The Chilmark Potluck Jam began on Thanksgiving weekend a dozen years ago in 2007, and this Thanksgiving weekend, the Chilmark Community Center will open its doors yet again, for the 50th of these musical evenings. They’ve become a winter tradition that showcases and encourages all kinds of musicians, from first-time performers to seasoned professionals. Alex Karalekas organized the first even, and has kept it up for over a decade, with help from friends, family, and the community.
“I created it so I could have a place to play my original music,” he says. “That wasn’t a rule — that you had to play originals — but it was encouraged. Down the road, it became more than that.” Willy Mason organized a similar event at the same time. “Alex and I kept running into each other and talking about the need for people to get together and celebrate, share food and music,” Mason says. “Opportunities to be together in comfort and song are important.” The first time there was a Chilmark Potluck Jam, there was a similar event the night before, at the Grange Hall, organized by Mason. The Chilmark potluck continued through Karalekas’ dedication, while his early collaborators, including Mason and Brad Tucker, had music careers that took them away from the Island more often.
These days, the music at the Chilmark Potluck Jam covers every genre from traditional to experimental, with musicians of all ages from all over the Island — and sometimes even from off-Island. Some contact Karalekas ahead of time to let him know that they want to play, or he might call them. Others sign up on the night of the event itself. Each musician or band plays only two songs, which allows for over 30 different acts to cross the stage over the course of four hours. On a screen above the stage, an extreme sports movie plays in the background, with the sound off (Karalekas is also an avid surfer and snowboarder). “Sometimes it can be distracting,” he says, “but sometimes there are some serendipitous moments of synchronicity with the music, like when someone is singing about a sunset and suddenly there’s a sunset on the screen.”
The food in the front room is also a hub of activity. People come in, take off their coats, and chat with friends as they line up to fill their plates. Not everyone brings a dish to share, but it’s highly suggested. “The food is incredible,” Karalekas says. “Lots of really healthy food comes up. People prepare lots of really nice stuff. Rick O’Gorman’s slaw with raw beets and garlic is there every time. We always have oysters donated from various oyster farms, and you’ll find my father and my uncle, Johnny and Teddy Karalekas, in the kitchen shucking.” His mother helps with the table arrangements, and countless other people have pitched in over the years. One of these is Steve Mack, who began doing the sound after the first few shows. “Steve Mack needs a lot of credit for what he’s contributed. He loves to pitch in, and he’s got a heart of gold,” Karalekas says.
A few of those who encouraged the potluck in its early years have passed on. Maynard Silva was a big fan — he designed the poster for the first one, and played at some of the early events. “Maynard would really get the crowd going, and his words of encouragement are still keeping me going,” Karalekas says. William Waterway was also an advocate of the potluck, which provided a place for his ritual, prayer-style performance. Tommy Osmers used to bring wild oysters from West Tisbury, and taught people how to shuck in the kitchen.
With so many people playing, there are always a lot of musicians in the audience, along with those who just come to listen and enjoy the atmosphere. “It’s been very successful,” says Isaac Taylor. “One thing that I love about it is just being asked to participate. It allows me to put some time into things that I otherwise wouldn’t do. It’s of great value to the community, because it gets people out there to perform.”
“I’m proud that the potlucks have been part of Isaac continuing to write and release songs,” Karalekas says. He has also created a place for new musicians to showcase their work. “You want people to feel at home. It gives people a chance to give it a shot if they’re not used to performing. We’ve had a lot of youngsters come through.” Griffin McMahon brings his students to play. Charlotte Benjamin, Mike Benjamin’s daughter, played at the potluck before going on to a musical career off-Island. This Saturday many regulars will be playing, including the Pickpocket BlueGrass Band, Ellen and Taurus Biskis, Rob Meyers and Nico Ewing, Jodie Treloar, Eric Luening, Becky Williams, and Lydia Fischer, among others. Karalekas now only rarely brings his synthesizers up onstage to perform himself.
“It needs to be off-season for this event,” Karalekas says. “The feeling just isn’t there in the summer. It needs to be wound down, relaxed. The community center is warm and the light is soft. It’s a welcoming environment.”
“If you’ve never been here in the winter, you should go,” says Dan Waters, who photographs the event, and also performs as a singer and guitarist. “It’s a great way to put your finger on the pulse of a side of the Island that’s basically invisible in the summer.”
This season’s Chilmark Potluck Jams will take place on the following Saturdays: Nov. 30, Jan. 4, March 7, and April 11 from 6 to 10 pm at the Chilmark Community Center.