Cayamo wrap-up: “If we all lived in the same town, we’d all be best friends”
photos courtesy of Annaliese Moyer
You can’t walk off the Cayamo music cruise without Sixthman CEO Andy Levine thanking you – whether with a hug, a high five, or a simple “thank you.” There, at the end of the hallway, he stands, thanking every single passenger one at a time. Also at the end of that hall – the guy called Kappy who donned a Carmen Miranda-like costume Patty Griffin’s first night on the ship, to introduce her first show.
So, I can’t very well go much further with my wrap-ups of the week which has just passed without noting the Cayamo community. I mentioned in my last post how traveling on a cruise ship for a week can feel a bit like your small town has been set afloat in the middle of the ocean. The phrase “summer camp” comes up quite a bit among Cayamo passengers. Indeed, you can’t get very far on the ship without making some new friends. I’ll get to mentioning the incredible performances from some of the best-loved Americana artists at work these days, in a bit. Aside from those organized shows, a great musical highlight of Cayamo is its festival-like propensity for inspiring impromptu jams. On the final night, Luke Bulla, Sean Watkins, and a handful of various passengers played through a number of standards (and some originals) for an impromptu jam in the bar. Meanwhile, in staterooms around the boat, new friends gathered with their instruments and swapped songs. Our new friends from Tennessee and New York shared some fantastic covers and originals in a suite almost every night of the cruise.
Given all this, it made sense when Levine took the stage on the final night to introduce a special collaborative set by noting Cayamo’s community vibe. “If we all lived in the same town,” he said, “we’d all be best friends.” It was a great time to point out the community, considering Buddy Miller had just left the stage – joined not only by his amazing band, but also Patty Griffin and Steve Earle (hands down the best set of the week). In their place was coming another collaboration which has come to be expected on the boat (and, for that matter, out in the real world) – Indigo Girls with Brandi Carlile and her band. Steve Earle joined that show, too, as did Luke Bulla.
Indeed, these two sets – which took place in that order, and closed out my Cayamo experience (before a couple of hours’ jam session back in a friend’s room) – turned out to be the crowning shows of the week. With John Prine’s set on Monday night, they rounded out what I’d consider the Top 3 shows of Cayamo. Considering there are more than 125 shows scheduled for the week you’re on the music cruise, picking a Top 3 can be tough. Being only one person, and so incapable of seeing every single set, I had to make some difficult choices. Somehow, I missed Colin Hay entirely. I didn’t see either Loudon Wainwright III or Richard Thompson do a whole set on their own, but I did manage to catch their “Loud & Rich” collaborative set (another easy highlight). I kicked myself for missing the Steep Canyon Rangers backing Hay by the pool on some Men at Work classics. Carlile showed up for a Steep Canyon set. Other rumors of random, unexpected collaborations abounded throughout the week. Lucy Wainwright-Roche welcomed both Indigo Girls at turns, who pulled her up at least twice for their set, so she could sing a verse of “Closer to Fine.” The spirit of community and collaboration pours so far over into the musical aspect of the cruise, it can be hard sometimes to tell which backing players came to play with whom in the first place.
Gone, also, is the imaginary line between artist and audience. Aside from a private dining room they can use if they want to (and many of them don’t bother), there seems to be no effort on the ship to keep crowd and performers separate. As a result, by as soon as the second day, the concerts start to feel like friends playing together in each other’s living room, rather than mounting a large theater stage to perform for 800 strangers under punishing lights.
But, back to those two sets and the final night. The night before – his first night on the ship – Buddy Miller played a straight-up rock and roll set. I ran into a number of people who counted that show among the best Buddy shows they’ve ever seen. But, this final night’s set went even further beyond that. Joined by Steve Earle, Miller played Johnny & Jack classic, “Oh, Your Poison Love Has Stained the Life Blood in My Heart and Soul, Dear.” He and Griffin delivered an incredible version of “Wide River to Cross,” and a Lefty Frisell tune Buddy recorded for a forthcoming disc he made with Bill Frisell, Greg Liesz, and Marc Ribot titled Majestic Silver Strings. (Also on that disc – Griffin, Shawn Colvin, Lee Ann Womack, Emmylou Harris, Chocolate Genius, Ann McCrary, and Julie Miller.)
The Indigo Girls and Brandi Carlile opened with a cover of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” featuring an impressive fiddle solo from Luke Bulla (WPA, Lyle Lovett’s Large Band, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder). Later, Carlile and Amy Ray delivered a stunning cover of Roy Orbison’s “Cryin'” – Ray’s voice at absolutely the best I’ve heard it. For this set, the strongest element was the impressive blending of four-part harmony (Julie Wolf holding down the fourth voice). Steve Earle lent a harmonica solo for “Shame on You,” and Emily Saliers’ collaboration with Carlile on “Let It Go” was another easy highlight.
Back on the pool deck, the Steep Canyon Rangers delivered an excellent set of bluegrass tunes, followed by WPA (who roped in Dan Wilson again). One of the only complaints I had from the week was that Steve Earle’s mainstage set with the Dukes was cranked so loud, it hurt, and his vocals were near inaudible. I know Earle is prone to mumbling at the mic, but I can usually figure out what he’s singing. Not so this time around. I can say he included “Train A Comin’,” “Guitar Town,” “Copperhead Road,” “The Revolution Starts Now,” “City of Immigrants” (which he prefaced by discussing in brief the “revolution” taking place in Wisconsin – how I learned about their current teachers’ strike). His song selection for that set was undeniably strong, but the sound was just so out of wack for that show, it was hard to enjoy. Small matter, though, considering his various other appearances.
A memorable set from earlier that same day had Patty Griffin hosting a “songwriters in the round” session with Dar Williams, Scott Miller, Allison Moorer, and Buddy Miller. Again, the shiningest thing about this was the clear joy of collaboration coming from these five friends. Scott Miller was a major take-away from this set for me. I caught him earlier in the week with Will Hoge for a World Cafe song swap, but wound up missing his full-length sets (they were always set against the mainstage set to which I had tickets). Scott’s song “Red Ball Express” was particularly stirring, recounting the story of a little-discussed aspect of World War II, and exposing him as one of the finest under-appreciated songwriters on the boat. Considering that, I have to point to the power of the community to not only establish new friendships, but to expose audiences to artists they may not have otherwise known. Showing up at each other’s sets, pulling their friends into shows, the better-known artists put a certain stamp of approval on one another, in effect, pulling the audiences together, as well.
And so, Cayamo inevitably had to come to a close until 2012, with new friends from around the world exchanging information and Facebook statuses. If we all lived in the same town, perhaps this festival wouldn’t feel like such an event.