I’d be willing to wager that the vast majority of Americans don’t know what a Juno Award is. If you’re one of them, don’t feel alone. I didn’t know either, until recently. A Juno is Canada’s equivalent to America’s Grammy. Assuming that most Americans aren’t aware of Canada’s top music prize, then, one can fairly surmise that we Americans aren’t paying a heck of a lot of attention to the sounds being created by our northern neighbors. Americans have notoriously made fun of Canada for artists such as Bryan Adams and Celine Dion (and one might argue rightly so), but our “we’re number one” mentality has perhaps blinded us to all the quality music just a border-crossing away. Which is unfortunate, because there’s a ripe crop of Canadian musicians playing music that Americans would probably enjoy. If the overwhelming popularity of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack is any indication, one such gaggle of musicians can be found in the Juno-nominated Bill Hilly Band.
Cutesy name aside, the five young “Bills,” as they refer to themselves, who converged in Victoria, British Columbia, need no gimmicks. Their live performances feature choreographed antics, which are sure to delight both young and old, but the band doesn’t need theatrics as a crutch. This is because each member of the Bill Hilly Band is a master of his instrument, and in some cases, a master of more than one. Chris Frye’s down-home guitar picking sets the tone; Marc Atkinson has trained on guitar for many years, touring with Canada’s less drugged-out answer to Ken Kesey’s bozos, Cirque du Soleil, only to find that he was equally skilled on the mandolin; Adrian Dolan was a child prodigy on piano, violin and accordion from the age of 9; Glen Manders’ upright bass work has been informed by jazz, Celtic, classical and hip-hop to provide a dynamic bottom to the Bills’ sound; Beau Klaibert has taken his fiddle playing and sawing (yes, sawing!) out of the barns of Calgary and into Victoria’s concert halls without losing the roots feel that set him off on his musical path in the first place.
Put these five together and a folk fire ignites like a pile of autumn leaves on a sunny day at a magnifying glass convention.
Aside from the obvious talent of the Bill Hilly Band, what ought to make them a success in the U.S. is their outstanding diversity of sound. Excuse the gross generalization, but we, as a nation, simply can’t listen to polka for more than about 10 minutes. However, if you mix the occasional polka number in with bluegrass, Celtic, classical, salsa and old Broadway—now we’re getting somewhere. This is the equation the Bill Hilly band is working with. Pour a thick, syrupy layer of vocal harmonies atop the Bills’ variety stack of flapjacks, and the jig is up. You will surrender to the sound, even if the stage choreography draws a snicker, even if the play-on-words band name sparks a scoff—all that is immaterial.
The Bill Hilly Band will tell you the stories behind their songs, be they the tragic tale of Francis Mawson Rattenbury, the famous Victoria architect who was killed by his woman’s lover, providing the inspiration for the Bills’ own “Francis,” or the yarn about driving through the backcountry of the Thompson-Nicola plateau in British Columbia that inspired “Lover Come Round.” While storytelling generally takes away from rock and roll (how many times do you want to listen to some duded-up twentysomething tell you that “this one’s for my girl?”), it’s a necessity for folk music, and this is a band with interesting stories and original songs. Peppered throughout the set, the Bills will also delve into a multifaceted selection of traditional numbers, with styles ranging from the Celtic to the chorinho, a slippery-smooth Brazilian style. In other words, these guys put the “worldly” into world folk. Not bad for a bunch of so-called Bill Hillys.