Magic happens up in Chilmark in the off-season. The town’s community center is transformed four times a year into what feels like a giant living room/dining room combo, as folks from all over the Island gather for the Chilmark Potluck Jam. Long tables filled with pans of mac ’n’ cheese, beans and rice, fresh salads, and desserts greet you as you walk in, and then you notice that there’s a small crowd gathering in the kitchen. That’s where you’ll find local honeysuckle and West Tisbury wild oysters being shucked and topped with mignonette sauce. Before long, you’ll hear instruments being tuned, and you’ll wander into the main hall to see what’s going on. Tables are decorated and topped with handcrafted arrangements, and you find a seat next to your friends and neighbors while you listen to some of the very best Island musicians — some familiar, and some you’ll discover that night. Chilmark Potluck Jams feel like the sum of what’s great about living on the Island year-round.
There hasn’t been a musical potluck at the community center since March 2020, the year the pandemic started. Alex Karalekas, who founded the event with friends back in 2007, says he’s psyched about the first one of the season, this Saturday, Nov. 26, from 5 pm to around 10. “It’s good to be back and be in a better state of mind, when we’re ready to get together,” Karalekas says.
Back in 2007, Karalekas was just looking for a place to play his music, getting people together in the community. “So we started with two potlucks, Saturday and Sunday at the Grange Hall,” Karalekas remembers. “Willy [Mason] put up the money for that one when his music was really taking off in the U.K. It started really for myself to get everybody under one roof to hear my songs, and over the years, it took on a whole different meaning for me. And inviting all the players and doing a potluck works brilliantly. It became a lot more to me — all the good times and beautiful music with all our friends and family.”
One of the amazing things about this Island get-together is that it’s free — just bring yourself and a dish to pass. Currently, though, Karalekas wants to think about making the event open to donations for people (or animals) who may be in need. There will be a place set up to drop a donation on Saturday, with the first proceeds going to help Karalekas and his mom’s dog, Ernie, who is going through chemotherapy, an expensive undertaking. “We’re going to ask for help, and we’re looking to give back at the potlucks. It’s such a busy event, you might as well use the get-together to help someone in need, because there is always someone who needs it,” Karalekas says.
He’s taken a break from his own songwriting, and the potluck jams have taken on more of a community-building role for Karalekas. “It’s a lot more about my service to the community with that event than it is about my songwriting. It is important to have that kind of gathering … share food and music. And of course we have such an amazing pool of talent here too.”
More than 100 people typically gather at the potlucks as daylight starts to grow shorter and shorter. Karalekas organizes around 20 or so musicians, singers, and songwriters who show up to play.
“So far I’ve got 15 signed up,” he says. “I’ll probably have the 20 I want in a day or two, and then I’ll make a poster. We usually have about 25 performers.”
He’s got four potluck jams booked already — Nov. 26, Jan. 7, Feb. 18, and April 1 — and might add another in there someplace. Courtney Fitzgerald helps with the table arrangements, as well as Karalekas’ mom, Jenny Allen. Steve Mack has been the soundman since around 2008, Karalekas says: “He does it for free out of the goodness of his heart.”
Karalekas is thinking about taking the stage himself on Saturday, joining fellow musicians Jemima James, Willy Mason, Kate Taylor, Lexie Roth, Neil Howl, Adam Howl, Emmett Athearn, Isaac Taylor, Atlas Zack and more: “This is a big breath of fresh air. We’ll see how it goes. I’m excited.”
Chilmark Potluck Jam, Chilmark Community Center, 520 South Road. Saturday, Nov. 26, from 5 to 10 pm. Bring a dish to pass, and/or a donation to help out.