Tuesday, February 19, 2008

ETA Bluegrass Cruise - Monday - San Juan

el Morro Castle - San Juan, Puerto Rico
The ETA Bluegrass Cruise is an interesting combination of cruise and bluegrass festival. People wanting to maximize their bluegrass experience can attend the Ross Nickerson banjo workshop which also provides private instruction in other instruments. Conducted by Ross Nickerson of BanjoTeacher.com and assisted by the recently retired Alan Munde, this workshop provides beginner, intermediate and advanced instruction. A space on the ship has been set aside for people who want to jam or practice, and we’ve participated in one jam, which was fun but above my head as a picker. Each evening, ETA offers a concert featuring three bands, and there will be a big party at a beach in St. Martin. Cruisers wishing to attend regular shipboard events or participate in the broad range of other activities offered on a cruise ship have plenty of time to do so. When the Liberty of the Seas is in port, people can leave, people can leave the ship on their own to explore or engage in any of the varied activities scheduled by Royal Caribbean. These range from guided walking tours to deep sea fishing, SCUBA diving, and kayak paddling trips. The off-ship activities are relatively expensive, but they provide lots of alternatives. It would take a very jaded person or one with a quite limited range of interests to have time to get bored on a cruise ship.
Liberty of the Seas at Pier
Yesterday I had discovered I could get twenty-four hour coffee at a place called the Promenade CafĂ©. On Monday I learned that the food served there is also free. The only charges are for specialty coffees. In the morning you can get pastries and donuts. Later in the day there’re sandwiches just in case you didn’t get enough food in the dining room. A pizza place called Sorrento’s also supplies Panini and other kinds of snacks until 3:00 A.M. A person who stays away from specialty coffees and alcohols can eat almost 24 hours a day. For those wishing something special, there’re a steak house and an Italian restaurant on board where higher end foods can be purchased at a premium. Since the kitchen will supply nearly unlimited amounts of what’s on the menu plus additional foods for those who don’t find what they want on the dinner menu, there’s no need and little incentive to use the high end restaurants. Nevertheless, they appear to do a booming business.

Cobbled Street in San Juan

Residential/Commercial Street - San Juan
Our day began with a crisis as I left my power cord and transformer in a martini bar called Olive 0r Twist where I went to write my blog. I arrived back in our cabin to discover it wasn’t in my bag, blamed Irene for having left it, and ran up elevator and down stairs searching for it. We reported the loss to guest services on deck five, then came back to the bar only to find my equipment neatly wrapped on the bar. After reporting our find to guest services and heaving a great sigh of relief, we headed up to the Flow Rider on the sports deck at the top of the ship for our first planned activity of the day. Think of the Liberty of the Sea as a fourteen story luxury hotel with two elevator cores and a number of hallways providing fore and aft access. All the dining rooms are located towards the rear. The theaters and sport activities lie amidships or toward the prow. Our cabin is aft and passengers must learn to negotiate the system to get to the end of the ship providing access to their destination. Despite numerous ship models with very accurate maps of the elevator and stair systems, it still takes some doing to get where you want to go.

Skip Cherryholmes on Flow Rider

Skip Cherryholmes of the band Cherryholmes and Tami Butler, wife of Jerry Butler from Lorrain Jordan and Carolina Road had decided to venture onto the Flow Rider at 11:00 A.M, so Irene and I found good seats to watch this adventure. We sat in the sun and wind and watched kids and adults try their surfing skills on the Wave Rider. This apparatus provides a well padded surface over which masses of water are sent pouring uphill. The rider starts at the top and jumps onto a boogey board and a small surfboard. Experienced riders can eventually get to their feet and do a variety of surfing moves and the never-ending wave. Neither Skip nor Tami had ever ridden this equipment, although Skip spent part of his youth in California and had surfed. After waiting in line at watching others, their anxiety grew as they headed towards the top of the line. They each had very successful rides, cruise members who came had a good laugh, and the pictures tell the “rest of the story.”

Tami (Mrs. Jerry) Butler

Mission Accomplished
After lunch we went back to our cabin where I finished my blog and posted it before lying down for a nap. It’s worth noting that hand cleaning stations are placed at every eating location, in bathrooms, and at other appropriate locations around the ship. Passengers and crew are encouraged to wash their hands frequently and the ship’s crew is obviously eager to encourage people to do everything they can to avoid the spread of the various ailments that have plagued some ships in recent years. The entire ship is kept scrupulously clean.

Alan Bibey, Phil Leadbetter, and Steve Gulley with Bradley Walker
Irene wakes me around 3:00 PM to let me know we’re coming up on Puerto Rico and soon Moro Castle appears on the port (left) side. Moro Castle is a brooding old fortress dating back to the seventeenth century. San Juan is the second oldest European founded city in the western hemisphere, dating back to 1521. Only San Cristobal in what is now the Dominican Republic is older. Puerto Rico is 110 miles long and 35 miles in width at its widest point. The San Juan metropolitan area has a population of around two million, roughly half the population of the entire island. From our ship we could see the old city come into view and a wharf where three other cruise boats were already berthed. Liberty of the Sea effortlessly nosed into its berth. The propellers of this ship can rotate in a 360 degree arc, allowing the ship’s master to go sideways and obviating the need for tug boats. Watching the docking procedure is an interesting venture each time you reach of leave port. The island itself is mountainous and lovely. San Juan is an old city perched on the edge of a beautiful bay.

Nearly four thousand people eager to hit the shops and walk the streets create quite a crush at the gangways, so we went back to our cabin to wait until the rush to exit was over. We then strolled down the pier and into the city. San Juan features narrow, cobbled streets whose houses are painted lovely pastel colors. As we moved away from the vendors and past the standard tourist stores found around where tour boats unload into a more residential area, we were occasionally able to get a peek into a courtyard or apartment. These buildings present a closed face to the street and then open into spacious courtyards inside. Unfortunately, Monday must be trash collection day, because trash bags littered almost every corner and the odor was strong. We walked across the peninsula past small parks, along the wall of an old fort, and eventually emerged to see Morro Castle spread out below us. It was closed and we wanted to get back to the ship for dinner and the evening’s bluegrass event. I’d like to see something of Puerto Rico away from the immediate tourist area, which is always crowded; even more so because of the picturesque narrow streets of the old city.

Steve Wallach - Host and Emcee

Mark Newton

The evening’s program presented two great bands and an award winning singer. We lingered a little long before getting to the Sphinx Lounge for the evening program where Mark Newton was already on stage when we arrived. We had never heard the Mark Newton Band before. His personnel are all very solid with Beth Lawrence on bass providing a solid beat as well as a lovely singing voice, whether harmony or lead. Tony Wray on banjo is a fine player who has until recently played with the John Cowan Band. Newton played a set which offered bluegrass standards and more recent tunes. His sound is pleasant and provided a good start for the evening.

The Mark Newton Band

Cia Cherryholmes
Cherryholmes has been tearing up the bluegrass circuit for three of four years and has moved into a crossover range where they are playing more concerts on the arts circuit as well as Americana festivals. A venue such as this cruise provides more opportunity for interaction with performers than is even available at festivals. Irene and I had a chance to chat with Skip Cherryholmes at length during breakfast. He talked about the band’s move into newer venues and said he thought they were introducing new fans to bluegrass through the diversity and energy of their music. Also, Cherryholmes is working with the Portland Symphony Orchestra to create a work using the breadth and depth of a full orchestra in conjunction with their sound. Cherryholmes, founded after the tragic loss of a daughter when parents Jere and Sandy Leigh wanted find a family activity which would lead to healing from their loss, have been creating an more diverse sound than many bluegrass bands offer. They play straight ahead bluegrass, and have added jazz, swing, and rock-influenced elements to their music. I was floored on Monday night when fourteen year old Molly Kate, BJ, and Skip formed a trio with Molly Kate’s fiddling sounding much like Stephan Grapelli, the legendary jazz fiddler, while Skip’s lightning fast guitar work was reminiscent of Django Rhineheart, a gypsy great. BJ, when I asked him, said he supposed his mandolin playing on this piece was heavily influenced by David Grisman’s playing. Cherryholmes finished their set with an energetic six part harmony to “Oh, Mary Don’t You Weep,” which was a jazzy, black church oriented piece that swung. I was particularly struck during this set with the growth in Molly Kate’s fiddle playing, which showed virtuosity and maturity not so much in evidence a year ago. Both Skip and BJ, on guitar and fiddle, have also grown enormously as musicians. Their singing, too, is much improved.

Molly Kate Cherryholmes

Skip Cherryholmes

Bradley Walker backed by Cherryholmes
The last act of the evening presented IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year Bradley Walker backed by Cherryholmes. Walker is bound to a wheelchair, being a victim of muscular dystrophy. With his painfully distorted body, it seems a miracle that this very talented young man can even get to the stage. When he begins to sing, a new world opens up. I had written after the IBMA awards in October that I thought he was primarily a country singer rather than a bluegrass one. This performance put the lie to my earlier remarks. While a good deal of his work is flavored with country music sounds, Walker is at home with bluegrass music and presented a marvelous performance. Supported by Cia Cherryholmes’ harmonies, he sold his music with verve and skill. The wheelchair and body disappear into the music as his performance goes on.

Bradley Walker and Beth Lawrence (Mark Newton)
After the bluegrass show, there was enough time for us to attend one of the regular performance offered by the cruise line. Held in the Platinum Theater, the largest room on the ship, this piece of formless music, dance, and aerial performance combined elaborate, not to say outrageous, costumes with flying acrobats, land-based dancers, and singers. The less said about this bit of fluff, the better.
Jere Cherryholmes

Sandy Leigh Cherryholmes

We headed for bed around noon and slept soundly as The Liberty of the Seas headed for St. Maarten.

Bradley Walker