Mountain Song At Sea: Ten Highlights of the Bluegrass Cruise
The Steep Canyon Rangers welcome their banjo buddies onboard
After 60 hours or so on Mountain Song at Sea's maiden voyage, any return to so-called normalcy is a challenge. After all, spending time with some of the greatest name in bluegrass and nu-grass presents an alternative universe where banjos, fiddles, mandolins, and close-knit harmonies not only set the scene, but the soundtrack for an idyllic existence where any care more complicated than finding your way to the next performance seems irrelevant and worlds away.
The latest theme cruise from the good folks at Sixthman, the same gang that brought us the Kid Rock Cruise, Rock Boat, and Cayamo, took a gamble that they could again attract a core group of devotees with a special fondness for a particular musical niche. Happily, it seems to have paid off; after all, there's nothing like a fiddle tune to get people smiling and a few souls on their feet dancing. Never mind that rough seas had the boat rocking on Friday night. The natural sway of the music had the crowd grooving all the way through to the wee hours of Monday morning.
Mountain Song could be termed Sea Cayamo Lite. The latter -- now in its sixth year -- features a broad array of singer/songwriters and Americana artists and has a rarified status with ocean bound music lovers. These are folks who have been spoiled watching some of the greatest artists of the roots rock genre on a ship. Mountain Song is far more focused an adventure, but while the headliners may lack the cache when it comes to the world at large, in the Bluegrass world, the line-up considered several well-revered artists.
The Del McCoury Band, Peter Rowan, Tim O'Brien & Bryan Sutton, and David Grisman represented the more traditional bluegrass faction, while the Punch Brothers, Shannon Whitworth (both holdovers from previous Cayamo cruises), Della Mae, Town Mountain, the Deadly Gentleman, Jon Stickley, and Mandolin Orange gave credence to a newer generation.
Then there were those who breached the age and style divide -- specifically, the Steep Canyon Rangers, the hosts and perceived masterminds behind this foray, and the Kruger Brothers, two Swiss expatriates who have resided in North Carolina for the past 20-something years and, along with their bass player and percussionist, turned in one of the most stunning performances of the entire trip.
Mainly though, Mountain Song at Sea continues the tradition established by all the Sixthman cruises, namely for passengers to mingle with the musicians in both formal and informal encounters, to show them some great music at all hours, and to soak up the friendship and fellowship with like-minded music lovers in an unusual setting.
With that possibility for potential perfection, it's only natural that the cruise offered up numerous memorable moments. Here are our top 10.
10. Steep Canyon Rangers opened and closed the cruise and sandwiched all in-between with a pair of remarkable performances. Partially known as Steve Martin's on-call back-up band, they excel on their own, making music that's both true to their bluegrass roots and exceedingly accessible to anyone simply in search of riveting choruses, flawless playing even at breakneck speeds, and deft technique that's nothing less than dazzling in execution and elocution alike.
9. In their first performance -- on the pool deck, natch -- Tim O'Brien & Bryan Sutton acknowledged that a duo is at a disadvantage when trying to compete with the instrumental arsenal that most bands carry in tow. Nevertheless, they excelled, and when O'Brien implored the crowd to warm up with a "High C" (i.e. "High Seas"), the pun was certainly appreciated.
8. Nevertheless, when it came to one-liners, the Punch Brothers had one up on the competition, and it wasn't necessarily due to their precise and proficient chamber-stringed approach. Playing the ship's main venue in the midst of those particularly rough seas, they made what sounded like an auspicious announcement. "We have a news flash," they declared. "Scientists have just come up with an invention that simulates the feeling of performing drunk. It's called... A BOAT!" And then there was this in rapid succession: "We can now fall off the stage without being criticized."
7. The godfather of modern Bluegrass, Doc Watson, wasn't present, having passed away last May. But his name was evoked at practically every performance. And the continuous flurry of mountain music reminded us of the hallowed traditions which even the youngest players still respect and revere. Ultimately, no one act summed that spirit more succinctly than the Del McCoury Band.
McCoury himself, with his self effacing manner and white pompadour, resembled everybody's idea of the perfect grandfather. His family band was dressed in old school style suits and ties. They did due diligence when it came to harmonies, all leaning in to a single microphone. Like their compatriots -- like all true Bluegrass bands, in fact -- they specialized in rousing train songs. But an accapella gospel number "Get Down on Your Knees and Pray" could make a true believer out of even the most diehard agnostic.
6. Shannon Whitworth extended the Bluegrass parameters the furthest, opting for some soulful singer/songwriter fare, some of which was culled from her sensational new album High Tide.
"This goes out to all you people who like sad songs," she announced before going into a heartbreaking tune about a beloved dog that passed away. "Are you feeling good," she asked at the song's conclusion, obviously intending to invoke the party spirit. But coming on the heels of that particular tearjerker, this hardcore animal lover felt... Um, a little bit of melancholia. So credit Whitworth with playing cheerleader for life at its finest during her second set. "What a great time to be alive, to be healthy, to be eating French fries," she enthused, obviously allowing the ship's cuisine to affect her enthusiasm.
5. David Grisman, a man who's played sessions with everybody from Jerry Garcia to Stephane Grappelli, echoed the awe that nearly every one of his fellow performers expressed over the course of the cruise. "I've never taken a cruise where I've been surrounded by such fantastic musicians!" Then again, he's one to talk. His sextet proffered a riveting blend of bluegrass and Django Reinhardt-styled jazz, a nonstop series of spectacular solos that showed off each member's remarkable dexterity. "Pretty good for a Jewish kid from New Jersey," he marveled at one point.
4. As is the cases with any music cruise or festival, new discoveries were plentiful. There was the Kruger Brothers, led by two larger than life siblings, presented playing that was delicate and precise in the style of tender English folk music (their two covers, Sting's "Fields of Gold" and a somber "People Get Ready" were absolutely inspiring).
Then Della Mae, pyrotechnic performers who refer to themselves as "a bluegrass band who happened to be women," rather than the other way around, as some are prone to label them, impressed. And Mandolin Orange, a winsome young quartet adept at weathered ballads in the style of Townes Van Zandt was also memorable.
3. A Sunday panel discussion hosted by the Bluegrass Situation's delightful Amy Reitnouer and Emilee Warner featured several of the younger musicians espousing on growing up in bluegrass traditions, oftentimes as offspring of famous musical parentage. A bit of trivia came courtesy of the Punch Brothers" Critter: A) the nickname was bequeathed him by his parents, and B) the name the Punch Brothers was borrowed from a Mark Twain novel entitled Punch Brother Punch, the hero of which is a man fixated on a train conductor's song. Ironically, the Punch Brothers are one of the few bands that don't play train songs.
2. Town Mountain Band best expressed the nomadic musician lifestyle that many of us yearn for. "It's wonderful traveling the world making music with your best friends," they insisted. And even when that world is confined to a crowded pool deck aboard the Norwegian Sky, few in attendance would likely disagree.
1. Finally, Peter Rowan offered the perfect ending to the perfect weekend sojourn, a prolonged version of Woody Guthrie's "Goodnight Irene" that had musicians and audience singing along in harmony. The last planned notes of a weekend full of high notes and highlights, they capped memories that will linger long and last, at least until the next opportunity for new memories to be made.
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