Christine Ohlman recalls playing a Halloween show on Martha’s Vineyard sometime in the mid-’80s, at a club called the Hot Tin Roof. Co-owned then by Carly Simon, the Roof was the centerpiece of a vibrant music scene on the island.
“Back then, if you went to New Haven, you went to Toad’s Place. If you went to Providence, you went to Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel,” says Ohlman, the longtime vocalist for the “Saturday Night Live” Band, who was fronting Christine Ohlman & the Soul Rockets back in the ‘80s. “That’s what the Hot Tin Roof was to Martha’s Vineyard.”
The club was packed for the Halloween show, and because it was off-season, the crowd was mostly year-rounders. Ohlman was dressed as Marie Antoinette that night, her trademark blond beehive hairdo replaced by a curly black wig, but competition was fierce in the costume contest. “There was a guy that was completely nude, except he had a strategically placed plastic pumpkin that was held in place by a G-string,” she says. “But the guy that won was dressed up as, quote unquote, the drowning at Chappaquiddick.”
Though the Roof is long gone, following a parade of subsequent owners and name changes, Adam Epstein wants his Beach Road Weekend festival to re-create that sense of Martha’s Vineyard as a place where live music is a catalyst for memorable community events — but in a family-friendly way, maybe with fewer outré costumes. This year’s edition of Beach Road Weekend, happening Aug. 26-28, features the Avett Brothers, Beck, and Wilco as headliners, along with scheduled performances by Khruangbin, Guster, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Lucinda Williams, and Emmylou Harris. The festival benefits the nonprofit Friends of Martha’s Vineyard Concert Series, which promotes live music on the island.
“We’ve been fighting hard to bring it back and bring back that young, vital enthusiasm for live music which used to exist here,” says Epstein, who discovered the island’s music scene when he first spent a summer there in 1988 as a college student.
His Chicago-based production company, Innovation Arts and Entertainment, got off to a good start in 2019, booking a three-day event that featured John Fogerty, Phil Lesh & Friends, Dispatch, and Grace Potter. That year, Beach Road Weekend amounted to a proof-of-concept event, when Epstein and his crew showed local residents, and themselves, that it was possible to hold a modestly sized music festival on Martha’s Vineyard. Then came 2020, when there was no festival. Beach Road Weekend returned in a scaled-down form in 2021, featuring the Tedeschi Trucks Band and a reduced capacity of 2,000 people at Veterans Memorial Park in Vineyard Haven, which can hold 12,000. This year, Epstein is ready to realize the vision he started with.
“We knew then that it had potential, and it was just about building the right budget and the right model to reach that audience,” says Epstein, who splits his time between Chicago and the Vineyard. “And right now, it’s everything we wanted it to be.”
One of the things he wanted it to be was a festival for island residents, and not just tourists. This year, Beach Road Weekend offered discounted weekend passes that were available for purchase only in person, on the island.
“Of course there’s affluence here, but there’s also a very tight working class that works every day really hard to survive,” Epstein says. “We want to pay tribute to both sides of this island, you know, both its tourism economy, but also the people that work their asses off here every year.”
Esptein also recognized that reviving a once-lively music scene would take more than one music festival each summer. This year, the Martha’s Vineyard Concert Series that his company books has shows scheduled all season long in three different venues, by acts including Graham Nash, the Indigo Girls, Deer Tick, and the Blind Boys of Alabama. One of those venues, a 400-capacity room called the Loft, features a new $100,000 sound and lighting system.
“They talk a lot here about not wanting [the island] to change,” Epstein says. “But in reality, it was changing a lot right before our eyes, where culture was being lost to real estate. And so we’ve been investing in trying to figure out how to bring that back.”
Epstein sees Beach Road Weekend taking its place among New England’s premier summer music festivals. Yet he’s not looking for the event to get much bigger than it already is.
“This is a modest-size island, right?” he says. “I think there’s an opportunity for other types of music festivals here at different times of year in potentially different locations, but we don’t want to overwhelm this place. We really want to make sure that what we do here is respectful of its small size.”
BEACH ROAD WEEKEND
With the Avett Brothers, Beck, Wilco, Julien Baker, Dawes, Guster, Emmylou Harris, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Khruangbin, Aoife O’Donovan, Billy Strings, Livingston Taylor, Lucinda Williams. At Veterans Memorial Park, Vineyard Haven, Aug. 26-28. Three-day passes are sold out. Single-day passes are $150; sign up for the presale at www.beachroadweekend.com/daypass
Follow Eric R. Danton on Twitter @erdanton.