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New York band brings American tradition to Mt. Lebanon

Sep 30 | Posted by: Harry Funk

Listen to a rock radio station, and sooner or later you’re bound to hear the old Grand Funk Railroad hit “We’re an American Band.”

While that statement makes for a catchy lyrical hook, the founders of New York City’s Spuyten Duyvil take it seriously.

“It’s one of the most beautiful things about this country, our musical tradition,” multi-instrumentalist Mark Miller said. “Everywhere in the world you go, you hear blues and jazz, and that’s our music. So we’re very proud to be able to do a small part in carrying that tradition forward, and keeping it contemporary and relevant.”

He and his wife, singer Beth Kaufman – actually, they’re from Yonkers, right next to the Bronx – self-describe Spuyten Duyvil’s sound as a blend of old-time, blues, New Orleans, bluegrass and folk-rock, “with a pinch of punk-rock energy.” They’ll bring their sextet to the Pittsburgh area on Oct. 6 to kick off the new Sunnyhill Concert Series at Unitarian Universalist Church of the South Hills, 1240 Washington Road, Mt. Lebanon.

For its repertoire, the band reaches back to the influences of long-ago musicians whose contributions were significant but whose names now are familiar only to a select few, with Miller providing as examples:

“Artists like Elizabeth Cotten and Mississippi John Hurt and Gary Davis and Big Bill Broonzy somehow encapsulate the American experience,” he said. “I feel like when we bring this music to the forefront, it really brings people together in a way and helps us find our way back to a sense of pride and a sense of identity.”

The story of Spuyten Duyvil’s start plays out as its own American experience.

After early musical pursuits – chiefly, Miller as a composer-producer for video game music and Kaufman as a theatrical performer and “folky, playing guitar around the campfire” type – the couple toned it down, so to speak, once their daughter, Dena Miller, was born.

Eventually, Kaufman bought Miller a bouzouki, a stringed instrument with Greek origins, and he learned how to play it by referencing the folk songbook “Rise Up Singing.”

“And so we started singing on the porch,” he recalled. “We live in a pretty creative neighborhood, and people started dropping by. And there was barbecue. And there was beer. And before you knew it, there was the beginning of a band.”

Along with Kaufman and Miller, members of the band today are Jeremy Aaron on guitar and violin, Jim Meigs on harmonica, John Neidhart on bass guitar and Jagoda – he goes by one name, like Sting or Bono – on percussion.

“Everybody sort of influences the music, and whenever we produce a new CD, it’s a very collaborative experience,” Kaufman said. “Everyone sort of feeds into the creative process.”

Her voice certainly enhances the process, as she has the ability to adjust accordingly for whatever style of music is in play.

“I have always had very eclectic tastes in music, and my vocals, I think, reflect that, because I try to bring a little bit of everything into the mix,” she said. “And I just love connecting with audiences. I love feeding off of an audience and also nurturing an audience.”

Plus it’s a lot of fun, Miller said, especially the aspect of “making people laugh, usually at us, not necessarily with us.”


“We don’t necessarily think of ourselves as artists,” he explained. “We think of ourselves as entertainers. It’s partly just not thinking one is so important in the world.”

Spuyten Duyvil’s Mt. Lebanon stop is on the way to Chicago, where the band has two more gigs the same weekend before heading home by way of Ohio’s Oberlin College so that her parents can visit Dena. By the way, she’s an entertainer in her own right, writing songs and performing as Deer Scout.

“There really is a nice network of people whom we cross paths with, and we’ve made some good friends in the Pittsburgh area. Even though we have not really played that many times, it’s definitely an area we want to connect with,” Kaufman said.

As for the road trip from the Big Apple to the Windy City and back:

“Eight hours a day in the car, play a show, go to bed, get up, drive eight hours, do another show,” Miller said. “It’s fun for the weekend. I don’t think I’d be ready to do that full-time.”

Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 6, and the concert starts at 8. Email admin@sunnyhill.org to reserve tickets at $20 for adults and $10 for children. For more about the band, visit www.spuytenduyvilmusic.com.
About the name

Back in the day, bands pretty much limited their names to “The” followed by something moderately memorable.

Then came the ’60s, when – let’s just call it “creativity” – led to the likes of Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Merrell Fankhauser’s Fapardokly.

Half a century later, we have Spuyten Duyvil, a band that often begs the question:

Huh?

Founding members Mark Miller and Beth Kaufman of New York City suburb Yonkers have a heck of a story or two for the answer.

“Spuyten Duyvil refers specifically to where the Harlem River meets the Hudson River,” Miller said, and a long time ago: “It looked like an appealing place to cross. But in fact, you would get the tides coming out at different rates and different ways between the two rivers, and you would get very dangerous whirlpools and spouts and currents, and it was like the water was alive.”

Obviously a hangover from when the Big Apple was Nieuw Amsterdam, Spuyten Duyvil’s etymology is kind of vague.

“I’ve asked some real-live Dutch people what it means, and it’s been bastardized quite a bit,” Miller explained. “People are pretty sure ‘Duyvil’ is ‘devil,’ but ‘Spuyten’ might refer to ‘spout,’ ‘spin,’ ‘spit,’ because it’s not an exact word. It’s in a family of words.

“The interpretation that we like best is probably the least linguistically correct. Washington Irving, who when he was writing a satirical history of the Dutch, just decided that it meant ‘in spite of the devil.’ That’s how one has to live sometimes.”

That’s the long answer, according to Kaufman.

“The short answer is that we really wanted a name that rooted us to the area where we live. When we first got the band together, everyone in the band pretty much lived within shooting distance of that one geographic location, that point at the top of the Bronx. And it seemed like a great way to connect us to our region.”

She’ll admit that at first glance, or even quite a few afterward, “Spuyten Duyvil” can be confusing.

“But the name, itself, once you do know: It’s SPITE-en DIE-vul, and it’s pretty easy, and it kind of rolls off the tongue,” she said. “And all of the cool cats in town know how to pronounce it, and that’s all that matters.”

By Harry Funk
Multimedia Reporter
Harry Funk has been a professional journalist in Western Pennsylvania for 30 years, working primarily for community-oriented newspapers. He holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and master of business administration, both from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
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