For those who don’t know the Toughcats, they are Colin Gulley, Jake Greenlaw and Joe Nelson, all with roots in the Fox Islands (also known as North Haven and Vinalhaven.) The Toughcats have been playing together for about seven years, and in that time have made quite a name for themselves, not only here in Maine, but in the southeast and the west as well. Their self-described sound is “an unusual blend of old timey bluegrass, thoughtful indie rock, and classic pop twitches a la early Beatles.”

The Toughcats were playing Sutter Creek Theater on April 16, our first night on the west coast. May as well get our vacation right off to a great start! Northern California was at its best as we drove the two lane roads from Davis through the lush green foothills to gold country. The sky was clear, cows were grazing in the pastures, trees were in full leaf mode-unlike our island home that was still fighting its way out of winter’s icy grip, grey and leafless.

An easy hour’s drive later we arrived at our destination. Sutter Creek is a quaint gold mining town, population approximately 3,000. It was a warm spring evening, and there seemed to be a lot going on in the village. Restaurants were buzzing, people were walking the streets, shops were open and there was even a singer entertaining the general public from a second story balcony in the center of town.

After a quick dinner we headed right over to the theater. As we waited in the lobby for the house to open, other patrons began to come in as well. They heard us talking and asked if we had seen the Toughcats before. “Yes!” exclaimed Blake, “They are awesome! Watch the drummer,” she says, alluding to Greenlaw’s boundless energy that manifests in his own unique theatrics that can be counted on at every show. The theater owner let us in about 15 minutes before the show was set to start. It was the Toughcats’ first time playing in this area of California, so only about 30 people turned out in the 200-seat venue. But, as Gulley later explained, “it takes time to develop a fan base in towns where you have never been.”

When the Toughcats took the stage it could have been any small theater in Maine, it was just like home. Nelson was wearing his trademark “Bad Penny” hat, Greenlaw was rapping on his trusty suitcase and it wasn’t long before Gulley took a bow to his banjo, eliciting a clear “wow” in awe from at least one audience member. And though there were fewer in this crowd than there would have been at home, (April 30, the Toughcats packed the Colonial Theater in Belfast with over 250 people, turning away many more) as the show progressed it was clear that they were enjoying the music just as much as any hometown audience. One woman whistled so loudly that Gulley commented, “awesome whistle!” After a few songs it became obvious to me that we were not the only ones who knew the Toughcats’ music. The whistler and her husband were no strangers to these songs. Come intermission, I had to speak with them.

Lamont and Sherry Humphrey of Livermore, CA didn’t know there were islands in Maine until they met the Toughcats. Last year they happened to catch the Toughcats at Evergreen Lodge, near Yosemite. After that night, Lamont downloaded all the Toughcats’ music from iTunes. “He knows every song,” said Sherry.

“I listen to their music every day when I’m working out,” said Lamont. “I would do anything to go hear these guys.” In fact, the Humphreys left their grandson’s birthday party in San Jose early in order to make the 2-½ hour drive to Sutter Creek. “We drove straight here to see these knuckleheads,” said Lamont. “The kind of music they’re playing I would stereotype as something coming out of the Ozarks,” he said. “I turned my brother on to the Toughcats. My brother lives in Texarkana. The energy that comes from these guys…it’s infectious.”

Lamont Humphrey wasn’t kidding. Well before the end of the show this trio of Maine island boys had won over their intimate audience, whose age range spanned 10 through 70 years. Aside from the aforementioned whistling and exclamations of awe, there was plenty of head bopping and fist pumping, clapping in the air. And in addition, the Toughcats inspire an air of affability. Periodically at the end of a song a woman in the front row would ask if that one was on their CDs. Several times the answer was “no.” “You have a lot of recording to do for me!” she responded genially.

As I sat back in my 100-year-old theater seat I realized I was watching the audience as much as I was watching the band. And unlike other Toughcats shows I had been to, this time the best part was not the music. For me, the best part of this particular show was watching an audience from my old home state fall in love with a band from my new home state, my new home town.

Not surprisingly, the audience became its loudest at the end of the show, calling for an encore. Shouting, stomping, clapping and yes, that whistling ensued until the humble Mainers returned to the stage. But what did they choose for their encore? Not an original bluegrassy Toughcats tune. Oh no. They chose a cover song that, in Gulley’s own words, “should not be allowed on banjo.” And typical of my old home state, before the guys had a chance to begin, someone shouted “But this is California!” And with that, the Toughcats played “Paradise City” by Guns ‘N Roses on a banjo, a suitcase and a national resonator guitar.