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.