By Paul T. Mueller
Cayamo 2014, the annual Americana music festival-at-sea that focuses on singer-songwriters, returned to Miami on Valentine’s Day after a week’s voyage to and from Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. Days later, more than 2,000 passengers are still struggling to process the incredible quantity and quality of music they witnessed during the weeklong cruise. With dozens of artists aboard and scores of performances scattered over the cruise’s six and a half days and seven nights, the special moments were too numerous to fit into anything short of a novella. Here’s a sampling of highs and lows:
St. Paul and the Broken Bones
Lows: The legendary John Prine, a two-time Cayamo veteran, and the almost legendary Todd Snider, who would have been a rookie, both failed to make the boat (the Norwegian Pearl, owned by Norwegian Cruise Lines, which also owns Atlanta-based Sixthman, producer of Cayamo and several other music cruises). Prine withdrew some weeks ago, saying he needed more recovery time following cancer surgery last year. Snider notified Sixthman two days before sailing that he would not be on the cruise, citing (in Sixthman’s words) “a medical issue that requires immediate attention.”
Notwithstanding the considerable number of passengers who decided to book Cayamo primarily for the chance to see either Prine or Snider or both, the production staff was able to fill the gaps in the schedule, in no small part through the presence of Cayamo veteran Lyle Lovett, who agreed at the last minute to join the cruise with his Acoustic Band. The result was the seventh installment in what has become a very successful annual event.
Highs: Too many to count. So here are summaries of some particularly memorable moments, one for each day.
Day 1 (Friday, February 7):
Kris Kristofferson. The one and only. Yes, he’s getting older and reportedly having memory problems, and he’s never been as good a singer as he is a songwriter (how could he be?). But there was something about seeing this legendary artist commanding the stage, performing iconic songs like “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” “For the Good Times” and “Help Me Make It Through the Night” that left many in the audience in tears.
Day 2 (Saturday, February 8):
Buddy Miller. “Commodore” Miller, a six-time Cayamoan, greeted the audience at his “Buddy Miller and Friends” show with an emphatic, “It’s good to be home!” He wasn’t alone in feeling that way. Cayamo has been a community since its first sailing in 2008, and many participants, veterans and newbies alike, will tell you that the cruise is real life and the other 51 weeks of the year are just filler. Miller, accompanied by bassist Dave Jacques (a longtime Prine sideman), drummer Marco Giovino, guitarist/fiddler Larry Campbell (formerly of Bob Dylan’s band) and accordionist Joel Guzman, knocked out a powerful set, including Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got to Memphis,” Mark Heard’s “Worry Too Much” and “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger?,” written by Miller and his wife, Julie. Among the friends helping him out along the way were singer and guitarist Teresa Williams , country star Lee Ann Womack and longtime Miller compadre Jim Lauderdale.
Day 3 (Sunday, February 9):
Bruce Hornsby and Ricky Skaggs, with Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder band. Who knew piano could be such a great bluegrass instrument? Or that Hornsby’s classic “The Way It Is” sounds just great in a bluegrass arrangement? The show included a tribute to jazz bassist (and former child country singer) Charlie Haden, which featuring some brilliant and beautiful work on the upright bass by the youthful but very talented Scott Mulvahill. As an encore, the band put a high-energy Appalachian twist on Rick James’ “Superfreak.”
Day 4: (Monday, February 10):
John Fullbright. The immensely talented, Oklahoma-born Fullbright opened this set with a solo, a capella rendition of the traditional “Am I Born to Die?” that was nothing short of thrilling. He followed that with “I Didn’t Know I Was in Love With You,” accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, and proceeded to full-band versions (with guitarist Terry Ware, bassist David Leach and drummer Giovanni Carnuccio III) of songs including “Satan and St. Paul” and “Gawd Above.” Fullbright demonstrated his unearthly piano skills on several songs, including “Fat Man” and “The Very First Time,” before closing with a long, jammy “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.” If Cayamo awarded a Rookie of the Year trophy, Fullbright would be a strong candidate for this year’s prize.
Day 5 (Tuesday, February 11):
Brandi Carlile. A veteran of several Cayamos, Seattle-based Carlile has won a lot of new fans with her abundant talent and high-energy performances. For this show she was backed by her longtime collaborators, twins Tim (bass) and Phil (guitar) Hanseroth and cellist Josh Neumann. The set included a rendition of the Hank Williams hit “Lovesick Blues,” dedicated to Kristofferson; Carlile’s anthem “The Story,” and her country weeper, “Same Old You,” covered by Miranda Lambert. Carlile was joined by The Lone Bellow and Kristofferson for a lovely rendition of Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” and closed with “Amazing Grace,” performed a capella and in darkness with the Secret Sisters.
Day 6 (Wednesday, February 12):
David Bromberg. The legendary (there’s that word again) singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist was in great form in the relatively intimate confines of the Pearl’s Spinnaker Lounge. As has been true throughout his long career, he was all over the musical map, covering, among other genres, the blues (“As the Years Go Passing By”), pop (“The Holdup,” co-written with George Harrison, ) a vocal version of Floyd Cramer’s “Last Date”) and what might be called faux traditional (“The Strongest Man Alive,” which Bromberg described as “an old English drinking song that I wrote”). There was also a touching ballad about the pain of parenthood called “Watch Baby Fall.”
Day 7 (Thursday, February 13):
A grab bag of high-quality performances on the last day and night at sea:
Miller and Lauderdale produced a segment of their “Buddy and Jim Radio Hour” show for Sirius XM satellite radio. The guest list included Campbell and Williams, two sets of sisters (Laura and Lydia Rogers, the pop-soul-country duo Secret Sisters, performing “Devoted to You,” and Lennon and Maisy Stella, who also play sisters on ABC’s Nashville, doing a touching rendition of “Hard Times Come Again No More”), and a trio of young female singer-songwriters (Kate York, Erin McCarley and Lucie Silvas.) There was also a powerful, soulful performance of “Against My Will” by Sarah Fox (Joel Guzman’s wife), accompanied by Guzman and son Joel Gabriel Guzman on guitar.
Birmingham, Ala.-based R&B outfit St. Paul and the Broken Bones brought their horn-driven, high-octane sound to the Pearl’s pool deck stage, to the delight of listeners and dancers alike.
In a surprisingly intimate late-night showcase in the ship’s large Stardust auditorium, a group of fine singer-songwriters (Liz Longley, Stephen Kellogg, Bromberg and his wife, Nancy Josephson, and Campbell and Williams) took turns singing some of their most personal songs, capping the set with a collaborative rendition of “Nobody’s Fault but Mine.”
Cayamo 2014 drew to its official close only a few hours before the Pearl docked back in Miami, as fiddler Luke Bulla (who played in Lovett’s band and also with his own bluegrass outfit) led a raucous “Last Man Standing” jam on the Atrium stage in the wee hours of Valentine’s Day. Guests included vocalists Womack and Kat Edmonson and guitarist-mandolinist Keith Sewell (of Lovett’s band), among many others.
Other performers turning in fine performances on Cayamo 2014 included St. Paul and the Broken Bones, The Lone Bellow, Seth Glier, Joe Purdy, Shawn Mullins, Mallary Hope, Bronze Radio Return, Chuck Cannon, John Hiatt, Joshua Radin, Humming House, Elephant Revival, Max Gomez, Hey Marseilles and Holly Williams.
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