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Spuyten Duyvil injects new verve into traditional music - Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin

After many years of solo singer/songwriters with guitars as the vanguard of acoustic music, the folk scene and its close cousins — including alt-folk, Americana and alt-country — have revived the idea of the band in the past 10 years or so.

Managing the tricky balance of honoring what’s come before and breaking new ground is Hudson Valley-based Spuyten Duyvil, which revs up the engine and takes tradition out for a spin.

The band will make its debut at 6 On The Square in Oxford on Saturday night — a much more formal setting than how it all started at the Yonkers home of husband-and-wife songwriting duo Mark Miller and Beth Kaufman.

“We just starting playing songs on the porch — drinking beer, barbecuing, playing some music once or twice a week. I was extremely happy with that arrangement. I really was!” Miller said with a laugh.

“Once I started writing again, though, the people I was playing with said, ‘Come on, we’ve got to go out and get some gigs!’ I told them, ‘Are you sure? What we’re doing right now is really great and I’m really happy just doing this. As soon as we start getting gigs, everything is going to change.’”

Miller’s personal musical revival happened a bit earlier than that, though. He spent years composing electronic music for video games in the 1990s but eventually felt burned out and left the industry. However, when he and Kaufman saw renowned multi-instrumentalist David Lindley in concert, the bouzouki — a traditional Greek stringed instrument like an elongated guitar — intrigued him. Because she’s a good wife, Kaufman (who has a musical theater background) soon bought him one, and he was hooked.

Spuyten Duyvil gets its unusual moniker from the creek between Manhattan and the Bronx; it’s Dutch for “spinning devil” or “spitting devil,” but the exact origins of the name are unclear. As a collective, band members see anything from the last century of American roots music as up for grabs: folk, jug bands, bluegrass, folk-pop, gospel, blues, country and more.

For instance, longstanding harmonica player Jim Meigs finds inspiration from fellow harpists Sonny Terry, Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson, and he includes those influences in Spuyten Duyvil. (He’s also editor-in-chief of Popular Mechanics magazine, but his own expertise tends toward older musical technology.)

“Anything with deep roots in American culture — anything that, when you look back, you think, ‘I might have heard this in the 1930s, the 1940s, the 1950s — all of those go into the mix that is our music,” Meigs said.

“We’re not doing songs that we took out of some museum song list that we’re trying to do exactly like the Carter Family did in 1929. We’re interpreting things and bringing in different elements.”

Another element that makes Spuyten Duyvil stand out is the inclusion of male and female lead voices, which reflects Miller and Kaufman’s different points of view as storytellers. On the latest album, “Temptation” (released in October), they even get their 16-year-old daughter, Dena, to take the mic for the closing track, “Everything I Am.”

“Bands have a different energy when there are both men and women in the band. A bunch of guys playing music tend to go in certain directions,” Miller said. “You throw some women in the mix, and the IQ goes up, the bus smells better and you tend to take a much more balanced approach to the music.”

Since band members decided to leave the front porch, Spuyten Duyvil has released a self-titled EP in 2009 and two albums: 2011’s “New Amsterdam” and last fall’s “Temptation.” Their take on the folk standard "I'll Fly Away" on the latest disc climbed to No. 2 on the International Folk DJ Chart, with “Temptation” itself at No. 7.

Among the noted venues played along the way are the Philadelphia Folk Festival, the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, Clearwater's Great Hudson River Revival, the Bethel Woods Center for the Performing Arts, the Turning Point and Caffe Lena.

“We had a theme in mind, we knew the ground we wanted to cover, and each song was written mindfully of the other songs that were going on the CD,” he said. “I think the writing is more mature, and the curating of the material is much more coherent.”

Band members are currently at work on two new CDs. One, slated for release later this year, is a covers album of traditional tunes; the other, expected in 2015, will focus on original songs.

Another goal is to expand Spuyten Duyvil’s touring range, with many first-time venues — including 6 On The Square — on the schedule in upcoming months.

“Sometimes we play at festivals in front of thousands of people, and sometimes we play listening rooms in front of 30 people,” Miller said.

“The most exciting thing for us — and it’s completely independent from the number of people involved — is when we get onstage in front of a crowd that does not know us. They listen to the first few songs and politely applaud. If we’ve got them either on their feet or dancing or yelling and screaming for an encore by the end of the second set, there really is nothing we do that feels better than that.”

Miller likes how “Temptation” turned out and the reception that it has received from folk DJs and reviewers.

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