OAK BLUFFS, MARTHA’S VINEYARD – Ask musician Nina Violet about the music scene on Martha’s Vineyard and she doesn’t miss a beat.
“There is no Vineyard music scene. The Vineyard is where musicians come to not be in a scene,” she said.
Well, yes and no.
Isn’t this the island that is the home of the iconic nightclub Hot Tin Roof, and the folksy Wintertide Coffee House and the progressive radio station WMVY?
Actually no, it isn’t.
The first two no longer exist and WMVY is now online only. ** UPDATED: WMVY is back on the airwaves at 88.7 FM **
Yet music still has a heartbeat on Martha’s Vineyard.
There were a few years—between about 2007 and 2011—when if you happened to be at the dock in Menemsha, the fishing village on the west end of the island, buying your fish dinner on a Sunday night around 7 PM, you might get the surprise treat of hearing the local all-acoustic hillbilly band Ballyhoo.
It was an unforgettable “only on Martha’s Vineyard” experience.
Brad Tucker, 33, irrepressible front man for what are now called the Ballywhooligans—due to a copyright problem with the original name—lives and records in Nashville most of the year.
Reached recently in Austin, Texas, Tucker said he will be back on the island in October playing gigs at the Ritz Café in Oak Bluffs and the Port Hunter in Edgartown.
Tucker, who is from an old island family, remembers sneaking into the Ritz Café as a kid and listening to musicians like Mike Benjamin and Johnny Hoy. His father, who plays acoustic guitar, encouraged him to pursue music, as did island musicians Jemima James, among others.
He is perhaps an example of a phenomenon coined by Jim Parr, a longtime Vineyard music producer.
“You can’t leave the Vineyard. You can try,” he said.
Parr was interviewed recently as he was helping out at island charter school’s talent show at the West Tisbury Grange Hall awaiting the next act: a kid with a Ninja whistle routine.
“This is a very Vineyard scene,” he said with a laugh.
FOLKSY SOUL & MORE
On any given weekend on the Vineyard, you might hear rock, folk, rap, reggae, and bluegrass.
Or you could hear something completely different, like the haunting songs of Nina Violet.
Violet, 30, a fourth-generation islander, started playing the viola at age six but was inspired in middle school by a teacher who “called her out” for not taking music seriously.
Since then she has picked up a range of instruments from guitar to mandolin, to lap steel to clarinet.
Her music is folksy soul, like Laura Nyro mixed with Lucinda Williams plus a viola.
Violet first toured cross-country at age 16 with the island punk band, Kahoots. At age 20, she toured in Europe with island folk rocker, Willy Mason.
As for the Vineyard, at the moment, she said, there is “a severe lull” in venues but she said she keeps busy working on arrangements for other people’s music, as well as her own.
Her musical dream is “to get an orchestra to back me up on my own compositions. Gowns and a conductor, the whole thing. Until then, I just have to make it myself, which works out.”
She has performed off island at venues like Lizard Lounge in Cambridge in recent years and talks about heading south soon, to Nashville, Asheville or even New Orleans, in search of a music scene.
Though some musicians leave, others stick around trying to make the local scene hum.
A good example is Phil DaRosa, 34, who has built a recording studio on the top floor of his father’s print shop on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs as a way to help his friends get their music noticed.
“I honestly think there are so many talented artists here that don’t get a lot of exposure,” DaRosa said.
A singer songwriter on his own, DaRosa also plays in several island bands including DCLA (Dukes County Love Affair), a gritty blues rock band with hip hop elements; Island Thunder Band, which plays traditional reggae; and Kodachrome, which he describes as “fully electronic.”
Another Island music scene influencer is Rob Myers, 41, has for the past few years organized Best Fest, an end of summer outdoor art and music celebration with local bands.
A summer Vineyard kid, Myers formed Kahoots in 1994. Soon after, they set off on a cross-country tour.
The band is still going strong but these days they limit their tours to the six towns of Martha’s Vineyard, with a sound Myers said is hard to pin down: “part aggressive punk rock, part dance music, with some songs that are quiet and melancholy.”
Myers is also in the American roots music band, Good Night Louise; the straight-up punk band, Master Explorer; an all-instrumental surf music band, the Hammerheads; and his solo project, Jellybone Rivers and the Maniacs of the Heart, which he calls, “oddball outsider music.”
As to where to hear all this music, there are many options.
For late night action, there are the down and dirty bars lined up on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs, the Ritz Café, the Dive Bar (formerly the Rare Duck) and the Lampost.
But there is now also the new deluxe venue Dreamland, a 5,300-square-foot upstairs space, opened last summer in Oak Bluffs, in a historic building just steps from the harbor.
Vineyard restauranteur JB Blau opened Dreamland because he thought the Vineyard could use a venue in downtown Oak Bluffs that could hold enough people to support big acts from off-island and the accompanying local acts as openers.
Because of the seasonality of the island, he said, “It’s tough to be a musician on Martha’s Vineyard and tough to be a venue owner.”
Another large Island venue is Flatbread Company Martha’s Vineyard, a pizza restaurant that is the new occupant of the space formerly known as the Hot Tin Roof at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport. Live music is scheduled there this summer on the big stage inside and a smaller stage outside.
Tony Lombardi, who ran the former Wintertide Coffee House from 1988 to 1998, now heads up Alex’s Place, the teen program at the YMCA on Martha’s Vineyard.
He believes music is intrinsic to the island and will always be a part of what makes it special.
The key to the island music scene, according to Lombardi, are the long winters.
“Music soothes the heart of the isolated human being,” he said.
Lily Cronig, a 21-year-old islander who is clerk at Aboveground Records, said island musicians are a unique breed.
“They have a very earnest sound and that’s really what does it for me. That they’re just having fun and doing what they love,” she said.
Sounds like a scene.
– Laura M. Reckford