CRUISING CAYAMO STYLE

Blurt goes on Cayamo, a seven-day feast of
sea and sounds.

 

By LEE
ZIMMERMAN

 

“Amazing”
seems less than adequate as a descriptive term. Even “awesome” doesn’t do. “Terrific”
totally falls flat. No, none of these words do justice when speaking of Cayamo,
a veritable floating festival in the form of a seven-day music cruise to the
eastern Caribbean. Combine that cruise with onboard entertainment featuring an
array of singer/songwriters who practically define the genre-artists such as Lyle
Lovett, Indigo Girls, John Hiatt, Patty Griffin, Joe Ely… and it can only be
described as the experience of a lifetime.

 

Of
course, if you don’t care for music and you don’t enjoy being pampered by
extraordinarily polite people from far-flung countries who treat you like
visiting royalty, than disregard the above and read no further. The Cayamo
cruise isn’t for you.

 

Presumably
though, you are among those who might relish such an opportunity to indulge in
music and merriment. And given all Cayamo has to offer -who isn’t? This then,
is our impression gathered from a week’s worth of the best onboard experience
ever.

 

 

Day One

 

Sixthman,
the group that created and runs Cayamo, really has its act together. This is
only the second year for this particular cruise, and yet, it operates with all
the efficiency of a festival with considerably more tenure. After the initial
confusion that accompanies boarding a cruise ship for the first time (“What
time are the shows?” “Where are the restaurants?” “Which shore excursion do we
take in Tortola?” “What’s with that guy in the silly hat?”), things quickly
fall into place. Meals have an obscene amount of choices, guaranteed to satisfy
the glutton in us all. Tall fruity drinks pack a perverse quality of alcohol,
sure to raze the sensibilities of the unsuspecting. And of course there’s the
music, an overwhelming amount of choices that create some of the biggest
dilemmas passengers would face throughout the cruise. Do we opt for the
Spinnaker Lounger and see Darrell Scott or stay poolside for Brandi Carlyle? Check
out the Johnny Cash Throwdown or watch the Second City Improv? Damn, when do we
have time to eat? So much food-so little time.

 

Fortunately,
the music choices offered on Day One went fairly smoothly. The bon voyage party
at poolside with the Cajun band Roddie Romero & the Hub City Allstars
seemed mandatory, Romero and company being the obligatory sort of party band
well equipped to get things rolling. Then given the line-up in the lounge-the
irrepressible and surprisingly amusing Emerson Hart (former front man for
Tonic), a spunky and saucy Kathleen Edwards (whose request for whiskey was
finally met threefold), Collective Soul’s Ed Roland (looking like he could have
subbed for Sean Penn in  Fast Times At Ridgemont High, given that
he’s fond of saying the word “dude” in every other sentence), the father and
son team of Marc and Ted Broussard (the former one superb singer, the latter a
guitarist extraordinaire) and finally Shawn Mullins, who didn’t take the stage
until nearly one AM when a good portion of the audience was understandably
nodding out, but whose poignant narratives provided ample reason for
resuscitation.

 

Whew. When
we finally hit the cabin at 2:30 AM, we already felt like we had gotten our
money’s worth. And we had yet to seriously peruse the merch stand.

 

 

Day Two

Setting the watches forward the night before and losing a precious hour hardly
provided incentive to get up early. So finally, at 10:30 AM, after looking at
the line-up for the day ahead, we realized there was no time to waste. Rest and
relaxation be damned; there was a sake and sushi tasting to be savored instead.

 

Strike
that. Duty called. Lyle Lovett and Shawn Colvin were holding court in the
library. We were tempted to ask him about Mr. Hart’s comments the night before
(“There’s nothing funnier than the sight of Lyle Lovett in a life preserver”),
but we refrained out of due consideration for his current condition. Apparently
Lyle was feeling a bit under the weather from the rocking of the ship. He
doesn’t let that deter him however, and instead he and Colvin engaged in some
informative banter about their beginnings and songwriting styles. As the press
session concludes, Lyle made his way down the row of assembled journalists,
allowing for personal introductions and small talk. He genuinely gave the
impression of being a very personable, down-to-earth kind of guy, leaving the
fond hope among all those present that the ginger ale he’d been prescribed
really would work its wonders.

 

Outside
by the pool deck, the afternoon festivities were well under way by 1:00 PM,
initiated with a rousing rendition of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice Its Alright”
courtesy of the Indigo Girls and the ever-constant Brandi Carlile. Despite the
breezy conditions topside (“Did you ever trying singing with hair in your
mouth,” Emily Saliers of the Indigos asked, causing a few smirks among the less
than politically correct males in the audience), they put in a well-received
set, clearly passing the unofficial audition required of any band that’s new on
the cruise.

 

The two
bands that follow-rockabilly raver Webb Wilder and elegiac chamber pop combo
Over the Rhine — proved equally adept at adapting to circumstances, although
the motion of the vessel doesn’t go unnoticed. “I’m not trying to strike a rock
‘n’ roll pose,” Over the Rhine’s singer Karen Bergquist insisted. “I’m just
trying to hold on.” Later she coins a phrase that could have served as by-word
for the duration of the cruise. “Forget rock ‘n’ roll. This is more like pitch
‘n’ roll.”

 

Whether
it’s the accumulated effect of too many of the funny fruity drinks or the
general unbalanced feeling brought on by the tilt of the sea, there’s an
immediate camaraderie amongst the passengers, with strangers striking up
spontaneous conversation and veterans of previous Sixthman cruises, who seem to
be in the majority, sharing their experiences. The musical line-up was almost
unchanged from the year before, the two most notable exceptions being Emmylou
Harris, whose place was taken by the Indigo Girls and Buddy Miller, who was
forced to bow out at the last minute due to an emergency triple by-pass only
days before. In fact, Cayamo itself has already fanned a fervent following,
spawning the kind of personal fraternity common to most festivals. Fans spoke
about performers as if they were personal friends-and indeed in many cases that
seemed to be the case with namedropping the order of the day. “I can introduce
you to anyone you want to meet,” Barbara from Lafayette LA offered. Not surprisingly,
veterans were also quick to compare this year’s cruise to last. Lin from Austin
remarked that she liked last year’s ship, courtesy of Carnival Cruise Lines,
better than the Dawn, part of Norwegian Caribbean’s fleet. “You didn’t have
this artificial cement hole in front of the stage which made for better
seating,” she said of the performances on the pool deck. On the other hand, Bob
and Judy from Pennsylvania claimed the Dawn was definitely the better boat. “You
have a wider choice of restaurants,” they maintained. Then again, Bob also
suggested last year’s bands appeared more upbeat.

 

Fortunately
then, the Indigo Girls couldn’t be accused of slacking when it came to
accelerating the energy. They also seemed to have brought along their own fan
following, and their performance that evening in the Stardust Theater, the
ship’s spotlight venue, garnered unabashed admiration from both the faithful
and novices alike. While most of the set tended to focus on softer fare-with
special attention given their new double disc, Poseidon and the Bitter Bug-a rotating cast of characters (Carlile,
Shawn Mullins and assorted others) gave the show more of a cabaret feel as
performers slipped on and off stage at odd intervals. Indigo’s Emily asked if
the crowd minded the format and judging by the reaction nobody seemed to have
any objection. Indeed, by the time the girls finished the set with a spirited
take on “Galileo,” the audience was rapt with devotion.

 

There
was still more music to be enjoyed later in the evening, and after dinner, the
center of the action was once again at the Spinnaker, where Darrell Scott
provided an exceptional display of guitar dexterity-not to mention superb
songwriting. He was followed by Joe Ely and accordionist Jose Guzman, who
joined forces to give Ely’s sagebrush serenades a decided South of the Border
Tex-Mex flavor.

 

Which
begs the question-why wasn’t Ely accorded headliner status?

 

 

Day Three

 

Samana,
in the Dominican Republic, allowed the first official respite from the nonstop
musical mélange thanks to a varied array of shore excursions that challenged
one’s dexterity, pocketbook or both. A horseback ride to a pair of remote
waterfalls proved more challenging than expected due to a rocky trail over
uncertain terrain and a subsequent steep hike that gave the riders a chance to
personally experience the environs from the horse’s perspective. Happily, the
one-to-one attention given by the local guides proved a godsend to those
unprepared for such a tedious physical challenge. Even so, by the time everyone
was back on the boat, most were ready to shuck their hiking shoes and resume
the relatively undemanding task of assuming audience duties and immersing
themselves in the music.

 

There
seemed to be three subjects that every performer espoused upon in common-(one)
the ship’s motion, as described earlier, (two) asking which members of the
audience had experienced Cayamo the year before, a query which seemed to elicit
a positive response from the majority of the crowd (and hence make us
first-timers feel like a distinct minority), and (three) expressing gratitude
to everyone-veterans or not-for coming to see them perform. Almost always, the
gratitude was given Sixthman for making it all possible, but being that the
cruise cost  upwards of $1,400 apiece and
required a supreme financial sacrifice, ample appreciation was lavished on the
passengers as well.

 

 “Its because of you folks that we get to do
what we love to do every day,” Lyle Lovett told the audience at his show that
night, and once again, his humility was truly touching. No wonder this crowd
loves Lyle. It may have had something to do with his extraordinarily dry sense
of humor as well. “This is the most open-minded ship,” Lovett remarked in mock
astonishment, referring to the sexual preferences shared by the Indigo Girls’
female faithful. “The bond between a man and a woman is so twentieth century. ” He then initiated a hilarious vamp with
back-up singer Arnold McCuller, one that cast the two as quarreling spouses and
brought down the house.

 

In
fact, Lovett captured the crowd from the first moment he stepped onstage and
continued to ensure the lock throughout. He was aided in his efforts by an ace
backing band (which included veteran drummer and session legend Russ Kunkel), a
gracious invitation to John Hiatt to share the stage (remarking the Hiatt
looked like the stereotypical surfer dude as he struggled to keep balance while
the ship suddenly shook during departure), and a set list that included the
most tender coda offered onboard, a touching rendition of his classic “Closing
Time.”

 

Later,
back in the Spinnaker Lounge, former Toad the Wet Sprocket front man Glen
Phillips offered a gleeful expression of gratitude of a different sort. “This
is the first time in thirteen years my wife and I have been away together
without the kids and we’re taking the time to become (ahem) reacquainted,” he
remarked before adding, “Hell, I’m just saying this because I’m so trying to get laid.”

 

Indeed,
for all the talk heard throughout the trip of a common bond between audience
and performer, perhaps no one shared that sentiment as succinctly.

 

 

Day Four

 

A day
of sightseeing on St. Thomas, U.S.V.I. was considerably less strenuous than
that undertaken in Samana the day before, and if by evening, everyone wasn’t
quite rested from all the activity, then the music gave cause for a revival.
John Hiatt was the featured performer at the early show and he measured up to
the anticipation aroused in the crowd. Hiatt seems to have grown comfortable
into his role as a veteran troubadour, one whose ample stock of songs assures
any set list can double as a recitation of greatest hits. This evening’s
selection was no exception, given the inclusion of such certifiable classics as
“Cry Love,” Drive South,” and the set’s soulful closer “Have a Little Faith in
Me.” So too, Hiatt’s trademark sense of humor was out in full force, echoing
similar themes to those of his compatriots. As he launched into the second song
of his performance, the ship pulled anchor and lurched forward, causing his fan
and floor monitors to vibrate about the stage like the toy players on an
electric game board. “Thanks for putting me back together,” Hiatt said to his
frantic roadie, before sputtering in mock irritation, “Damn this ship! They
broke my fan!”

 

As
expected, that wasn’t the only shipboard scenario Hiatt had comment on. “I used
to have trouble interacting with people,” he confessed. “But here on this
cruise there’s no escape. Actually, it’s good for my personal progress.”

 

Curiously
enough, in the second major headlining of the evening, Shawn Colvin seemed to
shrug off her difficulty in connecting. Appearing solo in the big venue of the
Starlight Theater, she seemed wrapped up in her own world, closing her eyes,
cursing the fact she had to continually tune and confiding that she actually
felt a bit naked, given that in recent weeks she had been touring in the
company of Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris and the sadly missed Buddy Miller. At
times, her interaction with the audience seemed somewhat strained, and a
surprising number of empty seats seemed to testify to that divide. However, if
that bothered her, she didn’t let on, and it certainly didn’t deter her from
casting a few disparaging comments about onboard conditions.

 

“Has
anyone had a good meal?” she asked with a mix of cynicism and sarcasm. “I’m
such an asshole,” she added apologetically.

 

Tift
Merritt, on the other hand, conveyed a persona that was anything but
quarrelsome. Working an overflowing crowd in Dazzles, the informal bar located
mid-ship, she invited her audience to crowd in around her and fill up the empty
spaces. Standing solo and alternating between guitar and electric piano, she
offered a soaring set of emotionally-tinged originals, belting each out in a
homespun voice borne of Southern soul. Charming and enchanting, she appeared
genuinely delighted at the warm response, even as she admitted she may have
become certifiably insane after 45 days of continuous touring. She also offered
a truism of her own.

 

“Being
on a cruise is kind of like being back in high school,” she suggested. “You
know there’s a party going on somewhere, but you haven’t been invited.”

 

“The
party’s right here,” a member of the audience protested, and afterwards, as she
graciously greeted fans individually, exchanging pleasantries and patiently
posing for pictures, it seemed that those words had indeed rung true.

 

 

Day Five

 

Sightseeing
mixed with beach each time in Tortola, the gray looming skies notwithstanding. Opportunity
for a nap, time to catch a massage and better yet, a chance to catch a breath.

A brief
breath at that however. Brandi Carlile, a relative newcomer compared to the
other artists on board, put on one of the most memorable performances of the
entire cruise, no small feat considering the exemplary caliber of the shows
overall. Her connection with the audience was genuinely engaging, and when she
and her two backing musicians, twin brothers Tim and Phil Hanseroth, stepped
out to the edge of the stage to sing a cappella, it added to the embrace. “When
you throw artists together in close proximity, they develop a sense of
community,” Carlile commented the next day. “They become friends. It makes
everybody more accessible to the fans and each other.”

 

Later
that evening, Ed Robertson, front man for Barenaked ladies, Adam Arkin
look-alike and last minute substitute for the ailing Buddy Miller, also found
common bond with the audience as he settled into the Spinnaker. It was
difficult to discern which was funnier-his commentary between songs or the quirky
tunes themselves. After all, anyone who can work in a lyric about aspiring to
be Billy Barty, “but normal size” would certainly seem somewhat off-kilter. When
he brought on special guests Kathleen Edwards and her husband and musical foil
Colin Cripps, he went into a rap about how any two people could have a special
song, even if they weren’t, ahem, otherwise connected. Eyeing Cripps
seductively, he invited him to duet on Wham’s “Careless Whispers,” much to
Edwards’ chagrin. She made it appear that the two shared more than harmonies.

 

That
liberal attitude apparently goes a long way on a Cayamo cruise

 

 

Day Six

 

By now
I’ve come to the realization that in the pursuit of catching concerts,
attempting to get a glimpse of the stars, making new acquaintances and divvying
up my time between the devoted journalist and the unabashed groupie, little
time is left for anything else, be it eating, napping, grabbing the occasional
photo op, or-and this is by no means in order of preference-spending time with
my wife on the occasion of our fifth wedding anniversary. Nevertheless, I tried
to press forward on all fronts, although admittedly some more than others. It
was also time to do some networking, first by introducing myself to Andy
Levine, the scion of Sixthman, its founder and all-round cheerleader, and later
Eric Brace, leader of the Nashville band Last Train Home and current
collaborator with Nashville journalist, singer and songwriter Peter Cooper on a
terrific new album called Which One of Us
Do You Like Better
. Eric was an affable sort, and the exchange of words of
mutual admiration doubtless served both our egos well.

 

By this
point, the boat was really rocking, Bob from Pennsylvania’s protests aside. It
was physically rocking, and rolling, and pitching from side to side, due to
high seas and sporadic bouts of squally weather. It caused the less hearty
guests to flee the pool deck during Bonepony’s rousing set of backwoods
rave-ups, while sparking the other artists to continue to revive their
commentary about the boat’s perpetual motion. In fact, given the nonstop roll,
it became all but impossible to distinguish those who were walking unsteadily
due to inebriation from those merely attempting to keep their balance. And
considering the length of the NCL Dawn is roughly half the length of Rhode
Island-or so it sometimes seemed-navigating under the effects of the weather
condition was no small challenge. During a press session later in the day, John
Hiatt dismissed any notion that he’s been the victim of seasickness, insisting
it was his wife who was so afflicted. (In all fairness, he also credited her
with being the social ambassador for the two of them.)  Patty Griffin, who followed Hiatt’s brief
bout with the press, opted to add to the shipboard scenario in a different way,
bringing as her escort her self-proclaimed “Cabana Boy,” an extremely oversized
man dressed in tights and a tutu.

 

Hopefully,
the need for an entourage had nothing to do with loneliness. Like Colvin, she
was adjusting to performing solo sans the other members of her usual touring
ensemble-Colvin, Emmylou Harris and the waylaid Buddy Miller. “There is some
emotional pressure,” she conceded. “It’s nice to have people to share the stage.
Not just great singers and songwriters but also people who are great at
carrying the show.”

 

Speaking
of shows, the evening brought another full bill, beginning with the
ever-soulful Dave Ryan Harris, who added his own take on the apparent
prevalence of same sex attraction. “Sometimes when I’m singing a song like ‘Sexual
Healing’ in falsetto, my eyes are closed, and when I open them and I find I’m
staring at a dude! So if I offend anyone, I do apologize,”

All
disclaimers aside, Harris also added to the chorus of gratitude. “Thank you for
taking a week to spend time with artists your co-workers have never heard of,”
he said before encouraging all the other musicians in attendance to stand and
applaud the audience.

 

Other
than the set by Harris and the truly extraordinary Vienna Teng, whose
atmospheric piano ballads stoked the most amazing ambiance from her
arrangements, the rest of the evening’s entertainment consisted of reprises-Joe
Ely, Glen Phillips and Over the Rhine. And as we passed him playing to a full
house in Dazzles near midnight, there was Ed Robertson intoning one of his
familiar refrains, one that went “I hate Winnipeg.” What caused him to feel
that way was never quite discerned.

 

 

Day Seven

 

“This
year it’s just as exhausting and just as mind-blowing as last year,” said the
gregarious guy from Seattle occupying the next lounge chair. He seemed a bit
tipsy and given the fact the ship was now anchored securely in Nassau-having
been diverted due to foul weather from the original destination, Great Stirrup
Cay-one had to assume it wasn’t the boat’s perpetual motion that was cause for
his condition. Earlier in the day we had strolled about town, doing our best to
elude the entreaties of the locals who were hawking their wares. However, the
one plea we found ourselves unable to resist-the same set-up that had stopped
us in our tracks at all the other ports-was the person in the oversized animal
costume -disguised a giant parrot, dolphin or other creature of undetermined
species-who lay in ambush to lure tourists for the obligatory debarkation
photo.

 

Other
than that, our day was spent peacefully-the inebriated individual from Seattle
notwithstanding. A bit of time in the hot tub with members of the band Oakhurst
and the Greencards provides a pleasant respite prior to the last night of
catching all those missed initially. Thereafter, an hour of Patty Griffin gave
way to a sampling of the aforementioned Oakhurst (after hot tub time, it almost
seemed obligatory) and then on to the night’s finale, credited to the
No-Buddies due to the fact it was originally intended as a Buddy Miller show. In
fact, it turns out to be a series of songs by the various performers, some in
duo mode and others reprising a song or two from their regular sets. Our last
show of the night-and of the cruise-comes courtesy of the Greencards, a band
consisting of two Aussies, an Englishman and a Yank who have deftly melded
their talents to create a fusion of English folk and American bluegrass.

 

Earlier
in the evening, Sixthman’s Andy Levine had finally revealed the meaning behind
the word Cayamo-a combination of ‘Cay,’ meaning ‘little island’ and ‘amo,’
derived from the Spanish word for ‘love.’ “This is all about what the world
should be,” Levine says, and after spending seven carefree days in such
pleasant circumstances, one can’t help but agree.

That
said, we’ll leave the final thoughts to others:

Ed Robertson (at the Starlight on the final night): “I’ve done the math. There
are more of us than there is crew. So let’s meet in the Sixthman office at 3a.m.
and commandeer this vessel so we can keep this cruise going!”

 

The
Greencards (the final night in the Spinnaker): “What did we like most? Lyle,
the lobster, Tift Merritt and the towel animals made by the cabin boy.”

 

A
friend overheard confiding to the ever-affable Shawn Mullins: “They really seem
to love you, Shawn.”

 

And
finally, Andy Levine, Thursday night to the assembled audience back at the
Starlight: “When you wake up Sunday morning after the cruise, you’re going to
realize how much the real world sucks compared to being on this cruise.”

Amen. Can’t wait for next year.

 

 

[Photo
of John Hiatt & Lyle Lovett: Alisa Cherry]

 

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