The Eastport Oyster Boys Revolution Continues
The ascension of the Eastport Oysters Boys began with a barrage of brussel sprouts fired from long-rifle muzzles aimed in the general direction of “Annapolis Proper” on Sunday, January 25, 1998. As part of this protest of the impending closure of the Spa Creek Bridge, which connects the highbrowed state capital to the lowly but historic maritime Horn Point Peninsula, the Oyster Boys assembled a rag-tag mix of horn players, drummers, singers, and whatnot to form the Eastport Chamberpot Orchestra. Eastport merchants and community activists with tongues firmly in cheek, thereby formed the Maritime Republic of Eastport to have some fun and promote the fact that the place was still accessible by boat, open for business, and no longer connected to a hostile neighbor, an accusation the Annapolitans hardly acknowledged. The Republic quickly produced its own passports, currency, anthem, navy of sorts, militia, canine corps of engineers, and a battle flag emblazoned with a coat of arms flanked by Labrador retrievers and the motto, “WE LIKE IT THIS WAY.” In May, the Eastport Navy, consisting of 34 skiffs and deadrise boats, circled Annapolis Harbor blowing horns and firing off signal cannons, and invaded the Annapolis Waterfront, renamed the harbor (the Gulf of Eastport), adjourned to a tavern, and declared victory—a crushing defeat that Annapolis has never acknowledged, or perhaps noticed. With all that, the Eastport Oyster Boys became the de facto musical voice of a movement.
The Oyster Boys had been an ensemble since 1995, begun as a duo by staunch Chesapeake Bay conservationists, mariners, and rabble-rousers Kevin Brooks and Jeff Holland. Brooks brought the showmanship, humor, and song-writing he’d developed over some three decades on the professional folk, bluegrass, and Irish music circuit—notably at the famous Marmaduke’s Pub in Eastport, the Kennedy Center, and The King of France Tavern. He spent some time backing up a crooner named Martin O’Malley before he crooned his way into a primary role as Maryland’s Governor. Brooks’ day job was in the non-profit sector, and that’s not a joke on the gigging-musician business model. He’s had a robust executive-level career and continues to consult various environmental and community development organizations.
Holland brought a similar set of skills, along with his ukulele, while handling public relations for the Annapolis Boat Shows and freelance writing for various outlets, including Chesapeake Bay Magazine. He had a band, Crab Alley, playing original and traditional Chesapeake Bay and other seafaring songs. Brooks filled in as bass player in the band’s waning days, and a creative partnership developed. Holland had a solo gig on the Schooner Woodwind cruises out of Annapolis. Brooks soon came aboard, and they chose the name.
For larger venues, the band drew in a “cadre of musical misfits, mostly from the boating industry,” Brooks recalls, for shows around the peninsula to spread the Chesapeake vibe and, with the Eastport rebellion, they naturally became the community’s signature band.
Now, nearly 25 years later, Brooks notes, “It has never been a one- or two-man show. It’s been a team effort from the beginning, of recognizing, adapting, and using talents that are in our toolbox. That’s what worked.” Everybody sings, tells jokes, laughs, and does whatever comes to mind. Often, there’s a guest musician or two sitting in—drummer, bass player (Pete Miller), tuba-player, or what have you. The music is organic, homegrown, pertinent, and it covers the gamut—boogie, island, Celtic, swing, chanteys, rock & roll, gospel, and Americana. And it works, judging by the festive herds who show up to dance and sing along, knowing every lyric. “The range of our music reflects the diversity of Chesapeake culture, its character and its characters,” says Brooks.
Over the years, the line-up has distilled into a core of four like-minded musicians—Tom Guay (fiddle, guitar, hammer dulcimer), Mike Lange (keyboards, melodica, ukulele), Andy Fegley (trombone, percussion, guitar), and Brooks (guitar and banjitar). Holland left the show in 2010. He has served as the director of the Annapolis Maritime Museum and is now the West and Rhode River Keeper under the Arundel Rivers umbrella. Guay grew up along the Bay and worked as a journalist inside the Capital Beltway before returning to the Annapolis area to play more music and write. He wrote a historical maritime novel and is now the program officer of the oldest river protection group in the country, the Severn River Association (1911). Fegley comes from a long line of Chesapeake Bay mariners and is considered a marine electrical wizard with his company Yacht Electronics Systems in Annapolis. He was a sparkplug of the 1998 revolutionary Eastport Chamberpot Orchestra while playing in the renowned Bay Winds Concert Band and other traditional swing bands. “The unique instrumentation and that we do originals makes this a lot more fun,” he says. “Somebody comes up with an idea for a song, and we all sit down and make it what it is. We can do a whole show without playing a cover, if you’re looking for a cover-band, don’t hire us.”
Meanwhile, “Andy Fegley is our Energizer Bunny. You wind him up and let him go,” Brooks says. “Tom Guay is the spirit of the band. I’ve played with him since 1974.”
Mike Lange comes from the Bay region and is a software engineer by day. “This gives me the opportunity to write songs about the things I love and care about, and hang out with my friends,” he says. Brooks refers to him as the soul of the band, “the most intuitive and caring guy you will ever meet.”
The band’s defining song has to be A Good Hat, A Good Dog, A Good Boat, penned by Brooks and Holland in the beginning to capture the essence of Chesapeake and Eastport lifestyle. The lyrics takes advice from a long-lost Chesapeake sailor, we presume, about what is essential for a good Chesapeake life.
“Now you Boy’s you listen to me, all you need is just these three…”
“A good hat will keep you cool…a good dog will stick with you through thick and thin…a good boat…will take you near and far, and when you’re there, that’s where you are.”
Most of the material speaks to how the Chesapeake Bay defines us. Brooks sounds a bit like a non-profit consultant for a moment when he says, “The mission of the Oyster Boys is to celebrate the Bay and our home waters, our culture and characters. We all share a responsibility to preserve this national treasure. For the Oyster Boys, it’s all about stewardship and having fun while doing it.”
Three CDs, Bay-oriented musical collaborations, and their raucous humor have brought them accolades and opportunities to travel. They’ve played tours in Ireland, Nova Scotia, Estonia, and the Keys. They appear at Woodstock each year for a two-day event; but not that Woodstock. This is Woodstock, Virginia’s Bay Days at the Woodstock Café. During the winter, Brooks and Guay handle musical duty as the Eastport Oyster Boys Duo presenting a Musical History Tour of the Bay onboard the American Cruise Lines Chesapeake tours.
In 2008, Annapolis Mayor Ellen Moyer dubbed the band “Annapolis musical goodwill ambassadors,” even though no such proclamation had ever been officially instituted. In 2014, Mayor Josh Cohen made it official
and the moniker has stuck. Last year, Mayor Gavin
Buckley updated the proclamation. The Annapolis Symphony Orchestra and the ASO String Ensemble
have partnered with the band as co-performers in a series of special Chesapeake-themed concerts held annually at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. Altogether, the boys are doing more than 55 shows this year, almost half of their appearances are shows in support of causes that serve the Chesapeake Bay conservation and appreciation missions. They are gearing up to record a slate of new songs this winter.
They all compose and write, and the collaboration has spawned delightful material such as Tom Guay’s ode to National Bohemian, “Hot Crabs Cold Beer” and another beer-themed lament, Langes’ “No Beer in Tangier.”
Lange recently composed “Rise Up,” a somber and deeply inspirational tribute to the survivors and victims of the brutal 2018 murders of five Capital Gazette employees—Wendi Winters, Rebecca Smith, Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, and John McNamara—which the band presented with the Annapolis Symphony String Ensemble at Maryland Hall on an evening of support for the community. “Writing this song was a form of therapy. I was sitting on my boat in Knapps Narrows a week and half after it happened, and the song just happened there,” he recalls. “I just wanted to do something, a tribute, something to show support.”
They are mainstay performers at the Annapolis Maritime Museum, Bayside festivals, concert venues such as the Avalon Theater, private events, Boatyard Bar & Grill gatherings, and you might find them at Eastport’s venerable dive, Davis Pub, enjoying the classic seven-course Eastport Oyster Boy feast—a crab cake and a six-pack of Natty Boh.