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Cruise stacks the decks with bluegrass

At sea, February 1, 2013

Reviewed by Lee Zimmerman

Other recent concert reviews
Mountain Song At Sea could be termed Sea Cayamo Lite. The latter - now in its sixth year - features a wide array of singer/songwriters and Americana artists singing on a cruise and has, over the years, attained a special status with ocean bound music lovers who look forward to the opportunity to catch some of the greatest names in the genre.

Mountain Song is far more focused, but while the headliners may lack the cache when it comes to those larger than life personas, in the bluegrass world, the line-up is well revered.

Over the course of a single weekend (Feb. 1-4), one could find the Del McCoury Band, Peter Rowan, Tim O'Brien and Bryan Sutton and David Grisman representing the more traditional terrain, The Punch Brothers, Shannon Whitworth (both holdovers from previous Cayamo cruises), Della Mae, Town Mountain Band, the Deadly Gentleman, Jon Stickley and Mandolin Orange giving credence to a newer generation, and The Steep Canyon Rangers and the Kruger Brothers finding a comfortable middle ground.

Mountain Song at Sea is the latest theme cruise from the good folks at Sixthman - the same gang that offers the Kid Rock Cruise, Rock Boat and Cayamo - who admittedly took a gamble by attempting to attract a core group of devotees with a special fondness for bluegrass. Happily, it seems to have paid off; after all, there's nothing like banjos, fiddles, mandolins and close-knit harmonies to get people smiling and on their feet and dancing. And make no mistake, there were plenty of them.

The cruise's de-facto hosts, The Steep Canyon Rangers, opened and closed the cruise and sandwiched all in-between with a pair of remarkable performances that drew heavily from their latest album, the somewhat ironically titled "Nobody Knows You."

Known to the world at large mainly 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 at breakneck speeds and deft technique that's nothing less than dazzling in its execution.

Not surprisingly then, during their first onboard performance on the pool deck, bluegrass veterans O'Brien and Sutton acknowledged that being in a duo can be a disadvantage when trying to compete with the instrumental arsenal that most bands carry in tow. Nevertheless, they excelled with their tight interplay of guitar and mandolin, and when O'Brien implored the crowd to warm up with a "High C" (i.e. High Seas), the pun only added to the fun.

When it came to one-liners, the Punch Brothers had some of the best punch lines of all. Playing the ship's main venue during some particularly rough seas, they took a moment from their precise chamber-stringed set up to offer 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 in rapid succession: "We can now fall off the stage without being criticised." As always though, the band was a marvel, not for their humour perhaps, but certainly for their deft technique.

Also on the subject of the Punch Brothers, a Sunday panel discussion featuring several of the younger musicians espousing on growing up in bluegrass traditions, relayed a bit of trivia courtesy of the Punch Brothers' Critter. Those in attendance discovered he was given the nickname by his parents and the name the Punch Brothers was borrowed from a Mark Twain novel entitled "Punch Brother Punch." The hero of the story 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.

The godfather of modern bluegrass, Doc Watson, couldn't be present - sadly, he passed away last May - but his name was evoked during practically every performance. Certainly the continuous flurry of mountain music reminded one and all 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. Indeed, with his self effacing manner and white pompadour, McCoury himself resembled everybody's ideal of the perfect grandfather, while his family band, dressed old school style in suits and ties, did due diligence when it came to harmonies, all of them leaning over a single microphone. A sprightly and appropriate rendition of Nashville Cats showed they weren't above borrowing from the pop world, but like all old time bluegrass bands, they specialised in rousing train songs although gospel numbers like Where the Soul Never Dies and Get Down on Your Knees and Pray could make a true believer out of even the most diehard agnostic.

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.

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. For now however, the highlife offered highlights in the form of High Tide from the new album and a particularly poignant take on Paul Simon's Duncan, sung by guitarist Barrett Smith.

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 marvelled at one point. It was not only pretty good...it was awesome. And given the nature of the circumstance, choosing to play Bluegrass at the Beach was a nice choice as well. In fact, one would also have to complement the choice of Gypsy Night as well.

Most music cruises and festivals offer opportunity for a great discovery, and here the Kruger Brothers, led by two siblings originally from Switzerland joined by their bass player and a percussionist won that role. Their playing was delicate and precise in the style of tender English folk music. Their original music, drawn over the course of more than a dozen albums, was breathtaking, while their two covers, Sting's Fields of Gold and a sobering People Get Ready were nothing less than inspiring.

Other kudos were earned by Della Mae, pyrotechnic performers who refer to themselves as "a bluegrass band who happened to be women" (rather than the other way around), and Mandolin Orange, a winsome young quartet adept at weathered ballads in the style of Townes Van Zandt. All three acts gave must-see performances that resonated long after the festival had finished.

Ultimately, 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.