It’s 4 a.m. The Norwegian Pearl is north of St. Barths, heading back home to Miami on a two-day voyage. At a bar near the stern, I’ve been jamming with a half-dozen guitarists of various skill sets, along with Brian Buchanan of Enter the Haggis, Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek and (lately) The Decemberists, a couple of Irish musicians who are fantastic and apparently famous in their home country, and a husband-and-wife team on guitar and dobro who ducked out before I could find out who they are — a development that I will regret forever because I was hoping they were from my neck of the woods and we could form a band.
My wife, who has watched me play since the mid-1990s and is amused by all of this, has been sitting at the bar nearby and reading a paperback. But what she’s really been doing is chatting up the other passers-by and listening like a good journalist. She comes over to me.
“Walk around the corner to the staircase right now,” she says. I do what I am told.
At the landing of the enormous aft staircase is Sean Watkins (Sara’s brother and a really good musician in his own right) along with Joe Purdy. Sitting on the steps are various hangers-on, along with staffers from the company that chartered the ship and freaks like me who are still out at this hour. David Ryan Harris tries to sneak by, apparently on his way to bed, but the entire crowd chants “DA-VID! DA-VID! DA-VID!” until he joins Watkins and Purdy on the landing. And they all play.
Watkins nods to Purdy, who asks the small crowd what they want to hear. “Play a guilty pleasure!” someone yells. Purdy launches into “Like A Rolling Stone.” After the second chorus comes around, I pull out a harp and start playing the solo in there. People really seem to like it, although it’s a long song and I don’t want to annoy people with too much harmonica from someone who’s not a performer on the boat.
The jam goes on, covering some Creedence here, some Stones there, a little bluegrass, a little soul. I get to sing a little and play a little at times. And finally Watkins says he’ll do one last song, and the whole group launches into “The Weight,” the old chestnut from The Band that almost everyone on board could sing by heart. We kick around a few verses out of order, and then a crowd member starts singing verses from other songs that fit perfectly. One example (and again, remember that this verse was set to the melody of “The Weight”):
A little ditty ’bout Jack and Diane
Two American kids doing the best they caaaaan
Jackie’s gonna be a football star
Diane’s doin’ time in the back seat of Jackie’s car
Take a load off, Fannie…
And on and on and on. And that was the highlight of Cayamo for me.
I cruised for more than 2,000 miles on a megaship, visited the Dominican Republic, St. Maarten and St. Barths, listened to dozens of folkies, old rockers, country people, Americana and alt-whatever artists, watched the final concert from The Civil Wars before the duo flew off to L.A. mid-trip and picked up two Grammys, finally got to hear John Prine, Iris Dement and James McMurtry after all of these years, wondered how I missed out on Shawn Mullins for so long, couldn’t figure out why I never thought of Chuck Cannon as anything other than a songwriter, sidestepped most of the sets from the sensitive-folk-women-with-guitars, which is just not my thing (addendum: see the comments), saw Lucinda again, thought the Ryan Montbleau Band could smoke most of the musicians on board and watched the Belle Brigade kick 12 kinds of butt. I also played some blackjack, tossed around the dice a few times and ran up a scary bar tab.
But it was that moment, as I sat on the staircase of the ship at an hour when I usually get up and go to work, that will stick with me forever.
I hope to go back to Cayamo some day. It’s an expensive vacation, even for a music freak like me, and it’s a lot to ask of my not-music-freakish wife to go along for such a pricey self-indulgence again. But I’ll never forget this week ever, ever, ever. And if any of the musicians I met need a harp player…well, look me up.
Update 2/28: If you are a Facebook member, you can see a nice slice of the jam here. And below is how the jam started, with Sixthman staffer (and Atlanta musician) Sonia Tetlow hitting some very cool guitar riffs…and then Sara Watkins walks up…and things just went from there: