Setting the stage for Beach Road Weekend

Adam Epstein’s big idea is about to be put to the test.

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Adam Epstein, CEO of Innovation Arts & Entertainment, oversees the transformation of Veterans Memorial Park in Vineyard Haven into the Beach Road Weekend festival site. —Gabrielle Mannino

He probably won’t relax until Phil Lesh hits his last note, and the crowd erupts in applause, then heads for the shuttle buses or a late-night ferry at Vineyard Haven Harbor on Sunday.

Adam Epstein, CEO of Innovation Arts & Entertainment, is the inspiration behind Beach Road Weekend. It began in December 2017 when a band he wouldn’t name looked at coming to Martha’s Vineyard for an outdoor concert. Epstein scouted venues, but the band’s album didn’t materialize in time, and the idea of the show fizzled.

As crews build a main stage, a second smaller stage, erect a food and beverage tent, and set the scene for this weekend’s three-day music festival at Veterans Memorial Park in Vineyard Haven, Epstein told The Times he began asking questions about the possibility of using the field in September 2018. He talked to some town leaders behind the scenes. He took the pulse of business owners. He quizzed the Steamship Authority about logistics. None of it dissuaded him.

“I got this fire in me,” he recalled. “Now we’re real. I’ve actually had my first conversations about this, and now this is something I really want to do.”

That led to his meeting with the board of selectmen on a cold winter’s night in December. In that scene, inside the historic Katharine Cornell Theater, Epstein presented his plan to the board. In the process, he let his guard down and made an industry faux pas. He named names of acts he hoped to lure to the Island to perform.

The response from selectmen was enthusiastic, but cautious. And on the Internet, where keyboard fingers dance with the reckless abandon of Elaine Benes on Seinfeld, there was doubt — the traffic, the chaos, the possibility of drunken concertgoers. The approval process had all the speed of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” as selectmen got some pushback. OK, so it was more like, “What are you thinking?”

But there were plenty of supporters, too. Proponents saying it was the shot in the arm and signature event that Vineyard Haven needs.

Epstein didn’t get the go-ahead on beer and wine sales until July 19. He got an initial thumbs-up about the festival concept in January, but no firm commitment until April, and even that was loaded with loose ends to tie up. That left some of the names he mentioned (Willie Nelson isn’t walking onto that stage) committed to other festivals. 

Still, Epstein is excited about the lineup he and his team have secured. “It’s going to be a blast. It’s something we’ve been working on for eight months … Not a day has gone by that there hasn’t been a festival-related issue addressed. We started in January even before we had official clearance, knowing that we needed that time and that we could cancel stuff later.”

 

Screen test

Epstein’s company, Innovation Arts & Entertainment, owns the rights for a relatively new concept in the business — having live orchestras perform movie scores while successful films are shown. His company is working with Warner Bros. and orchestras to bring the music of the Harry Potter movies to life.

“This thing has been a massive hit for us; we’re selling out four or five performances in 2,000-seat theaters in North America each time we show them,” he said. “What it showed me was the power of live music, and how it can transform a film from something that seems almost repetitive into something really special … If we’ve done this and made this kind of impact on Harry Potter, which everyone has seen multiple times, what could it do for “Jaws” — the most iconic movie associated with the Vineyard?”

When his idea for this music festival was first introduced, the one constant was leading it off with a showing of “Jaws” Friday night with its haunting score by the legendary John Williams, performed by the Cape Cod Symphony Orchestra.

“This movie is ingrained in the culture of this Island,” Epstein said, noting that there are Islanders who still talk about being in the film and who still receive royalty checks from the 1975 blockbuster. “How do I take something that’s almost become benign and give it a shot of adrenaline? Knowing that ‘Jaws’ attracts an audience whenever we show it on the Island … this is something special. There’s a layer of complexity and character to it that most people will never experience in their lifetime.“

It sounds funny about a movie that features a menacing great white shark that attacks people, but Epstein’s vision is that it will be a family event Friday when “Jaws” shows. For those terrified by what’s on the screen, they can focus on the orchestra.

“I’m a big John Williams fan, and this is one of his most interesting scores,” Jung-Ho Pak, conductor of the Cape Symphony, said. “People only think of two notes when they hear ‘Jaws,’ but it’s much more than that. The music is so rich and interesting, and typically virtuosic from a John Williams point of view.”

Though it’s named the Cape Symphony, Pak told The Times he considers his ensemble to be the Island’s orchestra as well. So while there were a lot of logistics to work out, it wasn’t a tough sell at all to load the 70 musicians on a Hy-Line ferry bound for the Vineyard. 

“Actually, the reaction of the musicians has been very positive. They’re excited about the opportunity to perform,” Pak said. “They’re eager to get into this side of the business.” The Cape Symphony would like to do at least one movie, maybe more, a year, he said.

When you hear it Friday night, it will only be the second time the orchestra has performed the “Jaws” score along with the movie. “The Cape Symphony is strong. We’ll go a few hours beforehand and put it together with one rehearsal,” Pak said with an air of confidence in his voice. “I’m studying the score right now. We’ll polish it in a three-hour rehearsal, and then do it later that evening … We’ll be ready to perform it.”

Pak’s previous work combining music and film has been either for silent movies or short film clips, so this “Jaws” adventure is something new, but he promises the audience will hear every note from the movie score. He says he’ll be wearing a headset to help him stay in sync with the film, but he doesn’t even think he’ll need that: “I’ll be studying the music so carefully, I know where it should fit the action — when a person sits down, when a car passes — these are my visual cues.”

Showing “Jaws” so close to the water and being outside will add to the suspense and ambiance. “I think there’s something fun about seeing this movie outdoors. If you’re inside, you could be anywhere. You could be in Cincinnati. You could be in Seattle,” he said. “When you’re outdoors, you realize you’re right by the ocean, which this film captures.”

Like Epstein, Pak is hoping to provide a new experience for the audience with this Quint-essential Martha’s Vineyard movie. “I think the audience will feel the music in a completely different way. Usually people think about music as wallpaper; my hope is that even though they’ll be fully engrossed in the movie, they’ll feel the movie in a completely different way. They’ll notice orchestra, and they’ll leave with a much greater appreciation of how that soundtrack got there in the first place.”

 

Local flavor

This whole Beach Road Weekend idea has a sense of nostalgia to it. One night after making another appearance at a Tisbury selectmen’s meeting, Epstein pulled out his phone and showed a reporter an advertisement from a 1980s newspaper. There on the front page was an ad for live music being performed on the Island.

There are still bands performing on Island, but it’s gotten tougher for them. Just last week, Oak Bluffs police officers enforced a town ordinance that requires bars to have their doors and windows closed to reduce noise.

When Epstein first came to the Island in 1988, the Vineyard had a cool and robust music scene. But that’s faded like the cedar shakes on so many Island homes.

“In the past 30 years, all the live music venues have gone away, and it’s getting harder to get permission to perform live music on the Island,” Epstein said. “Is this ‘Footloose’? Where people are so scared of live music … Where have we gotten to, at this point, where live music is discouraged as some sort of scourge on the community?”

That’s why incorporating local musicians at the festival has been important to him. While the main acts are breaking down and setting up, local bands like Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish will be playing on a second stage. Jeremy Berlin, the pianist for Johnny Hoy, has been coordinating those acts for the festival, Epstein said. “It was always important to me to involve the local musicians, and I just needed a way to do that — and the time and permission to mechanically make that happen,” Epstein said. “I’m happy we’ve been able to pull it off.” 

Berlin will also be performing at the festival with the Mike Benjamin Band. “I’m so happy that something like this is conceived of and worked on,” Berlin said. “As difficult as it is to put something like this together, I think it’s a great thing for the Island, people’s idea of the Island, and all of the people who live here. I’m all for it.”

He’s appreciative of the forum Epstein is giving for local bands to shine. And the audience will have nonstop music to enjoy from the time the first chord is struck at 12 noon until the last encore at about 9 pm on Saturday and 8:30 pm on Sunday.

“I think it’s a cool idea on two important levels — there’s a continuity of music, there’s no dead air, and there’s something for festivalgoers to latch onto and be a part of all the time. But more important, [Epstein] sensed that the local bands and musicians should have a hand in this festival, in celebrating it and being a part of it,” Berlin said. Beach Road Weekend provides an opportunity for those bands to connect with their fans and create new ones on a bigger stage.
Island bands are used to playing at bars and restaurants. It’s a more passive experience. “There’s something different about performing outside, aside from just the acoustics and the climate. Usually if you’re playing outside, the people are coming to hear you,” Berlin said. “It’s more engaged. It’s a wider swath of people. There are often kids and families. I know that when we play outside, we feel like we have a more unifying thing where you’re playing to people who are not just in bars or invited to a specific party. People who come and experience music … The excitement that people get from that gets regenerated in what we’re doing, and it’s a great relationship, a symbiotic relationship, between the fans having a great time and the energy it gives the band.”

Berlin cut his performing teeth in that golden era of Island music that Epstein talked about, first performing at a jazz club on Circuit Avenue known as the Rare Duck in the 1980s. He’s been with Johnny Hoy since 1993. He’s happy that his music and the music of local performers Siren Mayhew, Rose Guerin, the Dock Dance Band, Brothers McMahon Holy Rock ’n’ Roll Revival, the Outskirts, the Phil Darosa Project, Evan Dando, and the Mike Benjamin Band are being given some stage time.

“That will be really exciting to hear peers and colleagues on a bigger stage,” Berlin said. As a lover of music, he’s looking forward to hearing the musical lineup. “I’ve never seen John Fogerty live, but I’ve always been a Credence fan. Credence is one of the great bands, and Fogerty is one of the great frontmen and I’m looking forward to seeing him,” Berlin said. He’s also looking forward to hearing Phil Lesh and Friends perform some of the Grateful Dead’s classics. “I’m really looking forward to the totality of it, and to hear some of these individuals that I’ve been fond of and a fan of my whole life,” Berlin said.

 

The big stage

Joining Fogerty on Saturday are Dispatch, Alejandro Escovedo, North Mississippi Allstars, Mason Jennings, and Super Diamond. On Sunday, Lesh will be preceded by Grace Potter, Galactic, Matisyahu, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, and The Original Wailers.

Escovedo, from his Texas home where it was a blazing 105°, said he’s looking forward to his Vineyard debut. 

“I’m excited. I’ve never been to Martha’s Vineyard before, so this will be my first venture there. I’m excited to play the festival. It looks like a great lineup, and it’s always great to play for new people,” Escovedo said. He’s also excited to be playing at the outdoor festival. “The vibe is great at festivals. They take good care of you. The food is interesting. And it’s always great to meet so many people that are having a great time and they are there for the music. It’s one of those places where people are there specifically to listen to bands, to singers and songwriters.”

Escovedo has been touring for 35 years and has been all over the world, including stops in New Zealand, Australia, Europe, and the U.S. It’s the creative process that keeps him going. “Connecting with people is always the exciting part. I’ve always loved the live shows because of the immediate response you get,” he said. “I don’t know how to do anything else except write songs and play them. It’s something I’ll probably do until the day I die, I hope.”

The North Mississippi Allstars are also performing on Saturday. Luther Dickson, who formed the Southern rock band with his brother, said he’s looking forward to returning to the Island for the first time in “many, many years.”

More than that, he’s looking forward to sharing North Mississippi Allstars’ brand of Southern rock blues with an outdoor audience where the music can “breathe.” As a 46-year-old father of two girls under 9 years old, he enjoys the family atmosphere of a music festival. “I’m always happiest when I see a family my age with a mom with a kid on her hip and then the grandparents are sitting in a lawn chair.” 

Dickson’s only regret is that it will be a short visit to the Island. “We come in the night before, then do our show, and then leave. That’s what being a musician is like: It’s like robbing a bank. You have to keep moving.”

 

Weather or not

The extended forecast looks sunny and hot for Beach Road Weekend, but don’t tell Epstein. He doesn’t want to hear about the weather. When he first proposed the concert, he was told the field would be swampy from rain.

The weather is actually the least of his worries: “I can’t do anything about it. I have a lot of insurance, an expensive insurance policy, but insurance isn’t is not going to get me anything except money. I want to do a show. It’s important to me that we deliver on our promise and produce a beautiful weekend outside. If it was rained out or canceled, it would be emotionally difficult for me. We can move on and we’ll be fine, but we’ve worked so hard to make something like this happen to prove it can be done. We are right at the precipice of proving it can be done.”

The festival and its success keeps him up at night. “I don’t sleep anymore. There’s too much to do. An hour of sleep is an hour less that we have to take care of something,” he said. 

He doesn’t want to disappoint: “When something changes, we have to pivot. I’m worried about having to pivot two days beforehand because someone decided they couldn’t make it work.”

Epstein has left nothing to chance. He walked the neighborhood that will be most affected by the festival and left his personal cell phone and email address for those residents. When issues have been brought up on social media like people comparing the festival to Woodstock, Epstein has chimed in to attempt to add substance to the speculation. He’s even answered commenters on The Times website who have raised questions.

The town will get $40,000 for the use of the Veterans Memorial Park, and Epstein has put up another $25,000 as insurance that the field will be returned in the same shape it was in when the concert arrived. He’s paying for police details, fire, and EMS. He’s paying for the town’s DPW. Because of the size of the trucks that are bringing the stage and equipment, he did a test run to make sure they could maneuver the narrow streets surrounding the field.

Esptein has been surprised by some of the resistance. The Martha’s Vineyard Regional School District wouldn’t rent him buses to run a shuttle service, so he had to bring in an off-Island company. Some Island venues would not rent him parking lots, even though he was teaming up with charities so they could make money from the festival.

So he’s looking to prove himself with Beach Road Weekend because he doesn’t want it to be a one and done venture. He’s hoping he’s laid the foundation for an annual event that will become to Tisbury what the annual fireworks are to Oak Bluffs, a signature event that people plan their vacations and visits around.

There will be 150 workers and thousands of audience members for Beach Road Weekend.

So what will success look like? “Our approach to the festival has been do no harm. We want people to have a great time … The approach of the festival is to watch people come in, hang out all day, leave with a smile, come back the next day and then say, ‘You know what, he delivered what he said he was going to do.’ People did have a good time, and it did deliver something for the town. That’s what I want,” Epstein said. “I want a smooth event without any sort of hiccups or problems that people come to and they have a great time. If we can deliver on that level and people have the fun experience I think they will, then it will be something selectmen will want again.”