A Night at The Ritz with Jeremy Driesen


Siren Mayhew, Sean McMahon, and baby Isla June. —Jeremy Driesen

Jeremy Driesen’s new book reminds us of how great it felt to be in a really small place with a lot of really happy people.

The photographs of The Ritz Cafe from Jeremy Driesen’s book, Vineyard Noir, Scenes from an Island, bring back a tantalizing taste of what life was like before everything was suddenly put on hold.

“The pictures in Jeremy’s book look like they are etchings from another world,” Jeremy Berlin, keyboard player for Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish says. “Everything about them is like a view into a former life and they spark a sense that we can’t take for granted the little spaces we always assumed would always be there.”

The Ritz Cafe gives Driesen an outlet for his two greatest passions, music and photography. For years he’s made his living as a touring rock and roll drummer, backing up a long list of musicians like Chuck Berry, Gary U.S. Bonds, Sam Moore and Richie Havens.

And as a photographer, “The Ritz is just an incredible place to shoot,” Driesen said. “It’s my favorite bar on the planet.”

Johnny Hoy on a typical night with a packed house at the Ritz. —Jeremy Driesen

Driesen has not only played drums at the Ritz, “about 8 million times,” he says, but it’s become the nexus of his social life as well. “It’s that bar where ‘Everybody knows your name,’” he says. “When I walk in, there’s a Jack Daniels on the bar waiting for me.”

In the introduction to “Vineyard Noir” Driesen writes, “For some reason, I seem to do my best work well after sunset. I love human engagement, I love movement, I love weird.”

“When I first came here in the 70s,” Johnny Hoy, singer and harp player for Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish said, ”There were a lot of fishing boats tied up in Oak Bluffs, there was a lot of money coming in from fishing and the Ritz was a pretty rowdy bar; a lot of heavy drinking and fighting.” So the Ritz has deep roots as a dive bar.

But over the years the fishing industry died off and the demographics of the Island got more upscale. And the Ritz became, while perhaps technically not a dive bar in the sense of a Charles Bukowski gin joint but, shall we say — it became dive-bar adjacent. But even until fairly recently, “The nice people on the Island didn’t go to the Ritz,” Hoy said. “They didn’t know what they were missing.”

What they were missing is what shines through Driesen’s photography. The swirling energy of the crowd crushing up against the band, Delanie Pickering on lead guitar with more attitude than a Jack Russell Terrier and Rose Guerin belting out a tune wearing her floppy fedora.

Rose Guerin is sometimes behind the bar, and sometimes behind the mic. —Jeremy Driesen

Music has always been a big part of the Ritz, but when Larkin Stallings took over the bar in 2014, he doubled down on the live music and until the lockdown there were live bands playing at the Ritz every night of the week. “There are so many world-class musicians on the Island,” Stallings said. “Music is the heart and soul of the Ritz.”

It’s the kind of place where on a crowded night, Hoy will call over to bartender Rose Guerin (aka Rose from-behind-the-bar) and say, “Come on over Rosie,” and she’ll step up on the stage, grab a mic and join in with the band.

“One time I was waiting on a customer and then I started singing and the guy got a little confused,” Guerin said, “he walked right up to me, tripped on the mic stand and gave me a bloody lip … all I could say was ‘what the …’”

Like “The Community Fire”

Stallings likes to refer to the Ritz as “The Community Fire.” “It’s a place where Islanders from all over get together,” he said, “whether it’s in the dark of winter or in the summer where locals rub elbows with tourists and summer folks and bond over cold beers and great music.”

And perhaps the most striking thing about “The Community Fire” is the diverse melting pot of people that are drawn to it. Look at Driesen’s pictures: There are young people, old-timers, and yes, that’s Siren Mayhew and Sean McMahon’s baby, Isla, hanging on to Sean’s guitar. “We like to get ‘em started early,” Hoy says.

Mike Benjamin, a regular on the Ritz stage said, “Larkin is from Texas and the Ritz is sort of like an American roadhouse; it almost has a southern feel, it’s like a place on the chitlin circuit where everyone feels comfortable.”

“Sometimes I’ll look out at the crowd and there will be a fisherman talking to a CEO,” Stallings said. “The local plumber is buying a drink for a bank president — I love that.”

Kelly Feirtag and Phil DaRosa. —Jeremy Driesen

Part of the inclusiveness of the Ritz involves bringing along young musicians. “We have a good tradition that involves an informal mentorship with young musicians,” Jeremy Berlin said. One of the regular acts at the Ritz is The Edbury All-Stars, a floating cast of musicians from around the Island. “If someone feels like they can get up and play,” Berlin says, “we’ll give them a chance, even high school kids — it’s a wonderful tradition.”

When all is said and done, the real charm of the Ritz is that there’s no pretense to the place; it doesn’t try to be something it isn’t and you can see that in Driesen’s photography. “It is what it is,” says Johnny Hoy, “and what it is is just right.”

“Vineyard Noir, Scenes from an Island” is available at the Bunch of Grapes bookstore and at the Vineyard Art Gallery in Vineyard Haven.

How Jeremy shoots:

“I try to balance my need for the photo with everyone else’s need to enjoy what they’re doing at the club. In other words, it’s not about, ‘Stand aside, everyone! Photographer coming through!’ I never want to be that guy; I want to disappear in the crowd.”

Darby Patterson takes a break. —Jeremy Driesen

“It’s also about having a light footprint when I’m shooting. I avoid blocking anyone’s view when I shoot. I’m not a big guy, so I don’t take up much space. I try to be approachable in my demeanor and to be considerate, open, and friendly. If someone turns and poses for a picture, I go ahead and take it enthusiastically, even though I’m not after posed photos. If someone asks me not to shoot them, I absolutely oblige.”

“A lot of it is being candid with my candid photography. I shoot a really fast 85mm prime lens a lot in the Ritz, which is long enough to give me some distance from my subjects and still get quality in low light. If they don’t see me shooting them, they don’t try to pose, which is better for what I do.

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