Cayamo's Sixth Annual Once-in-a-Lifetime Experience

On the fourth night of this year's Cayamo Cruise Richard Thompson noted that it was somewhat superfluous to ask audiences if they were having a good time.  "Some festivals have good bits and not so good bits," he told the audience at his first featured performance. "This is wall-to-wall good bits."

Cayamo, which just finished its sixth excursion, continues to redefine how artists interact with their audiences. The seven-day floating festival which combines headliners, new faces and some of those missing in action provides a place for music fans to connect with the artists and vice versa, expanding the experience for those who are less enamored of the standard concertgoing experience.

Brandi Carlile— Moments after this picture was taken she gifted this Gretch guitar to a member of the audience.

With the nature of taste and preference, along with the presence of people who have actively listened to music for most of their adult life, there will be some disagreement about what worked and what didn't. So even if we all have our favorites, Buddy Miller and Brandi Carlile are the straws who stir the Mojito. Miller acts as musical director and chief collaborator, turning up to play with everyone from Shawn Colvin to Richard Thompson. He was always in the eye of the Cayamo hurricane.

If that wasn't enough, Miller and sidekick Jim Lauderdale hosted a taping of their radio show broadcast weekly on Sirius XM. The original plan was to devote the show to the Thompson family; Richard and his son Teddy and daughter Kami were all present and the idea was to broadcast an unprecedented collaboration. But Teddy got seasick so Buddy and Jim pulled together an alternate show featuring Colvin, Dead Flamingoes (Kami Thompson's band) and the unbilled Larry Campbell.

Normally the show is broadcast from Buddy's house and has a homemade flavor. Performing in front of an audience pumped up the silly, resulting in a combination between Prairie Home Companion and Wayne's World. Lauderdale crawled around the floor and made an attempt at audience control, while Miller just sat there and grinned.

The Thompson family opportunity was too good to pass up, so on Friday Miller and Lauderdale taped a hastily-assembled second show in the ship's library. I missed this opportunity only because I neglected to check my messages, otherwise we'd have a complete report. This was disappointing, but there's a lot going on around the ship and you're bound to miss something. That's the way we roll on Cayamo.

Buddy and Jim: A combination of  Prairie Home Companion and Wayne's World.

While Miller was the man behind the curtain Carlile was less structured and turned up everywhere. "We are going to be around the ship all week and will be annoying other musicians and jumping on stage with them," Carlile said at her first appearance. "We will invite them to play with us and if there are no shows we'll find a piano in some corner of the ship and have a jam session." True to her word she turned up at a Shawn Mullins show to sing "Beautiful Wreck," which threw Mullins off a bit. "I knew we talked about doing this but I didn't know it was going to be tonight," he said.

Carlile has a wonderful voice and a huge heart. She genuinely enjoys talking to the audience and made everyone feel warm and welcome. (Thompson and Miller were friendly enough but were a bit more reticent). During one show she picked up an electric guitar, a very slick Gretch model, and at the end of the song she gifted the guitar to a member of the audience; a teenage girl named Kaycie Gayman who performed on Cayamo 2012 as part of Aurora Belle.

Last year's cruise featured the Civil Wars, who were also booked for 2013. But in November the band backed out for unspecified reasons so Cayamo had to search for a new headliner. Facebook posts at the time varied from 'it's OK, we trust you" to those expressing abject disappointment that the duo would not play. There were probably some folks who thought of cancelling or registering a protest. This put sponsor Sixthman in  a tough spot, even though attendees are usually pretty flexible, it pays to remember that the crowd iincludes senior citizens who tend to get grumpy when they don't get what they want.

I'm not crazy about Civil Wars so the switch didn't bother me much, but I need to be fair. If Thompson or Miller cancelled a few months before the cruise I'd probably be pretty bummed.

Civil Wars was replaced by Dawes, a guitar-based foursome, which was a real blessing. Even their fans must admit that Civil Wars aren't exactly high-energy. Dawes, and frontman Taylor Goldsmith, warmed the crowd by hosting a covers show on Tuesday which featured Thompson tearing the pool deck down with a version of "Calvary Cross." As is his practice he took the song to the stratosphere with pyrotechnic sound and then brought it back to earth before Goldsmith took the the song through a second lap.

Shovels and Rope: Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst harmonize.

Dawes aside, my best discoveries this year were Delta Rae and Shovels and Rope. Shovels and Rope, a husband-and-wife team, do a two-piece thing with one on drums and the other on guitar. And then they switch. At one point Cary Ann Hearst was playing guitar while Michael Trent was seated at the drum kit playing electric guitar. During a the chorus Trent starts playing harmonica. It was a bit reminiscent of the one-man-band set up at the circus, except without the novelty.

At the end of the week people were asking each other about the most magical Cayamo moment; ranging from the Levon Helm Tribute or Brandi Carlile's Saturday gig on the back deck. I can't pick a best time, rather my favorite aspect has to do with the format. All the sets were about an hour, which was just enough time to get a taste and not long enough to start squirming. Hour-long sets don't work in the real world, as you would never travel a few hours and spend the price of a ticket for a 60-minute show. On board it's like a buffet, you get a small plate of food early in the day and later get seconds, or thirds.

When we went to summer camp there was always a bit of hazing between the older kids and the newbies, which sometime sent us to our bunks in tears. On Cayamo, the name tags had a space where you would enter how many years you were on board, and this was done without competition or condescension. Most of us have grown up.

On my second cruse I resisted the direction to spell this out, instead writing "this is my "best" cruise. My inclination was actually to put "last cruise," because after two years the fee (about $3K per person, your total could vary) is a bit dear and there are other places in the world to see. Two once in a lifetime experiences could be enough, for this lifetime, and we may want to explore other worlds.

Jedd Hughes, left, and Rodney Crowell tear it up.

Even with the urge to visit Ireland or Hawaii, I totally get the idea that a vacation should be safe and predictable where the only required decisions are whether to see Richard Thompson again, the safe choice, or expand your horizons.

Writing "last" would be a conversation starter but it could go negative. I didn't want to harsh anyone's buzz, least of all my own. And everything could change once the lineup is announced in a few months on the Cayamo web site.

Coming up to its seventh year Cayamo is almost a closed loop. It sells out quickly, so if you snooze you lose. I won't say that everyone should go on a music cruise because the uncertainty and the cost are hard to overcome. The first step is the hardest.

But this is the ticket, for anyone looking to discover new music or hear the old stuff in an exciting new way.



All photos Charlie Bermant except Jedd Hughes and Rodney Crowell by Laura Bell.


Charlie Bermant has written about music since forever, and has collected the best of his interviews in A Serious Hobby, which is available here.

Views: 4805

Comment by Kim Ruehl on January 24, 2013 at 12:58pm

Thanks for this Charlie. Honestly, I've put off reading this all the way since you posted it. I spent two years in a row on Cayamo and had an incredible time each year, but I agree. The pricetag starts to get a little high. The lineup this year was pretty stellar, though, and I would have loved to catch Shovels + Rope at sea. Also Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, who I'm surprised you didn't mention. Am I right that Justin Townes Earle was on board too? (His tweets indicated as much.)

Comment by Alan Wagman on January 24, 2013 at 2:00pm


Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires were on the boat and were wonderful.  His sets with her on fiddle were fabulous.  Hers with him a little less so as she chose to play guitar on which she is not so special.  And JT Earle was also on board.  Sadly he played solo (still quite good).  I find he is more enjoyable with a band.  And one you didn't mention is Rodney Crowell who had an incredible band along.

Comment by Charlie Bermant on January 24, 2013 at 5:34pm

Thanks for the comments. There were quite a few people that I didn't mention because there really wasn't room and I didn't want it to become a list. And while I didn't mention Rodney in the article I used the picture to indicate his presence. I generally write my stories from memory and fill them in with notes (even with daily news stuff) this allows the best material to rise to the top.

I did see Justin Townes Earle and found him a bit intense, coming up with a rejoinder that I couldn't find a way to fit in the article: "He had two cabins, one for him and his girlfriend and another for his emotional baggage." I can see how he would be better with a band. Lyle Lovett (who I didn't mention) sure was.

In any case, my failure to mention an artist just means that I didn't have anything original to say about them.

Kim, you may be gratified by a post on the Cayamo Family FB page regarding the article. " think this dude is way off base. Since in the future he's off to other places, I won't miss him. Kim Ruehl was much more in tune with the Cayamo vibe and experience."

Comment by Pete on January 25, 2013 at 6:09am

you prick bastard! this was way too much for me to handle...i'm a resolute music-head and i'm completely and utterly devastated that brandi carlile hasn't done a free house concert in our little hamlet here in westsylvania...and thompson? i hate to agree with you, carlos, but, lord, he's heaven sent...and Crowell's "I'm a Mess" perty much sums up my state of mind since losing me sainted Ma in december...blessings, pedro

Comment by Pete on January 25, 2013 at 6:13am

oh, and to your point on JTE -- the guy needs serious freakin' help -- i've seen him 3 times now -- opening for Decemberists in big hall (quite good), in-studion @ our local independent, the fabulous (great musically but prickly and hyper-nervous), then last fall when Mountain Stage came to Morgantown, WV -- 5 songs, all good, but an attitude about the world that seems to expect each day to get...worse.  I've been listening to Dan Bern's "Breathe" a lot this week -- one of my best amigos lost his older brother on Monday -- and i heal and help others heal with cd mixes or playlists now that apple has the "dig my mix" app that allows you to transfer 25 songs to a similary-phoned confrere...again, you are outstanding, carlos, keep rabblin', keep rousin' 'em...pierre

Comment by Charlie Bermant on January 25, 2013 at 7:42am

Thanks for the positive feedback, Pete, but I gotta admit that I was a bit taken aback by the 'prick bastard' greeting. I read through, underscoring how one should never jump to conclusions. 

Comment by Kim Ruehl on January 25, 2013 at 3:16pm

I don't blame you for leaving some people out - that's always the trick with festivals. Someone's going to say "Why didn't you mention the person I would have gone to see?" I enjoyed reading your review, personally, jealousy aside. But the FB post you quoted gave me a nice chuckle. I'd happily get back on that boat to work for the week if they had any cabins remotely affordable on a "new media reporter" budget! Alas. 


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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.