By Paul T. Mueller
Cayamo 2016 is in the books. The latest edition of the singer-songwriter-focused cruise, aboard the Norwegian Pearl, arrived back in Miami early on Sunday, Feb. 7, after a week’s voyage through the Caribbean and stops at the islands of Tortola and Sint Maarten. More than 2,000 passengers disembarked on a brisk, sunny South Florida morning, most of them tired, happy and prepared to relive the experience on social media and at meet-ups around the country until the 10th Cayamo sets sail in 2017.
Cayamo 2016 provided plenty of highs and a few lows. Let’s dispense quickly with the lows – too-chilly air conditioning in some of the indoor venues; considerably higher prices for adult beverages than in years past; problems (real and/or perceived) with things like food quality and sound mixes at some shows; restrictions on photography during sets by at least one high-profile performer; the occasional plumbing problem in a stateroom. But these matters weren’t enough to harsh the mellow of a weeklong musical festival at sea.
The highs on Cayamo 2016 were much more numerous. As always, there were more great performances than anyone subject to the laws of time and space could hope to see, so missing some magical moments was a given. But here, in more or less chronological order, is a subjective look at some outstanding performances from each day, from among many that could have been included.
Sunday, Jan. 31 – embarkation day
Americana superstar Jason Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit, took the pool-deck stage for the sailaway show as the Pearl left Miami. It’s hard to imagine a better choice, as the group ripped through a high-energy, 14-song set. Included were several tracks from Isbell’s most recent album, Something More than Free, along with older material such as “Decoration Day” and “Alabama Pines.” The set was capped by a rocking rendition of the Rolling Stones’ classic “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” with Isbell and lead guitarist Sadler Vaden trading licks in a more-than-passable echo of Keith Richards and Mick Taylor.
Steve Earle took the stage of the Pearl’s large auditorium, the Stardust Theater, Sunday evening for his only solo show (he also played two sets with Shawn Colvin later in the week). After opening with “Devil’s Right Hand,” Earle noted that it’s been 30 years since the release of his stellar debut album, Guitar Town, and then launched into the title track, still fresh despite the decades. What followed was pretty much a string of greatest hits, as many as could be fitted into a one-hour set. He closed with a quiet, powerful rendition of his death-penalty ballad “Billy Austin” and an excellent reading of the classic “Copperhead Road.”
Also: British guitarist Martin Harley’s high-powered slide guitar on the pool deck during boarding; Jimmy Galloway’s masterful picking in the Atrium; Jim Lauderdale’s endearing mix of goofiness and country chops in the Spinnaker Lounge.
Monday, Feb. 1 – at sea
Monday afternoon featured an excellent “Unlikely Trio” show with three Cayamo rookies – Angaleena Presley, Foy Vance and Paul Thorn – taking turns performing their own songs, sometimes with backup from the others. Irish singer Vance delivered his selections with a powerful, expressive voice and vigorous guitar playing. His words weren’t always easy to follow, but the emotions behind them were. Several of Presley’s songs were taken from her most recent album, the fine American Middle Class. A newer song, “Bless Your Heart,” was a hilarious but biting jab at hypocrisy, and its title was soon to become a buzzword around the boat. Thorn, a veteran of other music cruises but a newcomer to many Cayamoans, wasted no time endearing himself to the crowd by dedicating “I’m Still Here” to a cancer patient he had met. One of the more charming aspects of shows of this kind is watching artists’ reactions to the work of others with whom they might not be all that familiar. It’s often a combination of amusement and admiration, and Monday’s show did not disappoint.
Also: Promising pop from young singer Rainey Qualley in the Great Outdoors; harmony-driven country folk from The Novel Ideas; singer-songwriter excellence from John Prine and John Hiatt in the Stardust; Nashville brilliance from the past and the present from Buddy Miller in the Stardust.
Tuesday, Feb. 2 – at sea
Lucinda Williams’ band, Buick 6, has accompanied her on Cayamo previously, but this year was the first time the band got its own sets. The first came Tuesday night, before a Lucinda set, and consisted of about a half-hour of high-energy power trio rock, with a little funk and jazz thrown in. Most of it was instrumental, with occasional nonverbal vocals and whistling. For fans of the power-trio format, or of instrumental rock in general, it was an invigorating warmup for Williams’ show. The band’s members – guitarist Stuart Mathis, bassist David Sutton and drummer Butch Norton – are excellent musicians, and the title of their debut album, Plays Well With Others, was well chosen.
Williams also put on a terrific show, mixing older material (“Drunken Angel,” “Lake Charles,” “Can’t Let Go,” “Joy”) with newer songs, including several from her just-released The Ghosts of Highway 20 (the title track and “Dust,” based on a work by her late father, poet Miller Williams). Appearing relaxed and confident, Williams produced some nice work on acoustic and electric guitar to accompany her gritty lyrics of love and loss, spirituality and sensuality. She drew laughs with her description of the time and effort she put into getting her hair ready for the show, only to see her labors literally blown away on the windy pool deck.
Also: The history of American roots music, plus stellar guest performances, from David Bromberg in the Stardust; fine bluesy guitar from Martin Harley in the Great Outdoors; high-volume country rock from Chris Stapleton on the pool deck; the midnight Grateful Dead tribute show on the pool deck, backed by American Babies and featuring contributions from Miller, Lauderdale, Bromberg and many others.
Wednesday, Feb. 3 – Sint Maarten/St. Martin Passengers returning Wednesday from excursions on Sint Maarten/St. Martin were treated to a sailaway show by Hurray for the Riff Raff, led by singer-songwriter Alynda Segarra. The Cayamo newcomers showed plenty of rock ‘n’ roll attitude to back up Segarra’s thoughtful and sometimes disturbing lyrics, as in “The Body Electric,” a reimagining of the classic Southern murder ballad from a different angle. “Like an old sad song, you heard it all before,” she sang. “Well, Delia’s gone, but I’m settling the score.”
Newly anointed American superstar Chris Stapleton’s first indoor show packed the Stardust Wednesday night. Stapleton and his band were a little more subdued than in their rocking pool deck show the previous night, but the set was still almost as much rock ‘n’ roll spectacle as Americana, fueled by Stapleton’s guitar heroics and plenty of high-powered backup from his very capable band. Stapleton did seem a bit nonplussed by the quiet and attentive Cayamo crowd – at one point he noted that he could hear a pin drop on stage between songs, and then (apparently) dropped something to prove just that. But the show, consisting mostly of material from the hugely successful Traveller album, was not without its rowdy charms, and the audience certainly seemed to eat it up, even calling the band out for an encore of “Sometimes I Cry.”
Also: Full-band rock and blues with a funny twist from Paul Thorn on the pool deck; purebred Americana from Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams in the Spinnaker; high-energy, late-night jamming with American Babies in the Atrium.
Thursday, Feb. 4 – Tortola
John Fullbright seemed to be embracing a bigger sound than on previous Cayamos, and this was much in evidence at his Thursday sailaway show on the pool deck. Fullbright and his band, with the help of guests including guitarist Davis Causey and keyboardist Daniel Walker, rocked out on signature tunes including “All the Time in the World” and “Fat Man.” But the emotional high point of the show might have been a powerful and dramatic rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee” – with a subtle lyrical twist that sounded a lot like a dig at anti-immigrant comments by a certain front-running Republican presidential candidate. Fullbright closed with a joyous, full-out take on the Box Tops classic “The Letter.”
Singer-songwriter Robert Ellis, who’d already played a solo set on the Pearl’s Great Outdoors stage and a couple of straight-up country tunes at Shawn Mullins’ Family Jam in Bar City, had a few surprises in store for his midnight Thursday show in the Stardust. A few songs in, backed by his nattily attired band, the Perfect Strangers, Ellis launched into a vigorous rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris,” on which he demonstrated his monster guitar skills. He followed with other selections from his most recent album, The Lights from the Chemical Plant, along with new material. Things took a left turn late in the show with an extended instrumental jam that owed more to free jazz than to Ellis’ more usual genres, country and folk. The chaos finally resolved into “Sing Along,” Ellis’ blistering indictment of organized religion. Despite his veteran status – he also sailed on Cayamo in 2013 – Ellis seemed to be many Cayamoans’ “find” this year.
Also: Guitar-fueled singer-songwriter brilliance from Jason Isbell and band, including wife Amanda Shires, in the Stardust; bouncy pop from Kate York and Joe Pisapia in the Spinnaker; “heavy mellow” from Sugar & the Hi-Lows in the Atrium; well-written singer-songwriter fare from Sam Lewis in the Spinnaker.
Friday, Feb. 5 – at sea
After several years on the cruise as lead guitarist and vocalist in John Prine’s band, Jason Wilber finally got a set of his own on Cayamo 2016 on Friday, and he made the most of it, to the delight of an attentive Atrium crowd. Wilber led off with a lovely, slow rendition of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You,” following with the unfortunately timely “Oh You Pretty Things” by David Bowie. He brought out drummer Kenneth Blevins, of John Hiatt’s band, The Combo, and elicited laughs with “Quakertown Optimist Club,” inspired by a newspaper story about down times for an upbeat organization. Much of the rest of the show consisted of tracks from his new album, Echoes, on which he covers a range of material by other writers (including an excellent take on Prine’s mournful “Paradise”). Also included was the original “Ghost Light,” a tribute to the old theaters in which he often plays when touring with Prine.
Knoxville-based roots-rock outfit The Black Lillies delighted a large pool deck crowd Friday afternoon with an energetic set drawn largely from its recent album Hard to Please. The band, fronted by Cruz Contreras on guitars, keyboards and vocals and singer-guitarist Trisha Gene Brady, was clearly buoyed by the outpouring of support it received in the aftermath of having its van and a trailer full of instruments and other belongings stolen after a gig just days before Cayamo. Playing with borrowed instruments, the Lillies turned in strong performances on such familiar tunes as “Two Hearts Down” and “Ruby,” and newer material including the quiet ballad “Born to Roam,” the rocking touring tale “40 Days,” and the soulful “Mercy.” The band got a boost on a few songs from the trumpet and saxophone players from Austin-based funk-rock outfit Mingo Fishtrap.
Also: Harmony-driven adult pop from Johnnyswim on the pool deck; slightly quirky, personal tunes from Amanda Shires, accompanied by Jason Isbell, in the Spinnaker; acoustic pop with a New Orleans vibe from the Andrew Duhon Trio in the Great Outdoors; excellent folk and country in a mostly requests show by Slaid Cleaves in the Great Outdoors; pop country with a hip-hop twist from Maren Morris in the Atrium.
Saturday, Feb 6 – at sea
The final 2016 show by Shawn Mullins, the only musician to have performed on all nine Cayamos, was mostly a parade of familiar hits – “Beautiful Wreck,” “Light You Up,” “Twin Rocks, Oregon,” and so on – not new, but delivered as always with passion and style. Mullins also threw in some newer material, including a couple of songs from his recent album My Stupid Heart – the title track and “Ferguson,” a co-write with Chuck Cannon that addresses racial matters. Guitarist Davis Causey earned a cake and a standing ovation in honor of his 67th birthday, and the show resumed with “House of the Rising Sun” and “Lullabye.” A final sweet moment ensued when the hundred or so Cayamoans who had sailed on all nine voyages came down the aisles, attired in white bathrobes, to sing along with Shawn on “Sunshine.”
The performances of Cayamo 2016 drew to a close late Saturday with the Moonlight Revival, a guitar pull featuring three rounds of three or four singer-songwriters each. The event started out on the pool deck, but wind and rain necessitated its being moved to the Atrium after only a few songs. Early-round highlights of the acoustic show included Steve Earle’s heartfelt “Jerusalem,” Angaleena Presley’s snarky “Bless Your Heart” and Foy Vance’s literary epic “Noam Chomsky Is a Soft Revolution.”
Also: A morning gospel show featuring chicken and waffles and contemplative tunes from Birds of Chicago, Sam Lewis, Langhorne Slim, Martin Harley and The Bros. Landreth on the pool deck; more funny songs with serious messages, brilliantly played, from Paul Thorn and his band in the Stardust.
Finally, despite my efforts, I wasn’t able to catch enough of Shawn Colvin, The Alternate Routes or Watkins Family Hour to offer an informed opinion. I can say that all had many fans on Cayamo and all were reported to have turned in fine performances.