The Pit Stop offers a full tank of musical fuel

From left: Mike Sullivan, Nina Violet, and Joe Keenan.
Photo by Ralph Stewart

From left: Mike Sullivan, Nina Violet, and Joe Keenan.

The Pit Stop hosted five terrific performances last Thursday night, April 5.

A three CD release party featured quality performances by Joe Keenan, Alex Karalekas, and Dukes County Love Affair (DCLA).

And the venue itself shone. The Island’s newest and arguably most compelling musical way stop, The Pit Stop in Oak Bluffs is a remarkable venue. Finally, the camaraderie of the Island community was on display.

The expansive, renovated auto repair building on Dukes County Avenue across from Tony’s Market showed itself flexible enough to handle very different performance environments, celebrating the honeyed, world-wise ballads of songwriter/performer Joe Keenan and the often gritty, often poetic work of Alex Karalekas, and the up-tempo, driving music of DCLA.

Mr. Keenan opened with selections from his newest CD, Whirl and Twirl, which he described as a retrospective of more than 25 years on his musical road. Mr. Keenan emphasized his guitar playing on compositions that referenced distant and often whimsical way stops as well as personal memories of people he’s known from Amherst to Hawaii.

Mr. Keenan was joined by Nina Violet, musician and Pit Stop impresario, on viola, and by long time colleague and mandolin player Michael Sullivan, who journeyed down from the kingdom of South Boston to play with his pal. For info on Whirl and Twirl, contact Mr. Keenan at his blog or at roofermadness@gmail.com.

Whirl and Twirl has 11 cuts, most written by Mr. Keenan, well-crafted ballads that showcase his smooth voice and practiced guitar skill. Many of the songs have a decided Celtic underlay, including two Scottish tunes, one by poet Robert Burns.

Mr. Keenan’s ego-less, Everyman persona supports his musical style. “If you’re stressed out or need a nap, that works for me,” he counseled. Other than one tyke asleep on Dad’s lap, a crowd of 50 or 60 remained awake and appreciative.

If Mr. Keenan is a “want to” performer, Alex Karalekas, up next with selections from his CD “Broken Tree” (search Karalekas on reverbnation.com) projects a “got to” performing ideal. The West Tisbury singer/songwriter has an often dark, more complex world view.

As Mr. Karalekas sang, “Here’s my heart and my mouth. Can’t help it if things come out. Some things I just want to shout,” listeners get a sense of a poetic essay set to music. Pretty riveting stuff. He sings of misplaced values in a society in which having plenty and wanting more produces lost souls. “Let the ocean sweep their bodies away and sweep their souls back in. Let them come around and try this life again,” he sings. Buddha would be proud.

Mr. Karalekas generally worked in a distinctively gritty voice. (“Who’s he sound like? Hmm. Maybe a dirty Tom Rush,” conjectured fellow musician Phil DaRosa, with a smile). Mr. Karalekas is certainly not simply an angry young artist. He is, after all, the prime mover in organizing the Chilmark Potluck Jam that began several years ago, where musicians and residents share food, music, and bonhomie. DCLA members credit him with helping their sound.

His set seemed to crystallize the presence of Island community and support. Mr. Karalekas took the stage with a hoodie up over a ball cap, and sat for a moment. “I’m a little cold…and a little shy,” he said. As he moved through his set, he relaxed, thanks to vocal and palpable audience support. The hoodie and the ball cap came off to reveal a pleasant, self-deprecating young man, then a pure, clear voice emerged to deliver a bittersweet “Oh, My Friend,” a paean to the importance of relationship.

Then the performing space changed to accommodate the acrobatic energy of DCLA. Sound equipment and most of the 40 or so seats were shuttled off to create dance space. DCLA tuned up and it was on. A hard-driving opening DCLA anthem, “Abel’s Hill,” flooded the dance floor, mainly with 20-somethings who had filtered in to build the audience to nearly 100.

DCLA kicked off the band’s latest CD, “Ghost Town Sessions” (dclamusic.com). They played live the following evening at the Hard Rock Cafe in Boston, delivering a singular and deft fusion of blues, hop, rock ‘n roll, and megaphone funk into a singular sound.

It’s working — and not only on the Island. DCLA has gigged in New England, New York City, California, and Argentina. “I think one of our strengths is the inability to define the sound,” vocalist Mike Parker observed earlier in the evening.

For nearly two decades, South America, particularly Brazil and Argentina, has been a musical lodestone of new sounds, tapping into world music influences, and creating sounds such as Afro-Pop. Mr. Parker noted the audience is a savvy one. “It was a little bit of a shock. Took them a minute to figure it out, then they got it and really seemed to like it,” he said.

If you have not been to The Pit Stop, walk, don’t run. You gotta see this place. It’s beyond cool. Owner Don Muckerheide retired his auto-fixin’ business and turned the place over to a haven for Island musicians, including his daughter, Ms. Violet.

The décor is striking and whimsical, combining lush crimson Edwardian picture window drapes with occasional tables set with votive candles, Island shells and artifacts, reminiscent of Paris bistros. Walkways and walls are lined with strings of small red bulbs, evocative of Tangier.

Listening to quality music with a full moon slanting in from skylights worked for me. Honestly, I was expecting grunge, populated by people dressed like the cast from “Rent.” Not what I got.

The space is reaching out for additional cultural and community participation. I learned that a 900-square-foot entrance room will house an art gallery being readied for May by new visual arts director Melissa Breese. The room now is used for ticket-taking, selling water and hot chocolate for a buck (you can still buy something for a buck on the Island!) and sign-ups for The Pit Crew, a volunteer Island service organization.

“This place is really about community and building community,” Ms. Breese, tending the tiny retail space featuring artists’ CDs and DCLA tees. “We’re going to have art, sculpture, mixed media,” said the former proprietess of the Shephard Fine ArtSpace in Oak Bluffs.

Nearby, Mr. Muckerheide sat quietly in a nook, watching the human energy that has replaced the power of machinery in his building.