By Will Broaddus
---- — Not only is Spuyten Duyvil’s name hard to pronounce, but no one’s really sure what it means.
“It’s a subject of debate,” said Mark Miller, guitarist for the band. “It’s colloquial, 17th-century Dutch, and I have asked some native Dutch speakers, and they are confused about what the real meaning is.”
The band will play at Me and Thee Coffeehouse tomorrow night, and their name (pronounced SPITE-in DIE-vil) comes from a Bronx neighborhood that is next to Yonkers, where the musicians all live.
Washington Irving wrote in his history of early New York that Spuyten Duyvil means “in spite of the devil.” While Miller thinks that’s wrong, he prefers it to other interpretations.
“We wanted to have a name that reflected our connection with where we live and the history of where we live,” he said. “But also something contextually about the music we write.”
Miller said their music expresses optimism “in spite of” influences to the contrary.
“‘In spite of the devil’ to me is a way of living,” he said. “Pessimistic people tend to think everything is going downhill. I think things are, generally speaking, getting better. So, I live ‘in spite of’ the negativity in society.”
Pessimists also feel that everything was better in the past, Miller said, which extends to the songs they listen to and play.
In contrast, when Spuyten Duyvil reaches into history for musical influences, it does so in order to recover something relevant to the present.
“I would define our music as American roots,” he said. “We draw on old-timey, second-line music, bluegrass, folk, and some straight up rock ’n’ roll, and a little punk rock energy.
“All of those styles come from the same roots, and we’re trying to bring them back together.”
Spuyten Duyvil writes its own tunes but also plays covers of traditional songs, which give a unique spin.
“Twenty percent are modern interpretations of traditional tunes,” Miller said. “We play ‘Shady Grove,’ but we play it in a major key, like a New Orleans second-line tune, as opposed to a mournful, minor key, like an English-Irish ballad.”
They also mash up alternating verses of “Freight Train” by Elizabeth Cotten and “Louis Collins” by Mississippi John Hurt.
Miller said the group’s taste, performance style and values do emphasize one American tradition in particular.
“Old-time music is social music,” he said. “It was the music people played together when they got together either to mourn or celebrate. The music gave voice to their communal experience.
“Whereas bluegrass is really a performance music, it’s a virtuosic music.”
The high level of skill on display in a bluegrass tune, which features a series of solos played at breakneck speed, emphasizes the difference between the audience and performer.
Bluegrass shares that basic structure with big-band jazz tunes, Miller said, while old-time music is more about the group as a whole and its relationship to the audience.
“We use these traditional forms because it’s easier to communicate emotionally,” he said. “The strongest message is that we should spend time together; people should enjoy each other as a community.
“We think of our shows as opportunities for people to get together and enjoy music and find other like-minded people, breaking down the isolation of modern life.”
That message reflects the band’s origins in Yonkers, where they first started playing together on a front porch in 2007.
“The original lineup was all neighbors from an interesting, creative neighborhood with a lot of houses from the 1890s,” Miller said.
The old-fashioned clothes they wear on stage add a touch of theatricality to shows and help create a sense of drama around each song, which helps the audience get involved.
In the same manner, their lyrics tell stories and create characters, rather than reflecting on personal experiences in the style of contemporary singer-songwriters.
By the end of 2008, Spuyten Duyvil had played a few low-key, local gigs, then recorded its first CD in 2009.
Today, the band has a rigorous performance schedule and has moved from the emerging artist slots at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in New York to its main stage, Miller said.
But as its members have started to take their music more seriously, they have maintained the community values that got them started.
“Our vibe is like a bunch of high-school friends who decided to go forward together,” Miller said. “In our live performances, people get the sense of how much we enjoy playing with each other.”
If you go
What: Spuyten Duyvil; Greg Klyma opens
When: Friday, April 11, doors open 7:30 p.m., first set 8 p.m.
Where: Me and Thee Coffeehouse, Unitarian Universalist Church of Marblehead, 28 Mugford St., Marblehead
Information: Tickets $15 in advance at www.meandthee.org, $18 at the door. For information, call 781-631-8987.