Mountain Song At Sea: Ten Highlights of the Bluegrass Cruise

Categories: Concert Review

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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."

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