King Mackerel and the Blues are running on Martha’s Vineyard

Jim Wann, Don Dixon, and Bland Simpson, the Coastal Cohorts, delight audiences with their tales of coastal living. — Photo courtesy of Jim Wann

Martha’s Vineyard fisherfolk, you can meet your doppelgangers on the eve of the 69th annual Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby when The Coastal Cohorts stage King Mackerel and the Blues are Running: Songs and Stories of the Carolina Coast at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 12 and 13.

"King Mackerel & The Blues Are Running: Songs & Stories of the Carolina Coast" echoes themes Islanders will find familiar.
“King Mackerel & The Blues Are Running: Songs & Stories of the Carolina Coast” echoes themes Islanders will find familiar.

King Mackerel is a long-running performance of music and stories about fishing and life along the Carolina coastline. The theatrical show includes a three-man acoustic folk/soul/rock revue, with an environmental edge, of Southern coastal life featuring old-time video of hurricanes and other features of life “on the edge.”

The Coastal Cohorts is a trio of good-ole boys who also happen to be smart, award-winning musicians whose tunes and talents have been acclaimed up and down the Carolina coast, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and at the Westside Theatre in New York, where Clive Barnes, arts critic for The New York Times and later for The New York Post, called the Cohorts “a pure, salt-watered delight.”

And coming at the end of tourist season, it may make you glow a little to know that you can see the show for a helluva a lot less than New Yorkers paid.

The Cohorts serve up a heady down-home sound with some elements of what is called “beach music” in the Carolinas, which has nothing to do with The Beach Boys, pianist/vocalist Bland Simpson, Kenan Distinguished Professor of English & Creative Writing at UNC Chapel Hill, hastened to add in a phone chat last week. More like beat-your-feet happy music, trellised with lyrics about life on and around the deep blue. You can Google King Mackerel and hear some cuts yourself.

Mr. Barnes said the show reminded him of Jacques Brel’s work. Mr. Simpson said he wasn’t so sure the review would go that way.

“We were playing the West Bank Theater on 42nd street, which is small. Clive Barnes is sitting about 10 feet away from us. Now, we have a bit in the show where we throw rubber worms into the audience. You know, the ones you rig up as lures?

“Well, Jim [Wann, lead guitar] had thrown his and I have my arm cocked and suddenly realize I’m about to hit the most important theater critic in the world with a faceful of rubber worms. Then I saw him lean forward and I took that to mean he was enjoying it, so I let fly.”

The point of that story is that these are guys who let it fly. The show itself is an example.

“We were contacted in 1984 by The Embers, a very popular beach music band, to write some songs and material for them. When they realized the amount of staging and lighting involved, they didn’t continue, so we said, ‘let’s do it ourselves.’”

So they wrote the songs and a script, named themselves The Coastal Cohorts, and “King Mackerel” was launched. The show has been going since with a short hiatus in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Many of their performances are devoted to fundraising for the North Carolina Coastal Federation and other nonprofit environmental organizations. Mr. Simpson serves on the NCCF board and has a committed interest in the health of the ocean and its residents.

Mr. Wann is a Tony and Olivier-nominated creator of Broadway shows, including the long-running Pump Boys and Dinettes.

Mr. Dixon is a successful singer-songwriter and record producer (REM’s Murmur) with more than 200 recorded songs for artists who include Joe Cocker, Marshall Crenshaw, Hootie & the Blowfish, Counting Crows, Marti Jones, and Ronnie Spector.

The Coastal Cohorts will arrive on Martha’s Vineyard thanks to the efforts of seasonal Island resident Edward Strong, a senior partner at Dodger Properties, a major player in New York theater productions that include the hit show Jersey Boys.

“Ed Strong has a house here and he’s been after us to come and do the show for five or six years,” Mr. Simpson said. “He really put it together with M.J. Munafo (Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse executive artistic director).”

Mr. Strong said he had been thinking of bringing the Coastal Cohorts to the Island for some time. “It seemed like a perfect fit,” he said. “And the occasion of the Derby seemed like a wonderful kick-off event.”

Noting the obvious relevance of their material to an Island where fishing and conservation are dominant concerns, Mr. Simpson said, “We may be bringing coals to Newcastle. Certainly Martha’s Vineyard is one of the most important coastal communities in America. But we’re glad to be here, particularly since none of us has ever been to the Vineyard.”

In conversation, Mr. Simpson echoes familiar themes. “Our show is that tourism was a great thing that didn’t impinge on bluewater fishing for a long time. Then the waterfront was bought up and conflict began. Co-existing cultures started to run into each other. Fish houses [waterside businesses that buy commercial catches] had declined precipitously in the past decade on the barrier islands, for example. A group of fishermen bought the last one on Ocracoke Island or fishermen there would have had no place to land their catch.”

These guys get it, and the music is good.

Performances begin at 7:30 pm on Friday and Saturday night. The show runs about two hours so no need for fishermen anticipating the start of the Derby at 12 midnight, Sunday, Sept. 14 to wear their waders to the theater. You’ll have time to gear up after the show and still meet the incoming night tide.

Tickets are $50 for adults; $40 for seniors; $30 for students. Tickets are available online at boxoffice@mvplayhouse.org or by visiting the theater at 24 Church St. in Vineyard Haven.

For more information, visit mvplayhouse.org.