By Rob Dickens
It was my second Cayamo Cruise.
They (the organisers, Sixthman) – call it a “Journey Through Song”. Sounds a little pretentious but on reflection it fits like a glove.
I had the spiritual awakening of Cayamo 2017. I was blessed by wonderful music, the friendliest punters ever encountered and easy access to most everywhere musically. I signed up again this year which is the eleventh edition of this regularly sold-out and much sought after (by artists and fans alike) event. You can read my adventures last year HERE. I am overlooking some of the background so I don’t repeat myself. Only material changes are accounted for in this article.
Variation – The Boat
The boat is the Norwegian Pearl (not the Jade) which is pretty much the same, give or take. Venue-wise, there is no Medusa Lounge which I thought was beset with low light, poor sight lines and barely-raised stage. In its stead this year was The Atrium which is a two-level central point on the boat with reception desk, vivid decorations and bars – better all round.
Variation – Departure City
Rather than leave out of Tampa Florida, the Pearl set sail from New Orleans which was (and remains so at the time of writing) in the vice-like party grip of Mardi Gras.
Variation – The Second Port Stop-Over
Harvest Caye, Belize turned out to be a tiny island constructed for and owned by the cruise line, Norwegian. Some quipped it was the land of “Make Belize”!
Variation – Two-Year Belt
Yep, no longer the minnow, and wearing the “Maiden Voyage” badge (literally!). What’s in a badge anyway? As any serial festival goer would attest – the first year is exploration with a little trepidation (particularly if doing it solo), the second year is have no fear ….hence, with shackles unleashed, it’s…er…full steam ahead.
Variation – The Line-Up
The critical ingredient to the new event is the line-up which probably, on paper to these eyes, surpassed that of 2017. Here they all are, in publicised pecking order:
John Prine, Brandi Carlile (solo), Patty Griffin
Richard Thompson, Buddy Miller, Lee Ann Womack
Paul Thorn, Margo Price, Shawn Mullins
Jim Lauderdale, Gregory Alan Isakov, John Paul White
Hayes Carll, JD McPherson, Joe Purdy and Amber Rubarth
John Fullbright, Drew & Ellie Holcomb, The Band of Heathens
Aaron Lee Tasjan, Brent Cobb, The Cactus Blossoms
The McCrary Sisters, Joe Pug, Lindi Ortega
Traveller (Robert Ellis, Jonny Fritz, Cory Chisel), Humming House, BJ Barham
Kelsey Waldon, Steve Poltz, Max Gomez
Charley Crockett, Brian Wright, Michael McDermott
Devon Gilfillian, Lillie Mae, Scott Miller
The War and Treaty, Michael Logen, Sean McDonell
Caleb Caudle, Flagship Romance, Heart Society
Worthy of note is the Cayamo tradition of ballots from the Cayamo faithful to claim the last three spots on the boat. It’s a nice touch.
A speciality of Cayamo is collaborations. Born principally of having so much talent together with no place to leave and so they have more time than usual to relax, check out other performers and, most importantly for the punters, be available for hooking up with anyone who asks them. Guesting for one song (or the whole set), agreeing to participate in a major tribute event or just hitching up for an in-the-round ….it makes this cruise experience unique, the extent of which I have not witnessed anywhere else.
Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
See that band at the very bottom of the line-up list? Heart Society had a preview show on the Pool Deck. They have just released a highly impressive EP – Wake The Queen. This husband and wife couple from Jackson Mississippi (Teneia Sanders-Eichelberger and Ben Eichelberger) belt our forceful blues and gospel oozing with passion and feeling.
A Celebration of John Prine was the sail away show. Shot glasses of Hurricanes were handed out as the ship was released from its chains and slowly moved down the Mississippi River towards the Gulf Of Mexico and ultimately the Caribbean Sea. What a celebration it was, seventeen songs from Prine himself and a treasury of covers from Brandi Carlile (solo and with Richard Thompson), Margo Price, Buddy Miller (with Patty Griffin and Lee Ann Womack), Gregory Alan Isakov, BJ Barham, Paul Thorn, Drew and Ellie Holcomb, John Paul White, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Joe Purdy, Max Gomez, Scott Miller, Hayes Carll, host Jim Lauderdale and Shawn Mullins led an all-star finale. Stunning.
What better way to follow that than with a set from John Prine himself. Joined by his usual compatriots Jason Wilbur (guitar) and Dave Jacques (bass), the great Kenneth Blevins on drums and Fats Kaplin on everything else. Some Prine classics were impeccably and lovingly delivered, guest spots from Carlile, Purdy, Dave Cobb and, most enjoyably, two new songs from his Cobb-produced forthcoming release, the first new material for quite a few years. As to the timing of the new album (between now and May), Prine quipped that he did not know when it would be out specifically “even though I own the record company!”
Amber Rubarth and Joe Purdy presented their journey back to some classic folk tunes which form the foundation of the recent movie American Folk (in which they starred). Gentle harmonies, interwoven finger picking and warm humour were to the fore. You can read more about American Folk HERE.
Finally I get to see The Band of Heathens. This Austin Texas outfit has dual front men and songwriters Ed Jurdi and Gordy Quist. Effortless Americana and alt. country, rock and even more influences filled their set. Extended versions of “Records In Bed” and “Don’t Call On Me” saw them at their jamming best.
Colorado’s Gregory Alan Isakov invited Texan Hayes Carll and Arkansas’s Joe Purdy for a wonderful hour ‘in-the-round’ session exchanging originals and covers in a delightful manner.
Paul Thorn’s upcoming gospel album Don’t Let The Devil Ride (see more info HERE) is out in March but advance copies were available on the boat. Thorn teamed up with Nashville’s McCrary Sisters for a special extended preview of the new songs in a lively hour entitled Paul Thorn’s Mission Temple Fireworks Revival. Spiritually fulfilling and emotionally uplifting.
Brian Wright hails from Waco Texas but now is a Nashvillian and principally known as guitarist for Aaron Lee Tasjan. He has his own prominent skill sets as I attested at last year’s AmericanaFest as my top live show of the year. On this occasion, in The Atrium on Wednesday night, it was Aaron Lee’s band that he used (with ALT himself on guitar) and it was fever pitched with songs about tractor beams, the yesteryear reflections of “Patrick’s Crossing”, topics of selective hearing, “Mrs Rosenthal”, biting references to L.A. In “We Don’t Live There Anymore” and a cover of Don William’s sharp “If Hollywood Don’t Need You”. Purdy guested and the closer, the cathartic “Glory Hallelujah” brought the house down with its striking ebbs and flows.
The Tribute to Tom Petty on the outdoor Pool Deck was yet another collaboration that you would not easily be able to witness on shore. The Band of Heathens were the house band, laying the foundation for various artists as they paid homage to the great Petty and his songs – Barham, The Holcombs, Wright, Price, Caudle, Robert Ellis, Steve Poltz, Kasey Waldon, Miller, Lillie Mae and Tasjan. When Tasjan and Griffin were deep into their interpretation, the rain set in and everyone leapt for cover, including the instruments and speakers. (The end of the tribute was rescheduled to another time which ,alas, I did not make it due to a schedule clash).
A couple of hours later, Hayes Carll’s set was blessed by the presence of the Heathens throughout, playing impeccably – never threatening to over-play their hand, just providing perfect support for their fellow Texan. Carll announced that his new album would be out around the end of 2018 and some of the new material on show tonight sounded tantalising. What a treat to see these great performers together.
Buddy and Jim’s Radio Show was actioned-packed -The McCrary’s, Mae and John Paul White. The War and Treaty were, however, the ones that blew everyone away, the duo being the major discovery and talk of the ship all week. The two songs they performed and a little glimpse of their incredible personal stories were eye-opening indeed. The emotion they bring to a full set would be breathtaking, judging from this snippet. (The duo will attend next week’s Folk Alliance International in Kansas City Missouri, I will catch them and report back on this experience later).
The praises for Scott Miller’s new album Ladies Auxiliary (produced by Anne McCue) have already been made on this site (check our review HERE). During his Atrium set, only four songs from that new collection featured and little opportunity was taken to promote himself in a Merch-Store kind of way. However, his self-promotion reaches brilliant proportions when he plays. Sharp lyrics, memorable melodies and imagery and a quick satirical mind that takes some keeping up with. Another joy.
Under the guise of Richard Thompson’s Unlikely Set, there was Thompson, swapping stories and songs with Ellis and John Fullbright for an hour. The ad-lib Django Reinhardt jam involving all the players was just about the high point of the whole week.
Other high points included Margo Price’s two stirring wind-swept sets (what a golden voice and attitude that pricks up your ears), BJ Barham wowed the audience with his song-writing intensity and absorbing tales, South Georgia’s Brent Cobb’s self-effacing honesty and strong songs, The Cactus Blossoms’s modern take on classic harmonies a la the Everly Brothers and Ricky Nelson – dreamy but with a tremolo punch, J D McPherson’s set was a great rock and roll exhibit, Max Gomez with his beat-up Martin guitar and classy accomplices had plenty of melody and lyrical attractions, as were the two new songs from Patty Griffin, and finally Fulbright’s closing tribute to Leon Russell.
There were plenty of other stimulating activities to do for those that needed a break from the wall of performances, such as a leatherworks class with Jonny Fritz, guest jamming, guitar clinics, a screening of the aforementioned American Folk movie, open mic. showcases, songwriter workshops, tai chi with Jim Lauderdale and a songwriting podcast with Joe Pug.
A Journey Through Song indeed.
As you can see, numerous highlights have not been hard to find. A very strong and pretty diverse performer list made this easy. There were quite a number of singer-songwriters on board and, at times, this author felt the need for a bigger, more forceful experience which admittedly was not that hard to find. The Heathens and Fulbright’s band were two examples of where to get some rocking solace.
Again, as was the case on last year’s cruise, the collegial showcases provided an experience like no other.
A final word for the ‘Cayamo Family’. Many have been on every Cayamo. A significant group has been on consecutive trips and appear as though they might just be spiritually bolted onto the ship’s fixtures, equipped for every future voyage until their health or wallets say otherwise.
Music lovers them all. Polite, friendly, happy for the music and overjoyed to renew acquaintances with an ever-growing circle of friends. Those circles are powerful and addictive.
I still haven’t worked out what ‘Cayamo’ means.
I don’t know when I will be back on board (sooner, hopefully).
May the Cayamo Family sail together forever.
Read our look-back of the Cayamo Music Cruise 2018