Organizers strive to continue weekly Songwriter Nights at The Pit Stop

Alex Karalekas, an organizer of the weekly Songwriter Nights, shown performing at The Pit Stop. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

One of the best resources for music lovers on the Island has been operating somewhat under the radar since mid summer. Up and coming and established performers from the Cape, Boston, and beyond have been making the trek to the Vineyard to perform at The Pit Stop in Oak Bluffs. The venue is very well equipped for music but other types of performances are also accommodated — and welcome.

For the past couple of months, The Pit Stop has hosted visiting and local musicians for a weekly Songwriter Night. Although many of the out-of-town acts are relative unknowns, nationally touring musicians have also turned up to play at what organizers refer to as the Island’s only listening room. Folk singer Sarah Blacker, who was recently nominated for female performer of the year in the New England Music Awards, stopped by in August and Ryan Montbleau, whose eponymously named band tours extensively all over the world and was nominated for a 2012 MTV Music Award for best concert experience, played two solo shows at The Pit Stop early in the summer.

Boston-based artists who have graced The Pit Stop stage include blues guitarist and harmonica player Danielle Miraglia, who has attracted a good deal of attention around her hometown; folk singer and self described vaudevillian Hayley Jane; soul/R&B artist Jesse Dee; and folk duo Tall Heights about whom Pulse Magazine recently wrote, “Not since Crosby met Nash have two voices harmonized so perfectly.”

Other acts have been imported from around New England, including two performers associated with popular Cape Cod bands. Last month John Beninghof from the Old Silver Band and Will Evans from Barefoot Truth came over to the Vineyard on two boats packed with their fans. The visitors showed enthusiastic support for their hometown heroes who are both breaking out as solo performers.

The Songwriter Nights were introduced this past spring by local musician and concert producer Alex Karalekas. Shortly after launching the series with some Island acts, Mr. Karalekas recruited MVY Radio DJ Jess Phaneuf to bring in some off-Island talent. Ms. Phaneuf has a number of musician friends, associates, and contacts in and around Boston. Previously she worked for the Emerson College radio station WERS and spent a lot of time checking out music at small venues around Boston.

Ms. Phaneuf still travels to shows in Boston, New England, and beyond. She discovered the Cape Cod artists at the Naukabout Music Festival in East Falmouth.

Popular local musicians such as Phil DaRosa, Joe Keenan, and Brad Tucker have also enjoyed the opportunity to perform to an appreciative audience at The Pit Stop, a venue far afield of the bar scene.

However, despite the level of talent and the low admission price of $10, The Pit Stop has had a hard time attracting audiences to the Thursday night shows. Still, even with audience numbers on the low side, the visiting musicians have enjoyed playing the 85-seat room. The acoustics are exceptional and the setup is intimate and unique with comfortable chairs facing two sides of the stage.

Says Ms. Phaneuf, “Everyone I talked to is raving about the room. All the artists I brought through were thankful for whatever I gave them because they loved the space.” The room is set up to encourage audience engagement. Musicians accustomed to playing in bars – where the noise level is high and the crowd often inattentive – have found the venue a welcome alternative.

For guests more interested in socializing, the spacious former auto body shop has a large entrance hall that generally turns into a gathering place during shows. The listening room is set up in such a way that audience members can feel comfortable moving between the two rooms unobtrusively, even during sets. The Pit Stop welcomes all ages and the mix tends to be widely intergenerational.

The Pit Stop has hosted other events, including a sold-out three-night run of a rock opera by local musician May Oskan. Open mic nights on Mondays have become a popular weekly event.

Ms. Phaneuf and Mr. Karalekas plan to keep the Songwriter Nights going through October with local acts but, depending on the turnout, they may have to discontinue the series for now.

Ms. Phaneuf notes that she has at least 10 more Boston-based acts that she would like to bring to Island audiences. So far, the imported talent has accepted the difficulties of traveling to the Island and the necessity of staying overnight, but many have found the trip not financially viable.

“My main goal is to just get the music to people’s ears, but I also feel really strongly about giving some money back to the musicians,” Ms. Phaneuf says. “It’s what they do for a living. It’s not their hobby.”

This week, two local acts will take the stage at The Pit Stop. Mike Benjamin and Katrin Roush will play on Thursday, Oct. 4. Paul Thurlow and Nancy Jephcote, along with Tristan Israel, are scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 7. Eric Luening will be the featured songwriter on Thursday, Oct. 11 with Lydia Fischer. For more information, visit