Now that Labor Day has come and gone, Islanders are reclaiming Circuit avenue parking spots, swimming at Squibnocket and finally savoring the Menemsha sunset. Brad Tucker, front man for the Island band Ballyhoo, the sleeper hit of the summer music scene, is thrilled Vineyarders are taking back the Island. Mr. Tucker and his band mates have spent Sunday evenings since June playing free music down at the docks in Menemsha. The seasonal slowdown allows them to get back to what they really love doing — playing low-key music for their friends and family, the Islanders.
Everything about Ballyhoo is serendipitous, from the way they met each other to the almost instantaneous success of their weekly waterfront performances. Mr. Tucker, who grew up in West Tisbury, picked up his first guitar at age two. Over the years, he taught himself the saxophone, drums, trumpet, banjo and is now trying mandolin, but the guitar has always been his instrument of choice. Not only is he always game to try new instruments, he is always on the prowl for new places to perform and new people to play with.
At the Ag fair last summer, he met Matt Lozier, a carpenter with a passion for the banjo, and Josh Campbell, an old-school shingler who plays the mandolin. The three bonded over music and started playing together. Soon after, Mr. Tucker met Taurus Biskis, an upright bass player, who was performing with Squash Meadow at Offshore Ale in Oak Bluffs. Mr. Tucker roped in his coworker Vinny Padalino, washboard player extraordinaire, and together, the motley crew formed a band.
They settled on the name Ballyhoo after thumbing through an old dictionary from the 1940s. “It was a nickname for a town in Ireland that was known for its rowdy crowds and noisy people,” Mr. Tucker said. Later, the guys discovered Ballyhoo is also the name of a bait fish, the first pinball machine and the original title of Playboy magazine.
Unfortunately, it is also the name of a cover band in Maryland, so the Island group is in the process of renaming themselves Squid Row. “It’s the name of the bench behind the gas station in Menemsha where all of the salty seamen go to hang out,” Mr. Tucker explained.
He described the group’s sound as an energizing blend of blues, folk and bluegrass. They cover old bluegrass tunes, give well known favorites like Stuck in the Middle with You a down-home flavor and try out some of Mr. Tucker’s original songs.
Last winter, the group attracted attention when they booked a weekly gig at The Wharf restaurant and pub. “The performances brought a lot of people to Edgartown that normally wouldn’t be there,” said Mr. Tucker, who thrives on pushing the musical envelope whether by bringing up-Islanders to Edgartown or finding unplumbed places for the band to jam.
This spring, Mr. Tucker was trying to do just that. He wanted to get out of the bar scene. A friend over at Menemsha Texaco told him that years ago Island percussionist Rick Bausman held a drumming circle down at the docks behind the gas station. It was almost too successful, drawing huge crowds during the sunset, he said. A few days later, Mr. Biskis approached Mr. Tucker with the same idea.
The boys embarked on a Menemsha mission. They contacted Marshall and Katie Carroll, owners of Menemsha Texaco. The dock is public property, the Carrolls said. If people were cautious and no trash piled up, they would be happy to support a little live music. What they got, however, was a lot of live music.
Ballyhoo played their first concert there on an overcast Sunday evening in June. As news of the family-oriented, end-of-the-weekend shows spread, the crowds grew. “Everyone is surprised by the atmosphere,” Mr. Tucker said. “It’s a hell of a good time.” Fishermen coming in after work crack a beer, share some of the daily catch with the band and take in a few tunes before heading home. Families visiting for the weekend picnic get their Home Port takeout. Island kids drop in before beginning again the hustle-bustle of a working week on the Vineyard. “All summer long people have told us it’s the best thing to happen in Menemsha for a while,” Mr. Tucker said.
Over summer, some folks showed up to do more than listen. Mr. Carroll brought his grandmother, Bette Carroll, to the group’s second show. She became a regular patron, then Mr. Tucker learned she played the harmonica. One night, he asked where she kept it. Tapping her breast pocket, Mrs. Carroll said, “Right here.” The boys immediately invited her onto their makeshift stage. They also have shared the mike with young Island musicians and with Kate Taylor. One evening, a bagpiper wandered by and joined them for Amazing Grace as the sun went down.
Over 150 people turned out on their busiest night, Mr. Tucker said. At the end of the night, they counted $340 in the donation guitar passed around at each show. The group has started taking their act off the docks. This summer has found them at bonfires and weddings and fundraisers. They joined the roster at Cornapalooza and on Saturday from 1:30 to 5 p.m. they will be playing at Bowl & Board on Main street Vineyard Haven to welcome those in town for the Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival. The group is still on the hunt for new spots. Mr. Tucker dreams of playing the Brickyard in Chilmark or the Cliffs in Aquinnah.
“Music just flourishes here,” he said of the Vineyard. “We have the potential to be the New England New Orleans.”
The Vineyard may be quieting down, but the Ballyhoo is not. The group plans to play in Menemsha until the nights get too cold for dancing. As the days get shorter, the tunes will start earlier, at 5:30, but the group will play on until about 9 p.m. Mr. Tucker has been recording many of this summer’s gigs and hopes to put together a best-of album on compact disc soon. “We always knew it would be fun,” Mr. Tucker said. “But we had no idea it would work so well.”