Mountain Song At Sea: Ten Highlights of the Bluegrass Cruise
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.