Music under the “Island Moon”

Mother and son Jemima James and Willy Mason treat the audience to a duet. — Photo by Larisa Stinga

Among the many new off-season initiatives recently launched by the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, the latest — Island Moon Coffeehouse — got off to a great start last Thursday. Folk veteran Jemima James recruited her son, acclaimed singer/songwriter and recording artist Willy Mason, for a mother/son lineup that heated up a cold winter night.

Ms. James will be organizing and hosting the monthly Island Moon Coffeehouse at the Playhouse throughout the rest of the winter and spring months. She will reach out to talent from among her friends and associates, and be on the search for young, local, up-and-coming musicians to introduce to Island audiences.

“There’s a whole lot of talent around,” said Ms. James in a post-show interview; “I’m just gonna funnel it in there.”

A good representation of that talent was on display at the inaugural event. No fewer than eight artists showed off their varied talents to an enchanted crowd. Ms. James opened the evening performing some of her standard songs, along with a few covers and some new material that will be included on a soon-to-be-released recording titled When We Get Old. The Playhouse show featured the lineup from her record.

Last October, Ms. James spent two weeks recording songs for her upcoming release at a studio in the Catskills. She brought along members of local band Good Night Louise as her accompanists. The popular band, who play often around the Island, boasts a cast of very skilled musicians. It was a real treat to get a chance to witness such a tight unit backing up Ms. James’ talent.

Harmonicist Georgie Gude warmed up the crowd with a solo, before the other Good Night Louise members took to the stage. The lineup also included  Shawn “Bones” Barber and Stu Gardener on guitar, Josh Campbell on standup bass, and Nina Violet, who played clarinet and violin and provided background vocals along with her sister Marciana Jones.

Ms. James offered her unique blend of folk, country, and blues, delivered in a laid-back style. Though many of her songs are quite countrified, the tunes are original, catchy, and never formulaic. The show set a mood perfect for a cold winter evening. The audience comfortably filled the spacious lobby area, settling in to a cluster of cocktail tables facing the stage. The Playhouse acoustics are fabulous. The full sound of the large ensemble filled the room. It was a wonderful, communal, and comfortable experience, much like listening to the rumble of distant thunder while sitting in front of a warm crackling fire with friends.

As always, it’s a pleasure to hear local hero Willy Mason, and he certainly didn’t disappoint. He played a mix of his classics, along with treating the audience to a few older songs that he plays less frequently. Mr. Mason somehow combines a genuine warmth and a little shyness with the professionalism of a seasoned live performer. His songs are as affecting and emotionally stirring as they are highly personal.

Recently Mr. Mason has been performing with his wife Marciana Jones on backing vocals. Her voice is a nice counterpoint to Mr. Mason’s rough-edged sound, adding a touch of brightness to songs that are often a little melancholic, without competing with her husband’s strong and unique sound. Mr. Mason has a genius for pulling a lot of nuance from his voice while staying in a somewhat confined, confessional range. It’s precision that comes off as effortless, charming, and above all, sincere.

“He gets stronger and stronger every time he goes out on the road,” said Ms. James,  who notes that her son has been doing short tours with Ms. Jones in preparation for an upcoming two-month tour with Ben Howard; “it’s given me a lot of inspiration to see how strongly he’s developed by just going out on the road and doing the music all the time.”

Sisters Nina Violet and Marciana Jones grew up with Mr. Mason, and the three have been supporting one another’s musical efforts since high school. “It’s really wonderful to have these two families joined in this way,” said Ms. James.

Future Island Moon events will most likely include Ms. Violet and Ms. Jones — both strong songwriters and performers in their own right. Good Night Louise will also be making future appearances performing their own original music. “Shawn Barber is a terrific writer,” said Ms. James. “Good Night Louise has a very strong following of their own.”

There’s plenty more local talent to be tapped for upcoming shows. Ms. James is reaching out to other singer/songwriters, but also plans to mix in a few other musical genres.

Playhouse artistic and managing director M.J. Bruder Munafo is enthusiastic about the collaboration with Ms. James. She’s hoping to build an audience for the handful of new events she’s introduced this winter. Among those are cabaret evenings hosted by Molly Conole, poetry readings hosted by Arnie Reisman, and weekly screenings of classic movies selected by Jamie Alley (visit for the full schedule).

“I have a new formula,” said Ms. Bruder Munafo; “find somebody enormously talented and put them in charge. I love having this programming in what I like to call ‘the Islander’s season.’”