Perched in the second row of a community hall at five o’clock in the afternoon, a plate of reconstituted Thanksgiving food balanced in one hand, and a decent glass of red in the other — it was an unusual way to take in a festival of modern music. No poorly maintained toilet facilities, no vomit, no overweight rave casualties passed out at your feet. Nevertheless, it was how Martha’s Vineyard’s musical elite saw fit to present themselves on Sunday. And, as a sonorous brace of multi-instrumentalists moved fluidly between sets that would have killed the Bowery Ballroom as thoroughly as they did West Tisbury’s Grange Hall, the arrangement’s appeal was undeniable.
For the price of a potluck offering, audiences at the Chilmark Community Center on Saturday and West Tisbury’s Grange Hall Sunday got four hours of music showcasing the Vineryard’s improbably large talent pool. The whole gamut was played, on everything from washboard to spoons to Mongolian igil — and, though regularly threatening chaos, the wheels stayed firmly on throughout.
Willy Mason’s performances bookended both nights. An avuncular presence in rolled-up green britches, an old man’s cap and red suspenders, the 23-year-old veteran performed rousing renditions of Restless Fugitive and We Can Be Strong, with Nina Violet accompanying on vocals and viola.
Other heavy hitters included folk and blues singer Jemima James — succintly described by one audience member as a “soulful bugger” — and Grammy nominee Kate Taylor. “We’re flying without a net here tonight, ladies and gentlemen,” Ms. Taylor told the crowd, before launching into her Elvis-channeling routine.
This was Sofi Thanhauser’s first live show, but from her lyrical sophistication and the polish of her performance it would be difficult to tell. The crowd received Caw Caw Caw, her depiction of New York as a drooling human eater out for flesh, with foot-stomping that briefly threatened to dislodge wine from glass.
Later she formed part of a not-yet-named experimental trio with Rachel Curtin and Lila Fischer. Miss Curtin, asked what instruments were to be miked, replied efficiently: “I’m just going to bang that a bit, then there’s these sticks, a pennywhistle and some spoons.” Using this stripped-back arsenal, the band delivered a theatrical and oddly sexualised take on child-rearing.
At the evening’s halfway point, Maynard Silva and Tom Howland, wielding only a National steel and a bass guitar, conjured a full dance floor with the first bars from J. B. Hutto’s 20% Alcohol and kept the crowd hoofing through Mr. Silva’s roughly-hewn blues songs.
His Mongoliophile son Milo followed with tunes played on that country’s igil and jar harp instruments. His Tuva throat singing, in which the performer simultaneously sounds several tones, was sorely missed on the night.
Colin Ruel, recently of C.Ruel.Hum, sang about being a dog and a damaging lover in his soft, rangy alto, while Marciana Jones authoritatively fronted her druggy-pop band in what looked like pajamas.
A viola-wrangling Nina Violet accompanied half a dozen musicians before taking to the stage with her own material — accompanied by Sam Mason on drums and Colin Ruel on lead guitar — and concluded the set with a pounding delivery of her ode to independence, Where Are We Going To Sleep Tonight?
The nights were organised by bluegrass band Ballyhoo frontman Brad Tucker and reggae-inflected crooner Alex Karalekas. Mr. Karalekas entreated up-Island selectmen to allow use of the venues for more such events, while Mr. Tucker said by telephone this week: “I’m psyched. I had no idea there were so many great musicians here.” Encouraged by last weekend’s success, the pair plan to develop a regular fixture over the winter.
Many of these musicians are currently working on album material. ÃThe opportunity to hear their songs live — and for free — as they develop is not to be missed. A few years from now, these concerts will be part of Vineyard legend, and those of us lucky enough to have been there will be as insufferable as the boomers who bang on interminably about the glory days of the Hot Tin Roof.