By Paul T. Mueller
Cayamo 2015, the eighth edition of the singer-songwriter-focused festival-at-sea, got off to a bit of a bumpy start on Jan. 17. The presence of some larger ships at Norwegian Cruise Lines’ terminal in Miami meant that the Norwegian Pearl, home to the past several Cayamos, had to use a temporary terminal – a large tent – for embarkation and debarkation. There’s really no way to get more than 2,000 people onto a cruise ship quickly, and this year the process seemed to drag out a little longer than usual. As a result, the week’s first set, by Nashville-based folk/soul/bluegrass band Humming House, was over by the time many passengers got aboard.
Most hands were on deck for the sailaway show by Birmingham, Ala. soul-rock outfit St. Paul and the Broken Bones, who debuted on Cayamo in 2014. Lead singer Paul Janeway brought his familiar blend of sartorial excellence, flashy showmanship and gospel-flavored soul vocals, with the other six members providing tight instrumental backing. The band’s loud, high-energy performance earned an enthusiastic response from the audience.
Things were a little quieter in the ship’s Spinnaker Lounge for a late-afternoon set by Drew Copeland and Ken Block, of Sister Hazel. In this format the Cayamo veterans are a classic two-guys-with-acoustic-guitars-and-great-harmonies act, with songs these days focusing on “mature” topics such as relationships, family and aging. These subjects were also fodder for their funny between-songs banter. These guys have a lot of dedicated fans and the feeling is clearly mutual.
That evening in the Stardust Theater, the Pearl’s largest indoor venue, Texas singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett and his Acoustic Group brought their usual impeccable musicianship to such familiar favorites as “The Truck Song,” “Give Back My Heart” and “This Old Porch.” There were also excellent renditions of the sad but powerful “She’s Already Made Up Her Mind” and the playful “Girls from Texas” (co-written with Pat Green). Most songs featured solos by band members, each of whom is a world-class musician in his own right. Lovett also yielded the spotlight to fiddler Luke Bulla and guitarist/mandolinist Keith Sewell to play a couple of their own tunes.
Sixthman tried to schedule some of the louder and/or rowdier acts for the ship’s Atrium stage, which is usually noisier than most other venues. The setting seemed well suited for a 10 p.m. set by East Nashville country bad girl Elizabeth Cook. Cook is a talented songwriter and an engaging performer, and she and her band brought an appealing blend of rock, hard-core country and hipster attitude to the stage, belting out songs like “Methadone Blues” and “Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman.” There were some nice covers as well, including Gram Parsons’ “Hot Burrito #1 (I’m Your Toy),” J.J. Cale’s “Magnolia” and the Blind Willie McTell classic “Statesboro Blues.”
Oklahoma singer-songwriter John Fullbright, a sensation in his first Cayamo appearance last year, took the Stardust stage at midnight for an “Unlikely Sit-In” show featuring Chuck Cannon, Holly Williams and Jim Lauderdale. The four took turns performing songs loosely based on a theme of “Lost and Found.” Fullbright is an excellent guitarist, but he stuck to the piano for this show, providing subtle accompaniment to the others but going full tilt when his turn came around. His prodigious playing earned him, as always, reactions ranging from admiration to near disbelief from his fellow musicians.
Standout performances included Cannon’s quietly powerful “Messes,” Williams’ tearjerker “Waiting on June,” and Lauderdale’s reverent “Like Him,” dedicated to Ralph Stanley and sung almost a capella. On the dramatic closer, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” Fullbright did most of the singing, along with impressive work on the keys, but he got some able assistance with vocals from his fellow musicians.