Thursday October 18, 2012

BELLOWS FALLS -- Like any other bug buzzing around your head, the Horse Flies are hard to pin down and hard to chase away.

Possessing an indefinable sound and a life cycle that has seen them through many ups and downs, these Horse Flies are beneficial bugs, who have won over fans and critics alike with their unique music.

On Friday, the Horse Flies will perform at the Bellows Falls Opera House at 7:30 p.m., to launch a three-event series to support Jay Craven's upcoming film, "Northern Borders," due for release in April 2013.

Just what the Horse Flies' music is has confounded critics as much as it has pleased fans in the 30-plus years the band has been going.

The Ithaca, N.Y.-based Horse Flies blend old-timey string band traditions with indie rock, Caribbean rhythms, jazz improvisation and a percolating groove to create what they've dubbed "neo-primitive bug music." The Village Voice has called it "demented, postmodern mountain music."

With a Pandora's box of instruments that include banjo ukulele, Moog synthesizer, accordion and hand percussion, in addition to fiddle, guitar and bass, the six members of the Horse Flies make their home at the crossroads of old-time traditional and indie-rock minimalism. They've been compared to early Talking Heads, have earned rave reviews countless publications and wowed listeners on "A Prairie Home Companion" and at Telluride Festival, Tonder Festival in Denmark and The Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave series.

Rolling Stone wrote "The Horse Flies churn out swirling, addictive songs, blending tradition with invention." London's Melody Maker opined "A world without the Horse Flies' wholly unique music would be a much, much poorer place."

With buzz like that, do you even need to give their music a name?

"You talk about the sound as being hard to categorize, and it is, which is why I never give it a label," said Judy Hyman, founding member and fiddler.

Just as they are hard to pin down, the Horse Flies are a persistent bunch. Formed originally in the early-1980s as an old-timey string band, the Horse Flies have soldiered on through changes in personnel and style from acoustic to electric and back again; a roller coaster ride after two successful Rounder recordings that saw them signed and then dropped by a major label; the sad death from cancer of bass player John Hayward; and hiatus or two.

"In a way, it's been at least three or maybe four significant reincarnations," said Hyman. "We're having so much fun, and we're so reinvigorated, and here we are coming to Vermont."

Which is a feat in itself. Hyman and Flies' banjo slinger Richie Stearns also tour regularly with Natalie Merchant and earlier with Merchant's 10,000 Maniacs. Stearns is about to take part in a tour with an all-star line-up of today's most influential banjo masters, including Bela Fleck, Tony Trischka, Bill Keith (Bill Monroe, David Grisman, Peter Rowan), Pete Wernick (Hot Rize) and Noam Pikelny (Punch Brothers).

The other Horse Flies - Jeff Claus (guitar, banjo uke, vocals), Taki Masuko (percussion), Jay Olsa (bass) and Rick Hansen (accordion, Moog, organ) have impressive credentials as well.

Hyman, Stearns and Claus have also composed music for four of Craven's feature films - "Where the Rivers Flow North," "A Stranger in the Kingdom," "The Year That Trembled" and "Disappearances" - and Craven tapped them to do the music for "Northern Borders." Craven first heard the Horse Flies when they were booked as the opening act for a concert tour he was promoting with South African star Johnny Clegg and Savuka.

"I immediately became a fan," said Craven. "Their music uses bluegrass instrumentation, but it's not bluegrass. ... It's an original sound that suggests to me country but without sentimentality or folksy familiarity."

He thought they'd be perfect to work on his then pending film "Where the Rivers Flow North."

"Jay called and said 'So do you know how to do music for a film?' And we said, 'Sure, no problem,'" recalled Hyman of the band's first foray into film work.

It worked like a charm, and Craven and the Flies formed a good working relationship, and they're excited to be working again on "Northern Borders."

"The Horse Flies are at the top of their game musically. They're very inventive. They work outside of the box all the time," said Craven. "With the Horse Flies, we're on a trapeze act, and when I'm in the air, they'll catch me."

As part of the Horse Flies' swing through town, Hyman and Claus will lead a film scoring workshop on Saturday, at Marlboro College. Ticket-buyers for Friday's concert will be offered free admission to the day-long film scoring session, that will include case histories from the Craven films - and screening and discussion of "Northern Borders" as a work-in-progress. Workshop information is available by contacting Craven at jcraven@marlboro.edu or 802-274-1974.

Working in film runs in the family for Hyman, whose father, Dick Hyman, is a jazz pianist and arranger and longtime music director for Woody Allen.

Count daughter Judy among her dad's recent collaborators. Last year, father and daughter went into the studio to record their versions of several waltzes Judy Hyman had written over the years. The result is "Late Last Summer," a CD due out on Oct. 23 Friday's Horse Flies concert is presented by Kingdom County Productions, in association with the Rockingham Arts and Museum Project and Vermont Festivals.

Tickets are $22 in advance, $26 at the door and are available at the door or by calling 802-748-2600. Online sales are available at KingdomCounty.org and BrattleboroTix. com. Outlet sales are available at Village Square Books in Bellows Falls, Turn It Up! in Brattleboro and Misty Valley Books in Chester.

The three-event series at the Bellows Falls Opera House also features Emmy-winning comedienne Paula Poundstone on Saturday, Nov. 3, and Grammy-nominated Cape Breton fiddler Natalie MacMaster on Thursday, Nov. 29. Proceeds will support RAMP, Vermont Festivals, and "Northern Borders," which was made through a unique collaboration of professionals and students at Marlboro College.

For more information, contact Craven at jcraven@marlboro.edu.Web video clips can be found on YouTube. For more on the Horse Flies, visit www.The-HorseFlies.com.