The signs of impending summer are all around. Azaleas are out, the oaks are coming into leaf and Tom Major is readying himself for Entrain's Memorial Weekend gig.
It's been 14 summers now since Mr. Major decided to put together a band based on the simple idea of "tons of drums," and to put his New York-based career as a freelance musician on hold for one summer while he tried it out.
"I thought the best thing was to come up to the Vineyard; I'd lived here for a while in the eighties and done seasonal gigs and I knew there was a nice musical community, a real supportive environment for doing that sort of thing," he recalled.
"It was going to be one summer, with guys who were Vineyard-based or, like me, went back and forth."
He brought with him a guitar player, John Cruz, who had an Island connection, and put the rest of the band together here. The heart of it was him on drums and two Island percussionists, Rick Bausman and Sam Holmstock, then playing with the band the Ululators.
"We rehearsed for a couple weeks and started playing every Thursday night at the Atlantic Connection. Our first gig was packed, the second was over-packed, and we played every week to 500 people inside and a line outside.
"By the end of summer we knew we were on to something. The next summer I left Bo Diddley [he was part of Bo's touring band] and moved back here full time."
Fourteen years and dozens of musicians later - Sam Homstock is the only remaining original member, although Mr. Bausman still often sits in, as he will when Entrain plays Sunday night at Outerland - Mr. Major is apt to wax philosophical, spiritual even, when he talks about the reasons for the band's longevity and about drumming in general.
"The band's name is derived from the law on Entrainment, which is synchronization of rhythms," he said. "We try to bring the rhythms together musically, but we also try to bring people together with them.
"I think spirituality is being able to connect with the oneness of the world. We have an album called All One. It's pretty much my philosophy. It's trying to maintain an awareness that you and I and everyone else in the world and everything in the world is all connected. It's like one big membrane that breathes together, one big organism that's affected by everything that anyone in it does." He continued:
"This winter I've been working on a project that I hope to launch by late fall - Entrain's Drums for Peace. It's going to be more of a theatre show, more as multimedia experience, with projected images behind the band, as well as songs we are writing now, and songs we already have to do with the subject of peace, love and unity."
Entrain's music, he says is suited to all age crowds.
"It's important to me personally to help point the way to the younger generations that you can have good music that's fun, enlightening, entertaining, informative, inspiring. It doesn't have to be negative. The lyrics we have are either straight up fun, or have a message, whether it's the environment, or unity of people, love. We try to keep it there without being preachy."
There is a question, of course, of how many people actually focus on lyrics, given that an Entrain gig is really all about rhythm and dancing. But, to Mr. Major, that rhythmic component is just as spiritually important. Hence the growing popularity of group drumming.
"It's a really healing activity. More so I think than any other instrument. The Hawaiians have this theory of the three selves, a mind-body-spirit kind of thing. The activity of drumming exercises all three places," he said.
The act of hitting he calls a grounding experience. The need to concentrate on time and patterns was intellectual and the interaction of the whole group was spiritual.
"It's a lot easier being spiritual, living on Martha's Vineyard, too." he said, adding:
"I was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Long Island and Manhattan, and I lived with such craziness for so much of my life. The music business is crazy and being on the road is very crazy.
"It's nice to come back to a place where you can breathe clean air and people smile at you and it's like living in a postcard, and there's one traffic light and it blinks.
"It's the yin-yang. I think if I was living out in Manhattan or Boston right now, it would be difficult to refuel.
"People say to me, ‘How can you deal with that ferry? Doesn't it drive you crazy?' And I'm like, no, it's all about the ferry. I get on that boat after speeding round doing gigs, and it just slows me down and I get back already chilled out."
Living on the Island comes at some career cost in sessions and big tours missed, but he said the tradeoff in lifestyle is worth it.
"I'm trying to find ways to alleviate the stress in my life and be able to be more productive and creative," he said.
And he is hardly stagnating. The band has seven albums to its credit, plays 150 or so gigs, mostly off Island, each year and has played with some big names (including Bill Clinton). They've played in China and are looking to go back again for the 2008 Olympics. Still, he supplements his income by teaching drums to kids on the Vineyard.
When he started, Mr. Major found himself assessing their talent and future prospects as drummers.
"But I quickly realized that doesn't matter, It's good for anybody," he said, recalling:
"Early there was this one kid who kept coming to lessons, but who wasn't doing much with it, wasn't playing in a band, or aspiring to, so I asked, ‘Why are you still coming?' And he said: ‘I just like getting better at something.' "
It is interesting that he has the patience to instruct the not-very driven or gifted, given his own story.
The son of a drummer, Mr. Major has worked at honing his art for 45 odd years - from the sea scouts marching band when he was seven or eight ("I think that's where the original love of this big mondo drum sound came from") to studies with Jim Chapin in New York ("an amazing jazz drummer and one of the best teachers in the country") to Berklee College to sessions with as many different styles of musicians as he could find.
"As a freelance drummer I got a lot of calls," he said, "so I was able to pick and choose what style of music I wanted to play on a given night. It was like, okay, a reggae band on Wednesday and a blues band on Thursday and a jazz band on Friday and a rock and roll band on Saturday."
Add in some west African rhythms picked up on his travels and years spent listening to all sorts of world music. And of course Bo Diddley, who helped Mr. Major to the conviction that a band like Entrain could work.
"It was when I was playing with Bo that I realized there was so much power in the rhythm alone. I would start the show with that Bo beat, and people would go crazy before he came in or the guitar or anything," he said.
"So Entrain is to me all the styles of music I love, rolled into one."
It's also, he concedes, hard on the body of a man who is pushing 53.
"The beats I come up with are not easy to play. Sometimes I'm up there, killing myself and it's like ‘What was I thinking?'
"You see some other drummers chilling out, not breaking a sweat, whereas I'm drenched by the end of the night. If I don't feel physically spent after a performance, I feel I didn't really have a full experience."
He looks upon it not just as music, though, but an athletic experience.
"I plan on playing well into the twilight of my life. Bo Diddley is a hero. He had a stroke recently but he was 82 and still cranking along," he said.
"Another hero is an old jazz drummer named Art Blakey. I'm not sure how old he was when he passed away a few years ago, but he was playing his butt off. He played like a 17-year-old kid when he was in his 80s. He was fit, he was ripped. I was just blown away by his vitality. He was on fire.
"I thought yeah, that's it for me. I'm not going to go out playing some light jazz gig because it's easy on the body. I'm gonna go out burning."