Auntie Em and the Bedspins play hard, they play loud, and they love every minute of it. With a growing library of songs that range from rockabilly to country to hard-hitting classic “monster songs” like Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” the Oak Bluffs–based cover band has perhaps the most diverse set list of any group on Martha’s Vineyard, which keeps their gigs interesting for both the players and the audience.
The band was formed in 2011 by singer Emily Hunsaker and guitarist Greg Ruszala, who worked together at Park Corner Bistro, and friend Larry Laverdure, who was the original bass player.
Ruszala, who came to the Island in the early ’90s from New Jersey, started learning guitar “the hard way” as a kid, but says he picked it back up again around age 30. In the mid-2000s he played in the Dead Horse Beats, which played at the Wharf, and he’d done gigs with John O’Toole, Neil Howl, and Ballyhoo prior to the forming of the Bedspins. In addition to guitar, he plays the keyboard, a little mandolin, and says, “I’m wicked on the baritone ukulele.” He also plays the theremin.
“I feel like, music-wise, I’m [just] picking up speed, and devoting more time to it than before, as opposed to resting,” Ruszala says. “I think I’m actually starting to roll with that faster, really picking up speed, and getting more interested.”
Emily Hunsaker started writing music with her cousin, Electric Pie’s Ben Hughes, before moving full-time to the Island from Uxbridge in 2003. “He would always do the instrumental stuff, and I started writing lyrics,” she says. “We were always getting together and singing.”
Before starting the Bedspins, Hunsaker had done some open mic performances with Laverdure, who she says encouraged her to sing. She’d sat in at Blues Mondays with Paul Size at Offshore Ale, and with Johnny Hoy; had done an acoustic gig with Don Groover at Zephrus, and had sung as a guest with Mercy Beat and Gordon Healy. “For the older guys to be like, ‘Hey, this young girl wants to sing,’ and I [was] 22 and nervous,” she says, “I was like, ‘OK, you guys believe in me? Thank you.’ I think that helped me [say] ‘All right, I’m down to get in this band and start singing.’”
The three needed a drummer, which is how Offshore Ale owner Phil McAndrews got involved. “I was working at Offshore also,” Hunsaker says, “and I was talking to Glenn Caldwell, who I was working with, and he goes, ‘Your boss is a drummer,’ and I was like, ‘He is?’ because I had just started there.”
“I’ve been playing drums since I was 15, and my father was a drummer as well,” says McAndrews, who moved to the Vineyard with his family 14 years ago after purchasing Offshore. “It was inspiring to see the amount of live music on the Island, and I was hoping to link up with some players and get involved in it.”
“No one lays it down like him,” Ruszala says of McAndrews. Although he can be reserved in practice, when it’s gig time, Ruszala says, “You see him just get into his zone, and [take] the reins, and it’s funny because often I’m kind of taking the reins, but [when] Phil takes it, it’s just like ‘Please, sir, please do that.’”
“He’s got it,” Hunsaker says. “He does the job of sometimes two drummers, or someone with two kick drums.”
After going around for a bit, trying to come up with a name, it was Laverdure who eventually coined the moniker, which conjures up two distinct images: “Either too much drinking, or the Wizard of Oz,” says Hunsaker. “I was a new aunt right around that time, so I [said] ‘I’m Auntie Em, that could be kind of cool, how could we word that?’”
The Bedspins found themselves sans bass player when Laverdure left the Island, and for a few gigs Rick Wasserloos filled in, but he left the Island too, which is when it occurred to Ruszala to ask Josh Campbell. “Campbell came into the bar, and I remember[ed] him playing … great Phil Lesh kind of bass runs, and I remember watching him play bass, and going, ‘I can hardly do that on guitar,’” Ruszala recalls. “And I was like, ‘Hey Josh, you still play bass?’”
Campbell, who hadn’t played for a few years at that time, said in an email interview, “If the Bedspins never asked me to play with them, honestly, I likely wouldn’t be playing music at all.” Prior to the Bedspins, Josh played with Ballyhoo; more recently, he’s played with so many bands, it’s hard to keep track. “Greg asked me to play bass, and without sounding too sappy, it’s changed my life. That’s why I still play with those losers.”
Campbell says he’s not currently playing with as many bands as he has in recent years, but appreciates having time for other interests. “I recently spent a week recording in the Hudson Valley with Rose Guerin, playing bass over some of her new original tunes,” he says. “It was an amazing experience to be surrounded by such professionals. It really deepened my understanding of the process of making an album. It also taught me the difference between someone who plays as a hobby (me) and someone who has spent a lifetime honing a craft.”
The Bedspins, who got their start playing at Offshore Ale and the Dive Bar nearly a decade ago, are now regular players at the Ritz, and have played numerous benefit shows, including Wingfest, Ladyfest, and Birdathon. They are set to play the next Birdathon, which benefits the Mass Audubon Society, at the Ritz on May 4.
“The Bedspins’ song list is very diverse, we cover a wide range of music,” McAndrews says. The band’s library includes songs from the Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop, the Pretenders, the Doors, Bonnie Raitt, Tom Petty, and Elvis; new additions from Iron Maiden and Motorhead; and the crowd-pleasing “I Can’t Feel My Face,” by the Weeknd. Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing In the Name,” and Sabbath’s “War Pigs” are hard-hitting favorites.
“I like that we have a group who likes and can play tunes with a bit of a heavier edge,” Campbell says.
As for sets, there’s a general list going in, but it depends on the audience. “If it’s really quiet, we can do all the midtempo stuff, and that’ll be the first set,” Ruszala says. “Then we’ll take our little break, and we’ll come back and then it’s just hard from then on, and it’s gonna go in an arc up to as hard as people can take it.” Sometimes the crowd is already rocking when they get there, and that arc starts early. “You can’t really [back up] once you kind of fire the engines,” Ruszala says.
Requests can also be a source of laughs: At their last show, Hunsaker says someone yelled, “Play ‘Desperado’!” “You better come to your senses,” she recalls saying. “Or they’re like, ‘Free Bird!’ It’s always ‘Free Bird.’”
Ruszala says, “I’ll stop and [say], ‘Yeah, I’ll do a 45-minute ‘Free Bird’ for ya, if that’s what you want. I’ll do it, you sit down.’”
“You can’t get a minute into ‘Free Bird’ without being like, ‘Oh. Yeah.’ It’s like a Spielberg movie; it just hits those buttons,” Ruszala said. “You may be ashamed of those buttons, but they’re there, and we’re hittin’ ‘em.”
Auntie Em and the Bedspins play next at the Ritz on Saturday, March 30, and again at Birdathon on May 4. Josh Campbell’s radio show, “Broken Record,” airs on WVVY Mondays from 6 to 8 pm.