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The Ritz in Oak Bluffs presents ‘dirty gospel’

You might not think gospel music has much to do with the Ritz, the beloved blues bar in Oak Bluffs, but musician Sean McMahon doesn’t see it that way.

“I like to channel that spiritual exuberance even when I’m playing music in a bar,” McMahon said while we had coffee at Espresso Love last week.

Beginning Sunday, May 6, the Ritz will host McMahon’s latest project, Workman Song Presents Dirty Gospel Sundays, from 7 to 9 pm.

He said the musical foundation will be a trio made up of himself, his brother Griffin, and the drummer they often play with, a friend from Connecticut, Ted MacInnes.

“It’s mostly a trio with guitar, bass, and drums,” McMahon explained. “We’ll play classical spirituals and a song list of what I call convertibles — popular songs about love and devotion fitted for that kind of gospel celebration. ‘Spirit in the Sky’ kind of stuff … ‘My Sweet Lord’ by George Harrison, ‘All You Need Is Love’ by the Beatles, “I Saw the Light’ by Hank Williams; that kind of stuff.”

It’s not such a stretch that this 30-year-old musician and singer-songwriter plays gospel music. He arrived on the Island full-time last October, and his brother has been here for a couple of years as the music director at St. Andrew’s Church. My first conversation with McMahon happened on Circuit Avenue outside the Ritz more than a year ago, when we discovered we had a mutual admiration for Dorothy Day, one of the key founders of the Catholic Worker Movement. Sean’s one of those people who can take you to church without ever stepping inside those hallowed walls. In fact, with his long dark hair and beard, he looks a little like those pictures you used to see of Jesus hanging on the walls at Grandma’s house.

He studied at the New England Conservatory of Music, and has taught and performed for several years. McMahon lived in New York City for a while, playing with various bands and touring.

He said he’s modeling this new endeavor after a guy in Brooklyn, the Rev. Vince Anderson, who plays “dirty gospel” weekly at bars around Williamsburg and draws a crowd.

“His philosophy was that anyplace could be a liturgical place,” McMahon said. “Any celebration can have a liturgical feeling. I like to take music in far-out directions. That’s my philosophy.”

Bands at the Ritz are known for inviting other musicians and singers to join in, and McMahon hopes the same thing happens on Sunday nights.

“I’m hoping there’s a revolving cast,” McMahon said. “Brad Tucker, Robbie Soltz … Griffin will be there, Rose [Guerin] is very into this, and I know Siren [Mayhew] wants to come sing.”

With a Jewish mother and a father from Ireland who was brought up Catholic, McMahon said there was surprisingly very little religion at home when he was growing up. “We did have Jewish observances, though,” he said.

“My interest in the Christian faith was an accident that came from when I was studying my ancestral heritage as a Jew; I wanted to read the sequel.”

When he’s not playing around the Island with other musicians, he and Griffin perform as the Brothers McMahon. He also does private music lessons and works at Mocha Mott’s. His personal spiritual experience leans towards the Emerging Church Movement, he said. A Christian movement about as easy to define as the universe itself, the Emerging Church has elements of postmodern thought and yet doesn’t lend itself to labels, with some preferring to call the movement a “conversation.” McMahon navigates easily from topics like church to rock ’n’ roll to monasticism to which Island coffee shop serves the strongest brew.

You get the impression though, that dirty gospel is right up his alley. “I’m a musician first and foremost,” McMahon told me. “Despite all my spiritual ideas, visions, and aspirations, for me it’s always music first. Every spiritual mentor I’ve had has told me the same thing … follow the music.”

Right now it’s leading him to Sunday nights at the Ritz.