I always feel inadequate when I’m in Gustavia. That’s because…
Hold it just a second. I was about to go on a mini-rant about the capital of St. Barths, which is an impossibly rich, impossibly beautiful, impossibly French (mostly) and impossibly perfect Caribbean island. This first sentence would indicate that I have been in Gustavia more than once, which I have, and the fact that I dropped this so casually means I might be taking this for granted, which is stupid.
I went to St. Barths as part of my third Cayamo — which was, as always, filled with jaw-dropping moments. I could go on and on about those (and I often have here) but the fact is, now that I’ve done this festival three times, I’ve come to expect impossibility. I’ve had similar thoughts at other points in my wildly improbable life. For some reason, I think all of this craziness I’ve found myself in the middle of at different life points is just normal.
But I also turned 55 on this particular trip, and perhaps that milestone turned on my introspective gene a bit, so I’m trying to work on the gratitude thing. And what I feel today is grateful for the week I just had.
I’m a kid from a middle-class small-town Midwestern family. It was no small miracle that I went to college at all, or that I ever left my home town (where my lifetime social status was firmly established by the time I finished third grade), or that I managed to have a career in this ridiculous business, or that this career is the kind that one out of 5,000 journalists might get to have, or that I somehow managed to have that and keep playing music in public for decades, or that I ever met or married my amazing wife (whose life might be even more improbable than mine). And yet I so often have taken all of this for granted.
I’m trying to give up that attitude, so this was the Cayamo where I thought a lot about gratitude. Thus, I offer 10 developments that made me grateful at this Cayamo:
1. A whole wave of friends I typically see only on the boat. They really are the nicest, most generous people. They also care deeply about the music — and the musicians — in the best possible way. I am honored and incredibly grateful to know them, and due to an advanced case of introverted Midwesterness, I honestly don’t follow up with them as much as I should. I’m hoping to change that.
2. Watching the musicians enjoy themselves so much. You have to understand what life is like for most of them: They live out of broken-down vans and crappy motels and get $20 daily meal allowances if they’re lucky. Suddenly they don’t have a care in the world and are floating around in the Caribbean and get to hang out with each other for pretty much the only time ever, and they get food poured down their pie-holes for free and half-price drinks at the casino bar if the guests aren’t tossing them free drinks on the spot. John Fullbright, for example, noted at one show that he could not resist the allure of a piano next to a bar, and we plied him with drinks when he showed up at that piano and played with a bunch of other musicians until 5 a.m.
3. Seeing some wonderful things through my wife’s eyes. She is not the pathetic music-head that I am and so she is more often surprised at performances. Example: She knew of John Prine and some of his songs, but she’d never heard “Hello In There” until she heard him sing it on the boat. I looked over and she was crying. Music rarely touches me in that way any more — I’ve heard and played so much of it for so long — but Prine’s been doing that to a lot of people for most of my life. She reminded me of what I was missing.
4. Michelle Malone. She kicks ass. (She put on a softer show in one of the lounges, and that show did help show everyone that she is more versatile than you might think after seeing her at a raging amp’d-up show, but come on: She kicks ass. And she had a little amp out of the Supro/Valco/National school — a dirty little sideshow geek of a rig that only ass-kickers are permitted to play. It’s a rule. You can look it up.)
5. Soft serve 24/7. It’s good for what ails you. I’ve been told the half-and-half mixes well with dark rum in a coffee cup.
6. The Lone Bellow. Goddamn. They released their new album on the ship. Their new recordings are really strong (always a great sign from a sophomore effort), and they are one of the best live acts I’ve seen in decades. And again: The nicest people.
7. The most improbable concert of all — Lisa Mills in an outdoor setting at the stern of the ship. She’s been working in joints in (mostly) the South and Gulf Coast pretty much forever, and I never would have heard about her at all if it wasn’t for the aforementioned Cayamo friends. She came on as a guest, entered an open mic, won it and was so great that Richard Thompson’s backline showed up to do the gig she got as the prize (Thompson’s drummer played a trash can with brushes, carefully mic’d by the sound man). Watching in the back was Jim Lauderdale, who liked her so much after she opened for him some months ago that he sent her a song, and she sang it there while he listened. So to wrap it up: Struggling musician gets backed up by RT’s band at the stern of a cruise ship while one of the heroes of Americana listens to her play his song. Yeah, that really happened.
8. The craps table, which was kind enough once again to serve as my personal ATM. When the blackjack table turned against me, I’d slip off to my friend Mr. Craps and make a withdrawal so my wife and I could continue our gaming adventures. (Note to Humming House: It was great to play craps with all of you, but after a while, I just felt sorry for you.)
9. To the mysterious Alvis, wherever you are: We were grateful to meet you the first five or six times. However, I want to assure you we were not stalking you. We just kept running into you, on the pool deck, in the casino, at every stage, on every island. WE WERE NOT STALKING YOU. In fact, in hindsight, I have to wonder if you were stalking us.
10. Finally, in a reversal of form here, Richard F. Thompson should be grateful to me for not telling my wife who he was until after he passed us on that sidewalk near the Miami airport. He was all alone and probably headed to the grocery store we’d just left on a pre-cruise supply run. If my wife knew that she was walking past one of the greatest guitarists and songwriters who ever lived, one that pretty much every guitarist on the ship considered a living god, but one who can be prickly if people mess with him…well, I’d rather not project the outcome. We all just moved along. Nothing to see here.
So I’m feeling all grateful now, and if nothing else, I have Cayamo to thank for that. It’s not what you expect to learn from a vacation, but most of my life has not been what you or I ever would have expected, so there you go.