Spindle Rock River Rats raise the roof

Jan 21, 2020

What do you get when you mix ten musicians, a fridge full of beer, and a former horse barn?

A regular Monday night for the Spindle Rock River Rats, a band that plays their eclectic mix of bluegrass, folk, western and fiddle tunes all over the South Coast.

Three of the River Rats hail from Dartmouth, while others come from Westport, Little Compton, Somerset, and Providence.

According to manager, bass player, and “den mother” Polly Gardner, the band takes its name from the Spindle Rock sailing club in Westport, where many of the core members come from.

They — and as many as can make it — meet every Monday evening in Gardner’s old horse barn/painting studio in Little Compton to practice. 

“It was quite a time getting these folks together, let me tell you,” she said with a laugh. “It all started out back in 1999, when my daughter had a wedding. And I just got a few of us together to play...I just looked at everybody, and I said ‘You know, this is too much fun to quit here.’ And over the years I keep meeting more people.”

Gardner grew up with two of the Rats, fiddle player William “Woody” Underwood and banjo player Borden Snow, in Westport.

But it wasn’t long before the band grew. “I met Steve [Fors] because he’s a chiropractor — I went in to get my back worked on, and he said he was taking up the mandolin,” she said. “And I said ‘Well, you’ve got to come play with us!’”

Other members added over the years include guitar player Ben Leuvelink, at 19 the “token youth” of the group, and another guitar player, Bob Constantine, whom Gardner met at a sea shanty chorus. 

Many of the musicians join for practice and gigs whenever their schedules allow. 

On January 13, the small converted barn was filled with ten musicians and Constantine’s wife Lillian, who had come to watch.

“I’m enjoying it immensely,” she said of the practice.

Instead of his regular tenor banjo, Brad Jenkins of Padanaram was playing a Greek instrument called a bouzouki, which he described as similar to “a big mandolin.”

“I just think it has a beautiful tone, and it holds the notes,” he said, launching into a few bars to illustrate the point.

Jenkins started playing ukulele at the age of seven, banjo at nine, and mandolin at ten. And he said he’s never had a lesson. “I play by ear,” he said. “I don’t read a note.”

He has played with the River Rats for the past ten years.

“They’re pretty eclectic,” he said of the group. “We just have a good time. Nobody’s trying to outdo anybody else. It’s just very easygoing.”

Smith Neck Road resident Dock Murdock has been playing dobro — a type of acoustic guitar with metal cones under the bridge — for 25 years.

“I’m still learning every day,” he said. “I just love the sound.”

He also plays a host of instruments, including guitar, banjo, piano, and bass, and has been with the Rats for around four years.

“One of the members was taken ill, and Brad asked me to come and fill in,” he explained. “And I just never left.”

“They had no idea what they were getting,” he laughed.

Meanwhile Juergen Hallemeier of Pardon Hill in South Dartmouth has been playing accordion with the band for eight years.

“I like to play Western music, some Cajun music, maybe some German songs, sea shanties, some ballads, and stuff that goes back to Tin Pan Alley, that generation,” he said. 

Hallemeier was born and educated in Germany, he said, “but I’m an American citizen now...It’s a wonderful country.”

Most of the River Rats’ gigs take place in the summer. But even in the off season, they still show up for the weekly jam session every Monday.

Murdock noted that the music is “very therapeutic” for the band members. “We all just get together, and all our troubles melt away,” he said.

“Nobody’s in it for the almighty dollar, that’s for sure,” he added with a laugh. “We just do it mostly for fun.”

“It’s all about the fun,” agreed Gardner, before starting up another tune on her double bass.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified chiropractor and mandolin player Steve Fors as Steve Brauch. The name has been updated.