I don't think there is a band quite like the 'Billies in this country, nay, in the world. They are one of the hottest and most popular contradance bands on the West Coast, being based in the Bay Area. What they do is start with traditional dance music from around North America and add a few numbers from Europe. Then they add multicultural input and a sorcerer's cookbook. The stew they derive seems to always be interesting, if not always recognizable. Their musical styles are as diverse as their source material.
Ray comes from a country music and folksong background; Paul has played in bluegrass, old time, and Irish bands (he also tours with Kevin Burke, Mark Graham, and Sandy Silva); Kevin has been active in the Irish and Quebecois scenes; and Daniel... well, he must be the Martian.
I first encountered Daniel at a Brandywine Festival in the midst of a hot session of Kentucky fiddle tunes, and he was blowing a mean flute! One of their strong points is their skill at arranging. I've had the pleasure and good fortune to watch the evolution of some of the arrangements heard here over the past several years, as most of the 'Billies are frequenters of the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes, which is one of my normal haunts, and they occassionally play dances in Seattle, my home.
It seems to me that the Irish and Quebec repertoire has not been tampered with as much as some of the other material, but that might be my view since I am much more familiar with the old-time styles and the French music. Most of the old-time tunes go through lengthy, slow, alien introductions before hitting the familiar strains, then veer off into terra incognita. A lot of cultural purists will probably feel aghast at the treatment given some of their favorite tunes, but the Martians have so much style and so much musicianship that they can pull it off without offending too many.
One of the things I detest most in my life are cheap musical tricks many bands use to goose dancers into screaming. I feel that the power of the music and traditional rhythm alone should provide the impetus to dance. Well, the Hillbillies use all of the tricks I've ever heard and have pulled quite a few new ones on me, but I don't seem to mind so much when they do it, because, like I said earlier, they have a lot of style. I'll give you an example from this album. They play the fine tune, Old Man Old Woman, from Louis Boudreault, the Quebec fiddler. This tune enjoyed some popularity in the old-time scene in the 1970's due to an old Jody Stecher recording on the Bay Label and because the Highwoods Stringband performed it on occasion. The Hillbillies play it relatively straight for a while, but then different instruments start drifting in and more percussion starts building, then all of a sudden you are listening to African polyrhythmic electric guitars playing a beautiful, ethereal version of the tune. Then they reel the listener back in.
Several of the band members also are excellent singers (all may be, but I don't ever recall hearing Daniel sing), but we only get a couple of short examples. Ray warbles a nice rendition of The Blind Fiddlerbefore they launch into Sandy Boys, and Kevin sings his own short composition, Friends, which has one of my all-time favorite lines:
my hair it grows thin
the seasons pass quicker,
my head starts to spin
well I've learned to take refuge
in the sight of a friend
the moment we meet up,
my heart says 'Amen'.
The liner notes are informational and entertaining, with anecdotes and some
musicology concerning the material. The Hillbillies impart their
sense of fun wtih music and the music is eminently danceable. Granted,
it may not suit everyone's taste, but I sure like it.