It’s summertime on Howard Street, and the evening sky casts a dusky shadow on the crowded lawn of The Chalfonte Hotel. The block buzzes with the melodic funky fusion sounds of The Ramble, beckoning the community to truly unwind on any given Thursday, from a week before Memorial Day until Halloween. This weekly event is nothing short of an authentic jam session amongst the musicians of Cape May. It is electric, inclusive, laid back—even a bit wistful.
The Ramble has rightfully garnered a profoundly positive reputation since its inception. Chris Gillin-Schwartz, Cape May County native and established local musician, was inspired by a weekly bluegrass night in New York City that harnessed the spontaneous style of live performance. His vision was to create a similar event in Cape May that captured that same essence while being unique to this place. He began The Howard Street Ramble on his 30th birthday, back in June of 2016.
The Chalfonte had approached Chris about an open night for entertainment in the legendary King Edward Bar. This opportunity allowed him to curate an unconventional gathering with a core group of musicians and an open-door policy for others to “hop in” and collaborate. He entered this vision with the intention of unpredictability, to have every night dynamic and different from the one before. This “see where the night takes us” mentality resulted in one of the most treasured local community events in Cape May.
Seven years ago, they hosted an introductory makeshift Ramble to test the waters. The performers were Chris, his father Joe Schwartz (AKA Doc), and local musician Tom Naglee. This was the night that initiated their first season. Other incredibly skilled core members joined, like Ric Rutherford, when an old piano was rolled into the King Edward, which he would play joyously along with the banjo, and rhythmic master Jeff Hebron on the djembe drum and vocals.
Throughout that summer, local talents like Max Crowley and Dylan O’Donnell, both members with Chris of the local band The Bastard Sons of Captain Mey, would play. Other musical figures that supported the event that first season include Maddie Hogan, Audrey Snow, Daisy Castro, Brian Lee, and many more, all of whom contributed to that memorable kickoff of The Ramble.
Like a television show that settles into itself by season two, The Ramble really began to find its groove by its second summer. The cast got to know its audience, and the musicians found their sound. Chris references the summer of 2017 as the “aha moment,” when he finally heard what he had envisioned from the beginning. It developed into Dylan O’Donnell on percussion, occasionally Mark Ternofski on harmonica, and Don Shough sometimes plunging into some sets with his guitar.
Droves of people pulled up for this immersive hodgepodge of musicians and instruments, which became more successful than the capacity of the King Edward allotted, as it began bursting at the seams. Chris worried about the comfortability of the environment. It was unmanageable once 2020 rolled around and…well, let’s just say it’s hard to keep sardines six feet apart in a can. The next step for The Ramble was to move outside. The Chalfonte has historically hosted porch concerts, so making this an open-air affair was a natural progression, even felicitous when considering the old and beloved Kentucky southern mountain custom of playing bluegrass on the front porch.
This prompted a new chapter for The Ramble, broadening the scope of both music and audience. The winds of change blew down Howard Street as new players joined the mix; figures like Jeff White and Owen Stewart both ventured south from Philadelphia during that time. Jim Hannah, an integral member of The Chalfonte community, joined on drums and percussion as well. Chris reflects on how this expansion gave way for advancement.
With so many names and so many instruments rotating in and out of the pack, and an average of seven or eight players on the porch at once, the balance of sound and synchronicity is important. Chris emphasized the importance of creating space for one another on stage by intuitively knowing when to step back and allow others to be heard and recognizing when to jump in. This is how a musician’s awareness of the dichotomy between listener and player proves its value.
Chris also said, “Everybody comes with this tremendous openness to whatever happens.” Spontaneity is key, as much of the musical direction of the night is songs they play inspired on a whim. “We totally play in the moment, making it up as we go,” says Tom Naglee. Being locked in the moment allows them to stay present throughout the performance, connect with the crowd, and produce a harmonious bluegrass symphony.
After so much energetic buildup from a performance, it can be difficult to bring the show to an abrupt halt; therefore, they often move things back into the King Edward after their porch performance for “The Ramble after Dark,” a term coined by musician and rambler Ben Stone. This informal continuation allows the musicians to return to The Ramble’s roots and engage in a more intimate jam session.
You may be asking yourself at this point, “What does The Ramble actually sound like?” They play a kaleidoscope of American music, prominently featuring bluegrass, soul, and folk with influences like The Grateful Dead, Bill Withers, and their unofficial spirit animal, Willie Nelson. These tunes are enhanced with the occasional twang of a dobro guitar, bright strum of a banjo, and other inherently southern sounds such as the fiddle and harmonica. It is important to note that The Ramble is not contained by any of these genres; the possibilities are truly limitless for what sounds they could produce.
There is an obvious rapport between not only the musicians on the stage, but with the listeners on the lawn. As they respond to the crowd and the uniqueness of each night, every performance is a completely new experience. The Ramble demonstrates all the most sacred and valuable elements of live performance. It exemplifies that to experience music is more than merely auditory stimulation—it is kinetic and charismatic, personal, and prolific. The significance of live music is emphatically demonstrated at The Howard Street Ramble.