Just after 9 p.m. on Tuesday night, Jaime Greene stepped away from his throne behind the drum set that had been set up along the back edge of Memorial Wharf in Edgartown to make way for a special guest. As it has every Tuesday for the last three summers, the Dock Dance Band had brought the wharf alive with Islanders and tourists, dancing and celebrating under the glow of the moon and a few fluorescent lights.
As Mr. Greene disappeared into the crowd, the band’s frontman, Adam Petkus, took the microphone to invite Rick Convery to take Mr. Greene’s place on the drums.
Although it was his first time playing with the Dock Dance Band, Rick Convery is no stranger to playing Memorial Wharf. In fact, Mr. Convery and his band, The Bodes, invented the dock dance.
The dock dances are a tradition nearly as old as rock ‘n’ roll itself. In the mid 1960s, Mr. Convery and his friends Charlie Leighton, Jack Mayhew and Jim White were invited by the town of Edgartown to play a show on Memorial Wharf. They were just teenagers at the time, still students at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, and they happily took the gig. The next week, they asked the town if they could come back. Before long The Bodes were playing Memorial Wharf every Wednesday night. They decided to call the shows dock dances.
“The feeling was always good. It was always fun,” said Mr. Convery. “There was no charge and people would just come on down.”
For each of the shows, the town would pay The Bodes about $100, but the dock dances were never about money. Down at the dock they would try new songs and experiment with new ways of playing. Sometimes people would approach them with music deals. One time they were invited to play in Hong Kong, although the trip never happened.
“Playing the dock has a freer feeling to it,” said Mr. Convery. “You never knew who was going to show up. It was always different people coming and going.”
While today one can watch Vineyard musicians playing at bars and venues across the Island on any night of the week, in the 1960s gigs were hard to come by for local bands. The Bodes played shows at tennis club dances, yacht club dances and some private parties. But the only venue where fans could consistently find them was Memorial Wharf.
“Now there is a big scene here, but at the time the scene was pretty small,” said Mr. Convery. “There weren’t a lot of bar shows or anything like that, not that we would have been old enough to play those shows anyhow.”
In the early 2000s Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish picked up where The Bodes left off. Unlike The Bodes, Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish only played Memorial Wharf a few times every summer, but the essence of the shows was entirely the same.
“There was this mythical tradition that we were all aware of when we played those shows,” said Jeremy Berlin, the keyboardist for The Bluefish. “There is a certain feel to it where you have old people, young people, people who know you, and people who have no idea who you are. . . They don’t know it’s a tradition, but they know its something special when they see it.”
Although Johnny Hoy and his band play several shows every week during the summer months, Mr. Berlin said that none of them feels quite like those shows at Memorial Wharf.
“There’s something special about that dock,” he said. “That enclosed space right next to the water and the excitement of the water and hearing the sound there with the fishing boats about 15 feet behind us.”
While it has been a few years since Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish have played Memorial Wharf, on August 16 they will return to the dock to help promote their new CD, appropriately named The Dance.
“I think [the dock dance] is a much better setting for a release party than at a bar,” said Mr. Berlin. “People always ask me about the dock dances. They don’t ask when we are playing the Ritz again. They say when are you doing another dock dance? Lots of people email me from wherever they live saying, we were on the Vineyard four years ago and saw you, are you going to do that again?”
In the past three years, a new generation of musicians has taken ownership of the dock dances.
The idea for the current Dock Dance Band started with Niko Ewing. As a kid, Mr. Ewing’s father, Steve Ewing, used to ride his bike to Memorial Wharf on Wednesday nights to see The Bodes. When Niko Ewing told his dad that he was looking for a new type of venue other than the bars to play music on the Island, Steve Ewing remembered the dock dances.
“We were always looking for a cool venue where we could do our own thing, to play without answering to anybody and just play for fun outside of a bar,” said Niko Ewing. “People really like being down here on the dock and bringing their dinner down and hanging out for free with this music in a beautiful setting. It doesn’t even compare to playing in a bar. It’s just a completely different experience. We want to keep it going.”
The five members of the Dock Dance Band (Adam Petkus, John Stanwood, Niko Ewing, Jaime Greene and Alex Karalekas) are all involved in other bands and projects, but when the sun sets on Tuesday nights, they are always there at the dock to celebrate the dock dance tradition. Occasionally, they may play an original song or two, but for the most part they play covers of classics like Johnny B. Goode, Heard It Through The Grape Vine, and, of course, Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay.
“Every show is different. Some are crazier than others,” said John Stanwood, a guitarist in the Dock Dance Band. “It depends on the conditions surrounding that Tuesday, but sometimes all of these factors will align and we will have a time where everything comes together and we are all feeling great. We always have fun, every single time.”
Dock dances are held at Memorial Wharf in Edgartown every Tuesday evening in the summer from sunset to approximately 10 p.m.