MARTHA’S VINEYARD — Ask musician Nina Violet about the music scene here 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.
It’s true that the island is no longer home to the Hot Tin Roof nightclub, the folksy Wintertide Coffee House, and the progressive radio station WMVY. The first two no longer exist and WMVY is now online only. Yet music still has a heartbeat here.
From 2007 to 2011, if you happened to be at the dock in Menemsha, the fishing village on the east end of the island, on Sunday night around 7, you might have had the surprise treat of hearing the local all-acoustic hillbilly band Ballyhoo.
Brad Tucker, 33, irrepressible front man for the group renamed the Ballywhooligans, lives in Nashville most of the year. Reached recently, Tucker said he will be back on the island in September and October playing gigs at the Ritz Cafe in Oak Bluffs and the Port Hunter in Edgartown.
Tucker, who is from an old island family, remembers sneaking into the Ritz Cafe as a kid and listening to musicians such as Mike Benjamin and Johnny Hoy. Tucker’s father, who plays acoustic guitar, encouraged him to pursue music, as did island musician Jemima James, among others.
Tucker is perhaps an example of a phenomenon coined by Jim Parr, a longtime local music producer: “You can’t leave the Vineyard. You can try,” he said.
Parr was interviewed recently as he was helping out at the island charter school’s talent show at the West Tisbury Grange Hall and awaiting the next act: a kid with a Ninja whistle routine. “This is a very Vineyard scene,” he said with a laugh.
On any given summer weekend you might hear rock, folk, rap, reggae, and bluegrass. Or you could hear something completely different, like the haunting songs of Violet, 30, a fourth-generation islander, who started playing the viola at age 6 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 16 with the island punk band Kahoots. At 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. 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.”
Violet has performed off the island at venues like Lizard Lounge in Cambridge in recent years and talks about heading south soon, to Nashville, Asheville, N.C., or even New Orleans, in search of a music scene.
Not all musicians leave. Phil DaRosa, 34, 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, DaRosa 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.”
For the past few years Rob Myers, 41, has organized Best Fest, an end-of-summer outdoor art and music celebration with local bands. This year the event is Sept. 7 on Circuit Avenue.
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 Vineyard’s six towns, 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 called 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 bars lined up on Circuit Avenue, the Ritz Cafe, the Dive Bar (formerly the Rare Duck), and the Lampost. But there is 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 restaurateur 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 island’s seasonality, he said, “It’s tough to be a musician on Martha’s Vineyard and tough to be a venue owner.”
Another large 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 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. He believes music is intrinsic to the Vineyard and will always be a part of what makes it special. The key to the local music scene, according to Lombardi, is the long winters. “Music soothes the heart of the isolated human being,” he said.
Lily Cronig, 21, a 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.