies for any semblance of rowdy, all-night partying… but as far as I’m
concerned, it’s close enough to qualify.

 

Regardless, Alisa is anxious to venture ashore, and our
neighbors, the Judges, are game, so we dutifully shuffle over to the
ever-accommodating buffet line, grab a bountiful breakfast and make our way to
the point of disembarking in order to grab a tender to the mainland. It’s a
little disconcerting that the ship has opted to have a safety drill at the same
time, one that simulates one might happen if suddenly the ship collides with an
armada of Sudanese pirates, but we’re assured that all’s well and Sudanese
pirates rarely, if ever, venture into this part of the world. We do make one
stop on the ship prior, however — that being the spa which Alisa scopes out as
a place of refuge, just in case, said Sudanese pirates do defy the odds and
attempt to take us all hostage.

 

That place is the ship spa (how many times have you read
accounts of pirates coming aboard and demanding anyone remove the hot rocks –
or is it hot coals? – from their backside in order to play hostage. Rarely
happens, right? (Note: I never understood how hot rocks can cure any ills. It
seems like these spas can say anything to that effect, and as weird as it may
seem, still convince their patrons that it would cure their ills. I can almost
imagine that if I go into a spa one day, there will be a sign advertising a
grilled cheese treatment, wherein they put me, the spa-ee, between two giant
pieces of seedless rye bread, pour American cheese over my naked body, and
claim it’s a cure for a hernia.)

 

In this case, the treatment that
draws my attention is acupuncture, which of course is a commonly accepted
medical practice, mostly among people who actually believe it can be painless
to have up to four dozen needles piercing all parts of your body including
certain nether regions that you’re reticent to even touch yourself… in public
that is. (Of course, speaking for myself, no part of my body is off-limits at
this particular time of my life.) Even so, there’s a flyer claims that there
are innumerable symptoms that might make one a candidate for acupuncture,
although one category draws my attention in particular. Should you suffer from
persistent diarrhea, projectile vomiting, emitting noxious fumes and/or gasses,
and a whole list of other stuff I simply couldn’t bring myself to read, you
then are a prime candidate for acupuncture. I mentioned to the spa hostess –
all of whom seem to be oriental and speak slowly and reassuringly – that I
wouldn’t think that sticking needles into any person prone to explode, such as
it were, might be a good idea. Yet, try as I might, I couldn’t get them to see
my point. “These needles are as thin as a hair and they don’t hurt,” one of the
oriental ladies said in that slow, reassuring accent. Okay, whatever, I
conceded, but if I’m getting the treatment and I hear there’s also someone
there who’s come in demanding acupuncture to cure his or her persistent
diarrhea, projective vomiting, or tendency to emit noxious fumes and/or gasses,
I want to be an entire deck – or perhaps entire ship – away.

 

Fortunately, there would be no reason to worry about that
particular dilemma. We were about to face an entirely different paradox on Belize
itself. For those of you who are unaware, Belize
has a number of national distinctions. For one thing, it’s so crammed for space
between Mexico
and Central America, there’s barely enough room to write the word “Belize”
on a map. Seriously though, it boasts a number of national attractions –
historical ruins, lush rainforests, unspoiled beaches. And it has the corner on
the world’s market when it comes to cheap tee-shirts that say “Welcome to Belize”
in 150 different fonts, many of which have yet to be discovered by the outside
world. Unfortunately, the tee-short phenomenon is the only one that we would
personally witness. That leads to our second bit of educational trivia about
Belize… that being the fact that the country’s main industry, which happens to
be pushy cab drivers hustling to convince the tourists that they offer the best
fares when it comes to taking visitors to view the aforementioned treasures —
tee-shirts included.

 

“Hey mon, I’ll take
you wherever you want to go for $10!”

Hey mon, I’ll take you
wherever you want to go for $8!”

“Hey mon, I’ll take
you wherever you want to go for $5!”

“Hey mon, I’ll pay you
– just let me take you wherever you want to go!”

 

By this point, the only place I wanted to go was Detroit.
In fact, I’m convinced that if the U.S. Marines really wanted to train their
recruits effectively, they’d ship them all to Belize,
and force them to run the gamut of pushy cab drivers. Those that made it three
blocks without coming to a complete halt due to being seduced into taking a cab
ride to see the ruins at Mata-Hari, or whatever it’s called, would then be
qualified for combat.  As for us, we
simply lacked the endurance.  We fled
back to the dock to seek the refuge of a local bar and proceeded to learn all
we needed about the country’s economy by consuming their locally brewed bear.
Be assured however, that Alisa and I did get our lesson in international
customs and geography all the same. We consumed said beers with our new
friends, Chuck and Tracy, who happen to hail from Canada.  Having been on cruises before, I’m convinced Canada
is the only place in the western hemisphere where pushy cab drivers are not deemed a national treasure.

 

We had to deal with choices of a different sort later. Our
first concert of the evening, set to take place in the Starlight Theater, the
ship’s main venue, was our “twice as nice” show with Emmylou Harris. This is a
special feature of the Cayamo cruise that allows guest to choose a headliner
show they opt to see a second time… hence the title “twice as nice.” However,
other options awaited, including WPA on the pool deck and Darrell Scott, billed
“With Friends,” back in the Spinnaker. Noting the virtuosity of his performance
on day one, we opted to make our return show with Scott and we weren’t
disappointed. Although two of the three “friends’ turned out to be relatively
unknown – Taylor Bates and Sarah Ample specifically-both offered superb songs
of their own. Luke from WPA rounded out the list of guests and offered a
typically virtuoso performance on fiddle to complement Scott’s nimble
fretwork.  Scott also provided the
audience with a sage piece of advice on the art of songwriting:

“The best songs are the ones that come up and tap you on the shoulder when you
least expect it. We as songwriters need only stay out of the way when the songs
show up. We can’t choose them because they show up in their own time.”

 

After a brief detour to catch the tail end of a set by the
all but unknown but thoroughly captivating Gregory Alan Isakov in the Atrium,
it was back to the Spinnaker for Rachel Yamagata, who proved to be an absolute
hoot as she delighted the crowd by poking fun at her melodramatic muse. She
also offered a choice anecdote on her adjustment to life at sea. “I thought I’d
be able to stick to my normal routine,” she remarked. “So the first day I went
straight to the gym. But when I couldn’t get in, I went straight to the bar and
I’ve been there ever since.”  After what
was intentioned as a sad song about a lost dog – in which Yamagata made scant
attempt to keep a straight face and brought the audience to hysterics as well –
she brought on a parade of special guests, chief among them Vienna Teng and the
seemingly omnipresent Brandi Carlile. “Brandi used to open for me,” Yamagata commented. “Now
she’s a big rock star and I’m singing sad songs about lost dogs.”

 

Nevertheless, Yamagata and her trio brought the house
down.  “Thank you for choosing me over
Lyle Lovett,” she said to the crowd before making her departure.

 

The biggest surprise of the evening was the Canadian husband
wife-duo, Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland. Offering up a flexible
combination of angular blues, sassy jazz and heart-tugging ballads, the two
gave a dazzling performance magnified all the more by Luke’s shredding guitar
licks and ample use of the whammy bar to create some of the most impressive
sonic motifs heard thus far. His licks explore unexpected realms – erratic,
unpredictable, and seemingly out of sync with the melody and yet wholly appropriate
at the same time.  Ending with a
beautiful ballad bearing the refrain, “I adore you,” it was enough to bring a
drinking man to tears. Or in my case, even one who casually imbibes.

 

It was then time to dash downstairs to the Starlight for the
solo set by Steve Earle. Unsure as to the nature of his personality or the
state of his mood, the crowd held their collective breath as Earle made his way
to center stage. He turned out to be quite the showman, regaling the crowd with
a mix of self-effacing humor, autobiographical anecdotes and political
potshots.  The music itself was
mesmerizing; with Earle accompanying himself on guitar and occasional mandolin,
he turned such classic tracks as “I Ain’t Never Satisfied” and “Coppertown Road”
into communal sing-alongs and a general sort of soul revival.  Referring to his latest album, a tribute to
his famous compadre Townes Van Zandt, Earle remarked, “I first met Townes when
I was seventeen and I thought it was the most amazing thing ever.  I’m 55 now and I still think it was the most
amazing thing ever.” He sandwiched those comments between heartfelt readings of
Van Zandt’s “My Old Friend the Blues” and “Pancho and Lefty,” fitting choices
considering the emotional context.  A remarkable
performance overall, Earle’s concert reminded me of why I relished Cayamo in
the first place. It was this kind of special bonding between audience and
performer that breaks down that invisible wall normally separating an artist
from the faithful legions. The tears in my eyes were clearly tears of joy.

 

That sense of common purpose radiated later in the Spinnaker
as Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers, a band clearly infatuated with the spirit of
rock ‘n’ roll revival, hosted the evening’s “throwdown,” a set of Byrds, Band,
Stones and Tom Petty covers featuring guest appearances by passengers and other
artists alike.  The revelry that arose
from singing along to such chestnuts as “Up On Cripple Creek,” “Honky Tonk
Women,” “I Won’t Back Down” and the evening rowdy closer,” a raucous version of
“Like a Rolling Stone” took Cayamo’s penchant for partying full circle and
brought a grand evening to its righteous conclusion. I was indeed, one happy
Cayamo camper. Happy too, because there were still two days to go. Yet, I was
also feeling slightly concerned. I still had an impressive list of performers I
had yet to see.

 

 

Day 4: Wednesday,
February 24

 

 

The music goes on forever and the party never ends…

 

This morning we wake up in Costa Maya Mexico, which, I will
later learn, is Spanish for “Land of the Tourist Souvenir and all Things
Claimed to be Made in Mexico
but really Manufactured In China.” That’s my theory anyway. Actually Costa Maya
is quite pleasant, especially due to the fact that there are no pushy taxi cab
drivers, mainly because it’s an easy walk from the boat to the public beach and
attendant shops. Consequently, it gives the impression that once the Mayans
laid their claim to this small strip of land on the Gulf Coast,
they immediately established a settlement consisting of overstocked stalls
selling ceramic ashtrays and tiny sombreros to arriving cruise ship passengers.

 

It ought to be noted that the most important thing to know
before attempting to barter with the natives is the value of the American
dollar versus the Mexican peso. Or more specifically, how many dollars it takes
to have your picture taken with a tiny monkey. Seriously. Tiny monkeys seem to
be among the most productive citizens of Costa Maya because practically
everywhere you turn, there’s someone offering to take your picture with a tiny
monkey. Why one would want their photo taken with a tiny monkey seems to be a
matter of conjecture, but I suppose that is in fact one of the mysteries of Mexico.

 

By the way, having been to the Mexican pavilion at Epcot
several times, I’ve learned that the correct pronunciation of Mexico is “Meh-hee-co.” Therefore I
knew exactly what was meant when one local entrepreneur approached me and asked
if I wanted to have “Seh-hee-co” with his sister.

 

Of course the coolest thing about Cayamo takes place on the
boat, specifically those close encounters with the performers. Generally, these
take place in the buffet line – proving the old adage that musicians like to
eat, just like us regular folks. This morning, we happened to spy Emmylou
Harris alone at breakfast, hair pulled back and looking inconspicuous in her
jumpsuit. I didn’t get an opportunity to catch what was on her plate but that’s
probably a good thing. I would have been mighty disappointed if she was helping
herself to an omelet and the
scrambled eggs and the eggs benedict and the French toast and the waffles and a half dozen of the other food varieties the breakfast line has
to offer. Better to pig out myself and not find any evidence that one of my
favorite singers is a glutton on the same scale as us mere mortals.

 

Likewise, it was a fairly commonplace occurrence to catch
Steve Earle at an early morning workout in the gym, a reassuring notion
considering his previously indulgent and addictive lifestyle, which by the way,
he’s quite candid about. “If I didn’t workout, I’d probably die,” he conceded
at a point later on.

Of course, the most common star sightings take place during guest appearances
during other artists’ sets, the exception being Robert Earl Keen’s solo show in
the Spinnaker. That was just fine too, because Keen is a legendary performer
whose humorous anecdotes and stories detailing the writing of his narrative
material provides all the entertainment necessary.  Prior to launching into a selection of songs
from his latest CD, Rose Hotel
“10,000 Chinese Walk into a Bar” and the title track among them – he shared a
story about an early attempt to get his record company to release a certain
song as a single. After writing three or four letters and receiving no answers,
he decided to go on a hunger strike. 
However, three days into his effort, he was invited to an all you can
eat fish fry that boasted an unlimited cache of beer. “That, my friends, is why
you never heard that song on the radio.” Keen’s concluding song, “The Highway
Goes on Forever and the Party Never End,s” may well serve as the unofficial
anthem of Cayamo.

 

Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers, who were up next, provided
what proved to be one of the show-stopping performances of the entire cruise.
Reflecting a populist approach that was part Springsteen, part Petty and wholly
effusive and appealing, the young band of best friends demonstrated both heart
and conviction.  Songs about family
provide a major theme in their music, with the song “My Old Man” serving as an
emotional highlight.  Family also gives
Kellogg and crew much to chat about, especially when it comes to Kellogg’s
brother Sean’s who somehow inspires a different story every set.  Tonight’s tale had to do with their mother
finding a pair of dildos in Sean’s dresser drawer after he left for
college.  Needless to say, the conjecture
as to what purpose they served and why they would be left behind drove the
audience into hysterics.

 

Our headliner show of the evening, Lyle Lovett and his Large
Band, didn’t disappoint either. Lovett is the consummate showman and his
natural charm never fails to come through. Soft-spoken and Texas-gracious, his
material alternated between Western swing and wistful reflection.  Special guests Shawn Colvin, Robert Earl Keen
and Emmylou Harris added additional star power but Lovett’s ten piece band more
than held their own, especially considering the fact that legendary drummer
Russ Kunkel anchors the backbeat and back-up singer Arnold McCuller has graced
more sessions than one could possibly ever tally.  Just like last year, Lovett’s set provided
Cayamo with another of its uncontested highlights.

 

We finished the evening back at the Spinnaker with a set by
Scythian, a feisty Celtic that all but insists its audience dance to their
delight.  I felt compelled to clap along,
but by this point I was resigned to the fact that bedtime was nigh.  Trudging off to my cabin, the rough seas
ensured that this ship would be rocking well into the night – physically as
well as figuratively.There was one more day of Cayamo remaining and though we
were still on a high, the ship itself seemed intent on taking its passengers
up… and down.  Dramamine time had finally
arrived.

 

 

Day 5: Thursday,
February 25

 

 

“The time has come,” the Walrus
said, “To talk of many things – Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax – Of
cabbages–and kings…”

-Lewis Carroll

 

Sadly, the final full day of our
cruising adventure has arrived, much to our dismay. The seas are rough this
morning, in some cases reaching swells of 30 feet. The breakfast buffet, a kind
of human pinball game under the best of circumstances, takes on an added frenzy
this morning as people carrying trays piled high with morning treats, collide
with one another due to both the urgency of getting that extra omelet and the
fact that the boat is providing more teeter-totter than a carnival funhouse. I
confess, I have little tolerance for those surrounding me; I have a good
half-day of artist interviews, beginning at 10 AM, and there’s precious time to
grab the grub and devour it before the artist onslaught begins.

 

I needn’t have worried though;
Samantha Crain, the first musician in our gab session line-up is a no-show,
reportedly due to the fact she’s been inflicted with seasickness. There’s no
reason to doubt her excuse, given that “Do Not Disturb” signs litter the doors
of various staterooms and barf bags have been conveniently placed at strategic
locations throughout the ship. We’re beginning to get concerned about Rachel
Yamagata, but fortunately she shows up a mere ten minutes late, all cheery and
girl-next-door-like in a way that belies the dark strains of her music.  “I don’t live my life that way,” she says
referring to her doom and gloom stance, adding that due to the melancholy gaze
on her album covers, “I never want to be on an album cover again.” Overall,
she’s been delighted by the cruise thus far, likening it to a great big tour
bus on the water. “I’m completely humbled,” she allows.

 

Yamagata also reveals the reason
for the overall giddiness that preoccupied her set the day before, attributing
it to the fact that (A) she had a cocktail at 5 PM which managed to keep her
loopy well through show time, (B) the ship’s rocking kept her off balance, (C)
she bungled the first verse of her first song and (D) she didn’t realize Brandi
Carlile was in the audience and it made her discombobulated.  Very well, then.

 

Katie Herzig was as charming in
person as she was onstage, humble and shy but obviously exhilarated by her
second stint onboard Cayamo. Like the others, her greatest thrill was meeting
her favorite artists. Despite the fact that she’s looking forward to a
two-month break, she’s already beginning to compile songs for her next album,
which will be her fourth to date, but the first where, in her words, “all the songs
go together.”

 

Glen, Luke and Jerry from WPA hold
court next, offering up an explanation as to why their seemingly disparate band
of pop, rock, country and bluegrass works so well. “WPA doesn’t replace
anybody’s day jobs,” Glen Phillips states. 
As for the band’s ability to balance song contributions from their
wealth of writing talent, he’s equally adamant. 
“It’s like cage fighting,” he jokes before turning serious.  “Everybody in this band has high standards as
far as songwriting is concerned. We’re all respectful of one another so it
becomes quite democratic. In five years maybe it will get petty.”

Luke Bula, who’s seemingly played practically every gig on the ship, balances
his role in Lyle Lovett’s band and his place in WPA. “I’ve had ten hours of
sleep total in the past three days,” he confesses while expressing his
enthusiasm for the seemingly non-stop cycle of jam sessions. 

 

“I thought I’d hate being on a
cruise,” Jerry the drummer confesses. 
“But it’s actually really comfortable, kind of like an outdoor festival
with air conditioning.”

 

Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle are
holding court for World Café, but other than the fact that both originally hail
from Houston
and play a form of roots music, the differences between them couldn’t be more
striking. Lyle, his trademark pile of curly hair towering neatly over his
forehead, is dressed impeccably in a black leather sports coat and his
ever-present cowboy boots. Earle on the other hand looks like he just shuffled
in off the street, dressed in shorts and flip-flops with his long stringy locks
and overgrown beard doing little to conceal his balding up above. The two
reminisce about their early days in the biz and the various venues they played
in Southern Texas before each made his move to Nashville, and the cast of characters –
Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Jerry Jeff Walker — who more or less set the
standard in terms of songwriting. 

“This is just music,” Earle commented as the stories wound on.  “Nobody dies. I feel very fortunate to be
able to make music at all.” 

After the interview, Earle ambles over to the pressroom to further elaborate on
his thoughts about life, politics and his art. 
He speaks freely about the fact he was once an addict and inmate, but he
now insists he’s happy and content for the first time.  Though New
York seems an odd environment for a rural renegade,
he’s looking forward to raising his child there.

 

His cell phone rings and he
scrambles to answer it.  “Allison is due
any moment,” he remarks, speaking of pregnant wife Allison Moorer.  Curiously enough, for a man who boasts a
reputation as a rowdy hell-raiser, Earle is quite personable and seemingly down
to earth.  He asserts the fact that he’s
a socialist who’s out of sync with mainstream politics (“I have to refrain from
publicly supporting any candidate because that would be their kiss of death”),
but also insists that though he’s been in quite a few fights in his life, he’s
never won a single one.  Asked if people
often seem intimidated by him, he says that in the past, it’s hurt his
feelings.  “I’m okay with it now,” he
maintains.  “I finally realized that if
people have problems with me, that’s something they have to deal with.”

 

Stephen Kellogg, on the other
hand, is simply a humble, affable guy who’s genuinely appreciative when
complements are offered for his music. 
Now in their sixth year of making music, his band the Sixers have played
nearly a thousand shows and gaining a committed following in the process.  I mention the fact that his band seems
grounded in classic rock traditions.  “My
wife tells me I was born at the wrong time,” he comments, saying that after
progressing through his various phases – heavy metal, the Dead, frat rock ‘n’
roll – he finally went back to the music his parents played for him while he
was growing up.  “Those artists were a
different breed,” he says. 
“Singer/songwriters who still managed to convey pop appeal.”

 

It’s now nearly 2:00 PM and
there’s still a day of music to attend to. My wife Alisa’s been felled by a
form of seasickness, remedied by a double dose of Dramamine that’s rendered her
too woozy to get out of bed.  I venture
out to catch the tail end of Samantha Crain’s set and a subsequent songwriter
workshop in the Spinnaker.  It’s an
impressive cast that’s been assembled to offer their insights and play selected
songs – Vienna Teng, Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland. Katie Herzig and
Gregory Alan Isakov all sharing the same stage. 
Every song is a gem and the musicians seem as awed as the rest of us.

I’m torn between my choices for the next show I want to see, those being encore
performances of Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers playing on the pool deck and
WPA, making a repeat appearance in the Spinnaker, as well as Edie Carey, who
I’ve yet to catch, now appearing in the atrium. 
This of course is the happy dilemma Cayamo commands.  I opt for WPA, knowing that Chuck, my
gracious Canadian pal, has saved seats. 
WPA are excellent as always, erasing all doubts about my decision.

 

Ben Taylor, another artist I’ve
yet to experience, takes to Spinnaker next, offering up an array of songs, half
sad, half funny.  Opening with a tune
entitled “Your Boyfriend’s a Really Nice Guy,” he appears to be relating a tale
of a sexual switch-over, although a later offering, “Wicked Way (“I just want
to have my wicked way with you”) suggests he’s still hetero at heart.  Ben bears only a faint physical resemblance
to his famous parents, James Taylor and Carly Simon, but his caressing vocals
and swaying guitar play bring more than a faint reflection of his folks’
soothing soft rock style.  A version of
his dad’s lullaby-like “You Can Close Your Eyes,” featuring Shawn Colvin and
Arnold McCuller — who, along with drummer Hal Blaine, is introduced as men who
were like uncles due to their association with both James and Carly — makes
the family ties complete. 

 

Buddy Miller’s final show is
billed as “Buddy Miller and Friends” and it doesn’t disappoint, although as
Buddy himself allows, “All my shows have featured my friends.”  Emmylou and Sean and Sara Watkins are among
the perfect pals this time around.

 

Speaking of famous friends, Brandi
Carlile rolled out an impressive guest list for the final Starlight show of the
cruise, including Arnold McCuller who joined her for an opening take on a Roy
Orbison classic “Crying.” Carlile herself is exhilarating and enthusiastic, and
despite confessing to being a bit under the weather, she and her band put on a
first rate, rock star-worthy performance, one that mixed poses, poise and
polish.  Long a favorite of the Cayamo
crowd, she ran through a set list that drew equally from her three albums and
EP.  A version of “Caroline,” a duet with
Elton John featured on her latest effort , Give
Up The Ghost
, was terrific, particularly the story that preceded it in
which she relayed how awe-struck she was to meet Elton, her all-time idol.  Longtime accompanists, twins Tim and Phil
Hanseroth, kicked off the encore with a stunning version of “Sounds of
Silence,” before the entire ensemble raised the energy and amplitude to bring the
final main stage show to a thunderous conclusion.

 

And so, the time had indeed come,
as the Walrus once remarked.  The end of
a Cayamo cruise inevitably brings a mix of joy and tears with bidding goodbye
to day after day of euphoric musical indulgence.  So too, there’s the bittersweet sadness of
having to say farewell to new friends for yet another year, as well as having
to accept the cold reality that a new workweek will soon be upon us.  While I’ve endeavored to describe Cayamo as
best I can and in as much detail as possible for one who’s weird and wacky, in
reality the only way to truly appreciate all it has to offer is to experience
it for yourself. We’ll have to wait an entire year until the next Cayamo – John
Prine has already been announced as one of the performers  – but hopefully these shared thoughts and the
collective memory of what Cayamo is all about will provide ample sustenance
until then.

 

 

Photo by Will Byington. To read Lee Zimmerman’s individual day reports accompanied by exclusive
photos of the cruise, go here.

 

 

 

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