Cayamo music cruise review: An astounding line-up

By Paul Mueller

The 10th edition of the Cayamo music cruise enjoyed sunny skies, smooth seas and a fairly astounding musical lineup. The festival at sea, aboard the Norwegian Jade, left Tampa on Feb. 19, and returned a week later, after stops at the islands of Cozumel, Mexico, and Roatan, Honduras. As always, it was billed as “A Journey Through Song,” and as always it lived up to that promise. The number of shows and their scheduling made it difficult to see every performer, but that’s a good problem to have.

Most of the more than 50 performers played individual shows, and many appeared in themed and collaboration shows as well. Themed shows included a tribute to the late Guy Clark; a “Songs of Protest” show hosted by Gretchen Peters; a “variety show” hosted by Shawn Mullins; “All the Girls Who Cry,” a sad-song fest hosted by Alabama country-folk crooners The Secret Sisters, and a guitar-focused show dubbed “Buddy Miller’s Guitar 101.” There were several “and friends” shows, mostly featuring several singer-songwriters in an in-the-round format, and singer and multi-instrumentalist Luke Bulla hosted “Last Man Standing” jams that capped off three evenings’ music. Many made guest appearances at other artists’ shows throughout the week, and passenger jams, sometimes including professionals, were easily found all over the boat.

A weeklong festival inevitably produces too many high points to list them all, but here are a few. Be assured that at the same time as pretty much any of these shows, there was at least one other equally memorable show going on somewhere else on the Jade.

Sunday, Feb. 19: The opening set on the pool deck can be a tough slot, with many passengers still boarding and those already aboard busy looking around or reuniting with old friends. But singer-songwriter Christian Lopez, a West Virginia native who’s all of 21 years old, made the most of his rookie appearance, demonstrating a veteran’s savvy in capturing the attention of the crowd. Alternating between well-written originals and covers, and between full-band and solo formats, Lopez rocked hard and showed that he’d earned his spot

North Mississippi All-Stars

on the roster. Well-done renditions of the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” Blaze Foley’s “Clay Pigeons” and Bill Withers’ “Use Me” played to the sensibilities of the crowd, much of which was three times Lopez’s age, but in a respectful way.

Also: Brandi Carlile,  a veteran of the first Cayamo music cruise in 2008 and most since, had herself a great time at the sail away show later in the afternoon, proclaiming the cruise “the greatest Cayamo ever.” Assisted as always by the Hanseroth twins (Phil on bass and Tim on guitar), she tore through favorites such as “Wherever Is Your Heart” and “The Eye” and closed with a nice rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California.”

Monday, Feb. 20: East Nashville-based singer-songwriter Aaron Lee Tasjan made his much-anticipated Cayamo music cruise debut at an evening pool-deck show, and fully met his fans’ high expectations. Accompanied by fellow singer-songwriter Brian Wright, Tasjan played most of his most recent album, Silver Tears, as well as a few older tunes. His outgoing personality contrasted with Wright’s more stoic approach, but they were two of a kind when they started trading guitar licks. Late in the show, Wright took the spotlight to offer a fine rendition of his murder ballad “Maria Sugarcane.” Tasjan closed with a vigorous workout on his anthemic “Success” that had much of the crowd singing along.

Love Junkies on Cayamo music cruise

Also: The Love Junkies (singer-songwriters Lori McKenna, Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey) played an engaging show, performing songs made famous by bigger names in Nashville. These included McKenna’s “Humble and Kind” (Tim McGraw), Lindsey’s co-write “Blue Ain’t Your Color” (Keith Urban) and “Girl Crush” (written by all three and recorded by Little Big Town). The trio got support from Cary Barlowe and Ruston Kelly. It’s always fun to hear songs performed by the people who wrote them, without the usual studio trappings. Extra points to Rose for pushing through despite a case of laryngitis.

Tuesday, Feb. 21: The Songs of Protest show, hosted by Nashville singer-songwriter Gretchen Peters and featuring several Cayamo newcomers, was one of the emotional high points of the cruise. Performances included a powerful rendition of Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” by soul powerhouse Sarah Potenza; Allen Toussaint’s joyful “Yes We Can Can,” by Amy Helm; Randy Newman’s “Political Science,” sung by Peters’ husband, keyboardist Barry Walsh, from the viewpoint of the new U.S. president; and Mary Gauthier’s “Mercy Now,” sung with intensity by Gurf Morlix and Potenza. Peters’ selections included a beautiful rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee.”

Also: A pool-deck tribute to Guy Clark tribute featured contributions from longtime Clark associates (Rodney Crowell, “Stuff That Works”; Emmylou Harris, “Immigrant Eyes”) as well as more recent acolytes (Sarah Jarosz, “Boats to Build”; Brian Wright, “Coyote”). Oddly missing from the set was the iconic “L.A. Freeway,” but Crowell and Steve Earle teamed up to close with “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train.”

Wednesday, Feb. 22: Fans might have expected the basics in a show called Buddy Miller’s Guitar 101; what they got was far more advanced. Singer-songwriter and producer Miller alternated between describing his own journey to guitar mastery and using his laptop to play snippets of six-string artistry by predecessors such as James Burton, Link Wray and Jimi Hendrix. Things got even better when Miller brought out his guests. Tasjan ripped through a terrific acoustic rendition of “Streets of Galilee,” which incorporates his own musical autobiography. Nashville session player Tom Bukovac played a funky/jazzy bit of electric improvisation that had Miller and Tasjan grinning and shaking their heads. North Mississippi Allstars frontman Luther Dickinson talked about his band’s mission in the blues world (“There’s a responsibility to respect the repertoire”) and demonstrated his mastery of both the acoustic six-string and a two-string instrument made from a coffee can. Finally, the legendary Richard Thompson talked a little about having played with Hendrix and executed a beautiful acoustic take on “Turning of the Tide,” along with an instrumental piece he described as “an Irish tune with Scottish variations.”

Also: Nashville singer-songwriter Will Hoge’s show in a well-packed Spinnaker Lounge, in which he talked about burning out and leaving music a few years ago before rediscovering his craft and returning to the road. The set featured the kind of confessional songs you’d expect, plus some favorites such as the funny but pointed “Jesus Came to Tennessee.” Hoge is a very funny guy, but also an intense performer, and his powerful songs and playing often had the sometimes-rowdy Spinnaker crowd listening in dead silence.

Sarah Jarosz on Cayamo music cruise

Thursday, Feb. 23: Against the backdrop of a nice Caribbean sunset, Kacey Musgraves and her band serenaded the sail-away from Roatan on the pool deck. The set list included a well-chosen mix of originals (“This Town,” “Merry Go ’Round,” “It Is What It Is”) and interesting covers (Weezer’s “Island in the Sun,” Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” Santo & Johnny’s “Sleepwalk”). There was also a fun and witty reworking of the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo,” with lyrics tailored to the Cayamo experience and a laid-back vibe that suited the occasion perfectly. Musgraves closed with her anthemic “Arrow.”

Also: Singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Sarah Jarosz, another Cayamo music cruise rookie, still looks about 17, but she sings and plays like she’s been onstage forever. Accompanied by bassist Jeff Picker and Australian-turned-Austinite guitar ace Jedd Hughes, Jarosz played a lovely set highlighted by the powerful (and Grammy-winning) “House of Mercy,” co-written with Hughes. Jarosz seems able to play anything with strings; her instruments in this show included acoustic and electric guitars, banjo and her unusual octave mandolin, an eight-stringed instrument the size of a small guitar.

Friday, Feb. 24: If you’ve ever wondered whether it’s possible to play rock ‘n’ roll at 10 a.m. on a cruise ship, the answer is, “It is if you’re the North Mississippi Allstars.” Playing to a nearly capacity crowd in the Jade’s largest indoor venue, the Stardust Theater, the Allstars (Luther and Cody Dickinson, plus bassist Dominic Davis, who played with several artists) featured a mix of acoustic blues and all-out boogie. Cody, usually the Allstars’ drummer, yielded the

skins to Brady Blade, also from Miller’s band, to step out front on guitar and vocals for the traditional “Deep Ellum Blues.” The set closed with a fine rendition of the classic “Sitting on Top of the World,” featuring Luther and his coffee-can guitar.

Also: Singer-songwriter and Cayamo music cruise first-timer Aoife O’Donovan played a mostly original set, by turns quiet and loud, in the Spinnaker. She was assisted by guitarist Anthony da Costa and drummer Steve Nistor, along with guests Stuart Duncan on fiddle and Sarah Jarosz (who has played in the folkie trio I’m With Her with O’Donovan and former Nickel Creeker Sara Watkins). O’Donovan closed with a lovely rendition of Steve Winwood’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” that might have drawn a few tears from those old enough to remember Blind Faith’s version.

Saturday, Feb. 24: The gospel show has become a well-loved Cayamo tradition. This year it took the form of a songwriter round rather than a succession of artists as in the past. Featured were country singer turned soul belter Bonnie Bishop, Nashville songwriters and performers (and spouses) Lari White and Chuck Cannon, and Sarah Potenza. Lending support were guitarists Ian Crossman, who’s married to Potenza, and Ford Thurston, who plays with Bishop, and bassist Patrick Blanchard). The show featured some traditional gospel, or at least gospel-ish, songs such as “I Shall Be Released” and “Power in the Blood,” as well as spiritual offerings such as Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” and (perhaps inevitably in the wake of Leonard Cohen’s passing) a slow, intense rendition of “Hallelujah” by Potenza.

Bonnie Bishop

Also: The Wainwright Family, featuring patriarch Loudon Wainwright III and various descendants, exes and others, performed an excellent and eclectic set in the Stardust, kicking off with a team-effort “Meet the Wainwrights” to introduce the players. The cast included Wainwright’s son, Rufus Wainwright; his daughters, Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright Roche; Lucy’s mother, Suzzy Roche, and Wainwright’s sister, Sloan Wainwright. Guests included Emmylou Harris, who performed a song in honor of Wainwright’s former wife, the late folksinger Kate McGarrigle; Brandi Carlile, with the Hanseroth twins; fiddler-mandolinist David Mansfield, and guitarist Stephen Murphy. The show closed with an all-hands-on-deck sing-along on Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” and a nice solo piano rendition of “Hallelujah” by Rufus Wainwright.

Honorable mentions on the Cayamo Music Cruise: Oklahoma folk-blues prodigy Parker Millsap, Mississippi rocker Paul Thorn, Nashville neo-diva Angaleena Presley, Colorado bluegrass outfit Trout Steak Revival, Nashville country-pop band Skyline Motel, North Carolina rockers American Aquarium, soulful Nashville singer-songwriter Sam Lewis, singer-songwriters Beth Wood and Patty Griffin, Nashville country traditionalist Lee Ann Womack, former Civil Wars member John Paul White, rising country artist Ryan Hurd, Nashville songstress Ruby Amanfu, former Toad the Wet Sprocket frontman Glen Phillips, young singer-songwriter Brian Dunne, new country star Maren Morris, Cayamo t’ai-chi master and clotheshorse Jim Lauderdale, Alabama folkie-rockers The Mulligan Brothers, and former Sea Level keyboardist and saxophonist Randall Bramblett.