By Rob Dickens.
To be honest, I have never felt the need to hop on board a boat cruise. It has never appealed. However, due to the constant encouragement of music friends, I found myself on a cruise ship just two weeks ago. I have survived to tell the tale.
The tenth annual voyage of the Cayamo Music Cruise (affectionately known as ‘A Journey Through Song’) has just finished up. Here are my impressions.
The Norwegian Jade is part of the Norwegian Cruise Line. For the nautical tech. heads out there, it is a hefty piece of equipment, with a length of almost 300 meters and a width (beam) of about 40 meters. It has 15 decks, carries 2,400 passengers and over 1,000 crew.
The music part of the deal is run by a company by the name of Sixthman which has become a slick and responsive promoter managing themed cruises since 2001, almost 100 of them in fact.
The boat leaves Tampa on the west coast of Florida and sails out through the Tampa Bay into the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. The journey is a week in total and there are two, day stop-overs – one on the Mexican island of Cozumel and the other Roatan, near the coast of Honduras.
However, the itinerary is not THAT important. The boat could sail around in circles and the music fun would be undiminished.
The Cayamo Family Hierarchy
Not everyone is equal in this family.
Cayamo’s popularity has grown and now sells out each year. Priority for booking is based on your past ‘loyalty’ – bookings start with those with the most consecutive (and current) attendances, followed by those that have sailed some time previously and, finally, newcomers who usually need to know someone to get on to the boat.
This was my maiden voyage and, yes, I did know some people on the boat that were instrumental in getting me aboard.
You get a cabin of your choice (and wallet size) ranging from internals, portholes, windows, balconies and suites.
All food is included which is a very welcome feature (unless you are dieting). Copious amounts of well-prepared buffet food are available all the time. You can also use a number of a la carte restaurants without charge – all you need to do is find the time between live sets.
All music is included – this is where the value starts to soar to the heavens.
Some small gifts are provided most days – a bottle of champagne, luggage tags etc. The more Cayamo trips you have made, the more presents you get.
Alcohol and soft drinks. If you want to have a stiff drink of some kind, you can get a drinks package which is pretty expensive, particularly as your cabin mate needs to buy the same package. For example a beer and wine package is around $US72 per day plus a gratuity of 18%. When you times that by two, you really need to get drinking to get value for money.
However, were you on board to absorb as much music as you can and remember it the next day, I would stay clear of the packages if I were you. If you pay as you go, the prices are similar to an up-market restaurant.
If you could not manage to find a bar, you need your eyes checked NOW. They are everywhere with waiters on the lookout for their next customer.
A great selection of Cayamo, Sixthman cruise and artist items were available. T-shirts, CDs, posters, caps, koozies (stubby holders) and plenty more. Reasonable prices too.
If you want to drag yourself away from the music (I didn’t), you could swim, spa, go to the fitness centre, do the jogging track (careful you may get giddy), shuffle board, play bridge (alas not ON the Bridge)
The Music Spaces
The Pool Deck is one large area of regular congregation – great viewing access, either up front in the mosh pit (actually located on top of a large covered pool), seating at the sides or on a higher deck all around the stage. You can spa and paddle in the smaller pool with a great view if you wished.
The two-level Stardust Theatre is impressive, holding 1,000 patrons in great comfort. No matter who was playing you could get right up front provided you lined up around thirty minutes before. These were the only sessions where a reserved seat was the go in the best section of the theatre – these were pre-chosen prior to sailing.
The Spinnaker Deck and the Medusa Lounge are rooms which look like they are set up for disco mayhem. Large dance floors, groovy seats and decorations of colour and taste that you would not want to repeat at home.
The Sports Deck and Atrium are smaller, more intimate spots to catch some music and jamming.
There are over 130 performances during the voyage, from the following performers:
Emmylou Harris, Brandi Carlile, The Wainwright Family, Patty Griffin, Richard Thompson, Buddy Miller, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, Kacey Musgraves, Paul Thorn, Shawn Mullins, Jim Lauderdale, Lee Anne Womack, Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan, Will Hoge, Amy Helm, Maren Morris, Angaleena Presley, North Mississippi All-stars, American Aquarium, Sam Lewis, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Gretchen Peters, Randall Bramblett, Ruby Amanfu, Skyline Motel, Gurf Morlix, Ruston Kelly, Beth Wood, Ryan Hurd, Bonnie Bishop, Christian Lopez, Brian Dunne, The Mulligan Brothers, Sarah Potenza, Trout Steak Revival.
Plus there were song-writing workshops (with Steve Earle), guitar clinics, Thai Chi classes (with Jim Lauderdale), Sand Art tuition (with Kacey Musgraves), guest jams, beer tasting (with Paul Thorn), and Buddy and Jim’s Radio Show, to name a few. As well as stand-alone performances, there were special collaborations that made for some unique musical events.
Essentially there’s music or dialogue about same on all the time – live sets, interviews, sharing songs in the round (one at a time), all-star collaborations, a tribute show (Guy Clark), guitar talk, you name it.
Most performers guest with others and this is where Cayamo finds itself in a league of its own. I have not seen such sharing and surprises, and it makes the standard live show that we see a little mechanical and non-spontaneous. Also, most sets did not exceed one hour so there was never any dragging of performance.
The Music Highlights
The ‘Patty Griffin and Friends’ session included Griffin, Buddy Miller, Rodney Crowell, Lee Ann Womack, Emmylou Harris and Jedd Hughes (crack Australian guitarist). Miller managed a fascinating guitar discussion between Richard Thompson, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Luther Dickinson and an amazing session axeman called Tom Bukovac. Paul Thorn reprised his first album Hammer and Nail in total to celebrate its twentieth anniversary, together with a video about his boxing days, with the whole set recorded. The Guy Clark tribute was breathtaking – close friends Steve Earle and Crowell led the way, along with Harris, Sarah Jarosz, Thorne, Angaleena Presley and Tasjan with talented buddy Brian Wright.
The North Mississippi All-Stars’ had Dominic Davis sit in (Miller’s hand-picked bass player for the cruise and Jack White’s regular colleague. Wow, this session was at 10am and the jamming was a joy to behold. Miller and Jim Lauderdale’s radio show (Sirius XM Outlaw Country) was another treat with guests Earle (who performed his touching new song about Clark -‘Goodbye Michelangelo’, Gurf Morlix and Harris, with an amazing band including violinist Stuart Duncan and wiz Fats Kaplin.
American Aquarium were a new, exciting find and John Paul White displayed his honeyed vocals. Gretchen Peters ran a session of protest songs, which featured Amy Helm, Morlix, and Sarah Potenza.
Many more, but the final one that should be mentioned is the last night’s all-star jam, led by Lyle Lovett’s fiddler Luke Bulla (which has become another worthy Cayamo tradition) and featured just about everyone on the bill doing all sorts of classic and fun songs. It was a memorable way to finish an exhilarating week.
Smooth to slightly choppy
Here’s another aspect that makes Cayamo special – an extremely knowledgeable crowd, respectful (every set where you could hear a pin drop), friendly and highly engaging.
Undoubtedly, one of my favourite festival experiences yet. Going from stage to stage was no issue. The strength of the line-up and the inventiveness in which it was displayed was an eye-opener. Plenty of music all the time but you could relatively easily get to see everyone on the bill. Also, your cabin is always close at hand if you need, say, to recharge your camera batteries, freshen up etc.
Sixthman has announced that the eleventh edition of Cayamo will sail a week earlier next year, starting 4 February 2018 and will be leaving out of New Orleans, rather than Tampa. That would put Mardi Gras time a day or two after getting off the boat.
I have booked a room in The Big Easy the night before it sets sail.
I will work how I am going to get there later.