Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Eclectic folk — Band will mix things up for contra dancers

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

With a band name like Hillbillies from Mars, a little randomness is expected.
They deliver.

“They’re very eclectic. They’re a band that can give you a lot of different looks. There’s very sort of straight-up Irish fiddle kind of stuff, and also very weird eclectic music,” said Hatton Greer, with the Kenai River Folk Dancers.

The central Kenai Peninsula contra dance organization and a group from Homer are teaming up to bring the Hillbillies from Mars in for a landing at the Ninilchik Fairgrounds on Sept. 6. The San Francisco band is making a stop in Fairbanks and was looking for other venues to add to its tour.

“They contacted us and said, ‘Hey, we’re looking to set up some more things for an Alaska trip.’ We were happy to do it because it’s nice to have national bands here.”

Greer said the band is well-known in contra circles and beyond.

“These guys are pretty accomplished musicians on several different levels,” he said. “I have heard them before, and really liked them. Definitely they’re a top-notch band.”

The Hillbillies consist of Kevin Carr, who plays fiddle, bagpipes, accordion and banjo, and contributes vocals and storytelling to the show. Ray Bierl plays fiddle, guitar and does vocals; Paul Kotapish plays mandolin, guitar and percussion; and Daniel Steinberg plays keyboards, flute and percussion.

Contra music is typically fiddle-heavy and folksy, often drawing from Irish, French Canadian, Scottish and Cape Breton, Nova Scotia (generally fast fiddle-based dance music) influences, Greer said. Styles can vary depending on region, with flute, fiddle, piano and guitar common in the Northeast, and banjo and mandolin more prevalent in the South.

The Hillbillies are able live up to the eclectic flavor of their name with the wide the mix of instruments at their disposal.

According to the band’s Web site, Carr contributes a French Canadian and Irish background to the music and his storytelling, with tales from Celtic and Appalachian sources. Bierl leans more toward Appalachian and Cape Breton fiddle styles, but has a repertoire of country and cowboy songs that often find their way into Hillbillies’ concerts. Kotapish lends a more traditional appeal with his steady rhythms and mandolin and guitar work, and Steinberg adds texture to the band’s sound with his flute and piano/synthesizer music.

The band will offer music workshops for Kenai Peninsula musicians from 4 to 6 p.m. Sept. 6, followed by a potluck from 6 to 7:30 p.m. The performance and dance start at 7:30 p.m.

Contra is a beginner-friendly style of dancing. It’s a community dance where everyone ends up dancing with just about everyone else — think the peasant dance scene in “Titanic.” Partners aren’t needed, nor are prior experience, high levels of coordination or athleticism.

“If you can walk, you can contra dance, but you do need to get there on time,” Greer said.
Greer got into contra dancing as a freshman in college.

“The girl I was interested in invited me,” he said.

That relationship didn’t last, but his interest in contra dancing did. Which allowed him to meet Michelle Martin, of Kenai, his fiancee.

“It’s one of the few really social dances,” he said. “Most other dances are, you know, at most dancing with one other person. At a contra dance, throughout that dance you’ll probably dance with half the people in the hall. It just gives you an opportunity to dance with everybody, to interact with everybody, and it’s kind of a communal experience. The more the people around you get into it, the more you do.”

Greer is a musician himself — mandolin — and a caller for the Kenai River Folk Dancers, which meet once a month in the winter at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School. The group’s first dance of the season will be Sept. 20, with the Hillbillies event giving everyone a chance to dust off their dancing shoes, or lace them up for the first time.

The easiest dances are done early in the night, complete with instructions. Families are welcome, as long as parents keep an eye on their kids.

Admission to the Hillbillies from Mars contra dance is $15 for the workshop and $10 for the dance. Kids under 16 get in for free with adult supervision. Tent camping is available.
“It’s easy, it’s fun, it’s healthy, it’s family friendly,” Greer said. “Beginners are always welcome. Nobody cares if you screw up. It’s not like the Electric Slide or the Macarena where you have to remember lists of moves.”

For more information on the band, visit its Web site,

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