¡CAYAMO! 2011!

The best festival ever still rules on the high seas.

 

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.

 

[Photo of Steve Earle
& Allison Moorer: Alisa Cherry]

 

Check out Lee “The Sailor Man” Zimmerman’s coverage
of Cayamo! 2010 right here.

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