Mike Smith


Beach Road Dispatch

Vineyard Haven’s Chadwick Stokes takes to the big stage August 26.

Radically chill political activist and rock star Chadwick Stokes is always up to something. He began writing songs as a teenager, later formed the groups Dispatch and State Radio, and has recorded live and in-studio solo albums of his own. All the while, Stokes has continued to solidify his career as a musician while using his voice as a human rights activist. Of all his musical adventures, he is perhaps most famous for Dispatch, where his versatile talent is on display; he plays guitar, bass, percussion, trombone, piano, and exhibits a wide range of vocals. But Stokes is also a Vineyard guy, with a wife, three kids, a home in Vineyard Haven, and a childhood of Island memories – with famous lyrics to prove it. Ahead of his band’s return to the main stage at Beach Road Weekend at Veterans Memorial Park in Vineyard Haven on August 26, Stokes shared some pearls of wisdom with Martha’s Vineyard Magazine about what’s next for Dispatch, why he believes in using music as a platform for social and political change, and whether he still visits that Oak Bluffs carousel he’s famous for singing about.

MVM: Let’s start at the beginning. You’re what’s known on the Island as a “summer kid,” and as a teenager you were a counselor at Camp Jabberwocky. Tell us your Vineyard story. When did you first start coming here and what keeps you coming back?

Chadwick Stokes: My parents met on the Vineyard, so I have the Island to thank for my existence. I also met my wife at Camp Jabberwocky when we were in our early twenties working there. Those are such giant placeholders in someone’s life. It’s near and dear to me in that way.

I love the Island; we spent the year there during the pandemic with the three kids and that was wonderful. It was wonderful to have a spot like that to go to and to isolate. I felt very fortunate.
It’s just everything about the Island. There’s so many incredible nooks and crannies and people and artists and amazing trees and rocks. The whole thing is awesome.

I also want to add that my first solo record was done with [Island-based musician, producer, and engineer] Jimmy Parr in Oak Bluffs during one blustery fall. That was also such a fun project, to be there on the Island and to work with him there. That was really a highlight of my life so far, among others, being down there in the fall with my wife and working with Jimmy, who’s an Island fixture. That was our last year before having kids.

MVM: This will be your second time performing at Beach Road Weekend. You first performed back in 2019. What’s it like to be part of a big festival in a place that’s so important to you?

CS: The Island has such an awesome musical history, so I feel like being part of these festivals carries that torch. I’m honored to be a part of it. The lineup is so great. Regina Spektor will be there this year, and then last time I got to meet Phil Lesh from the [Grateful] Dead, which was so cool. And John Fogerty from Creedence [Clearwater Revival] was so cool. You know, with stuff like that, you have to pinch yourself sometimes to think that it’s real.

MVM: Dispatch’s newest album, Break Our Fall, came out in 2021. A lot of artists and songwriters used the pandemic to create more music, perhaps feeling inspired by the political unrest and social injustices that impacted our world. Did anything from the pandemic inspire this new music?

CS: Yes. Yeaaaas. Some of that record was recorded on the Island with Jimmy, at Parr Audio. Some of the lyrics were rewritten as the pandemic went on, and also Black Lives Matter, the movement, coming to the light. The pandemic did give us a little extra time to react to the racial strife that was – that is – happening and has been happening for hundreds of years in this country. To react to George Floyd’s murder and Breonna Taylor’s, and the countless others that are Black and Brown folks who are victims of police brutality, victims of the system the way it’s set up.

In a way, the country woke up a little while we were sheltering in place. It was kind of a wild confluence. And yeah, that was reflected in some of the lyrics that we were able to rewrite because of the extra time.

MVM: You’re often considered a Boston-based band, but the Island has played a recurring role in your music. You debuted your hit song, “Flying Horses,” about the Island’s landmark carousel, in the late-nineties at what was formerly the Wintertide Coffee House in Vineyard Haven. And as you mentioned, you recorded your first ever solo album, Simmerkane II, in Oak Bluffs with Jimmy Parr in 2011, with Carly Simon singing background vocals. Plus, you recorded parts of the video for “Break Our Fall” on the Island. How would you say the Vineyard has influenced your music?

CS: Well, it’s a dreamy place. You know, obviously it’s not without its issues, whether it’s housing related or food related. I’m aware the Vineyard is not just paradise. There is much struggling, and the dynamic between the summer and the folks there year-round cannot be understated. I’m playing a show at the Tabernacle [in Oak Bluffs] in late June for Island Elderly Housing. But I think people are drawn to the Island because it has mystical qualities, and in that mysticism there’s more room for music than I experience on the mainland.

MVM: You’ve said before that the Vineyard is one of your favorite places to write music. Is that still true?

CS: Yeah. In a way it kind of comes easier on the Island.

MVM: You’ve never shied away from talking about politics, and you’ve said you believe music can be used as a tool to help change the world. Through your songs and the foundations you’ve established – Elias Fund, Dispatch Foundation, Calling All Crows, and Amplifying Education – you’ve used your music as a platform for social change. Is there a cause that’s particularly important to you right now?

CS: Yes. This reminds me of one thing. The kneeling at Beetlebung Corner [in Chilmark] that was happening during the pandemic. We would go every Sunday to kneel, and volunteers would get up and talk about someone who has been unjustly killed or thrown in jail. Every week it was a new person; there was never a shortage, unfortunately and tragically, but that played a big part of that. To me, that’s the soul of the Island – those folks who are protesting, honoring agents of change that our country needs, and the Island needs as well.

That makes me think of the native population on the Island too. Their connection to the land is very inspiring and is obviously to be respected and honored.

But going back to the last question, right now…Calling All Crows is working on a campaign called Here For The Music. We’re trying to change the social fabric of the music industry and the sexual abuse that happens therein. We’re doing this by training venues, staff at venues, and festivals and bands to know what to look out for, while also trying to hold the industry to a higher standard. We’ve been hired by a bunch of amazing bands already to do this – The 1975, Phoebe Bridgers, Paramore, King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard.

We’re doing this to help safeguard their tours. The sexual abuse and assault has been so rampant in our industry. There’s been just a trail of damaged people that rock and roll has left in its wake, and in so many ways it was fostered by the industry. When we talk to thousands and thousands of fans...the percentage of those who have been assaulted at live shows is up in the 80s and 90s percent.

MVM: That’s an alarming number.

CS: Yeah, it is. It’s just insane. That’s why our Here For The Music campaign exists. As a man, I just didn’t think of that. I didn’t have to think of that when I had to see any show, a big show or a little show. It’s not just gender based, but, largely, when I talk to my female friends, it’s a different reality for them. We’ve had great partners in this, and different bands and promoters have come on board. Slowly, some of the bigger agencies are asking us to help them.

It does feel like it’s a campaign that’s taken off more than any campaign we’ve done. There’s just so much need for it.

MVM: Speaking of your activism, in 2022 Dispatch posted a Ukrainian flag on their Instagram with the message “We stand with Ukraine,” using the hashtag #STOPWAR. Someone commented that you should learn and sing your hit song “The General” in Russian. You did, and proceeds went to supplies for people living in and fighting for Ukraine. What was that experience like for you? What sort of reactions did you receive?

CS: That was amazing, the reactions. We were looking to do whatever we could to use our platform. We befriended this woman, Olga, who gave me almost nightly Russian lessons. And then through our friend Dr. Jeff Horenstein on the Vineyard, we were able to introduce Olga to Jeff, who is an ER doc on the Vineyard who went over to Ukraine himself a couple times. Through that connection, they’ve been able to get truckloads of supplies into Ukraine. Nice Vineyard connection there as well.

MVM: You mentioned earlier that at Beach Road Weekend in 2019 you had a pinch-me moment meeting Phil Lesh and John Fogerty. Is there anyone from this year’s lineup you’re excited about seeing and playing for?

CS: That’s always a fun part of the festival thing, seeing what bands you are able to see. I’m excited for Japanese Breakfast, Regina Spektor, Patti Smith, Dinosaur Jr. It’s an insane list; what an insane list!

MVM: At that same Beach Road Weekend you also sang “Flying Horses,” and thousands of people sang along to every word. Is it different singing that song on the Vineyard, versus elsewhere?

CS: Yes, of course. It’s this common experience we all have, and that’s where the song was born, obviously, and where it was performed for the first time. It’s like a big campfire when we all know the same song and sing along. It’s awesome.

MVM: Have you been to the Flying Horses Carousel lately?

CS: Oh, yeah! We go every year with the kids. As I get older, I have less tolerance for doing multiple rides. I have to do the ballerina thing and whip my head around real fast. But yeah, we go every year.

MVM: Dispatch has been around since 1996, but you’ve taken a few breaks, had one long hiatus, started other bands. A few years ago, you referred to your latest stage as Dispatch 2.0. What’s next for Dispatch, and for you personally? A new album? Dispatch 3.0? Something new entirely?

CS: We just released a live record [Live from the Boston Woods, from a concert last summer], and we have a bunch of festivals this year and maybe a tour next year. I’m working on a rock opera that will probably take up a few years in the making. I just really started getting into it and working on it.

MVM: Other than playing music on the Island, what else do you like to do when you’re here?

CS: We like to hit the trails, go hang out at Camp Jabberwocky, and surf at Squibnocket. We like to be with our friends while we’re there. We have a bunch of friends that live there, so we like to catch up with them, that’s a really special part.