Spuyten Duyvil

A Place.  A Band.  A Journey.

By Richard Cuccaro

The beginning of the 2010 Falcon Ridge Folk Festival was a disaster. The annual Friday afternoon Emerging Artists Showcase, always eagerly anticipated, ran into rough weather.  Torrential downpours almost completely washed the audience off the hill. Later that evening, the Friday night “Most Wanted Song Swap” was canceled due to wind-driven sheets of rain. Not a good start to a “festive” festival weekend.

Hosted by assigned participant players, the Acoustic Live Friday afternoon booth showcases slogged through a constant downpour. The author, having gotten drenched twice while dealing with canopy leaks, disgustedly waited it out inside his car, trying to dry off.

The next day didn’t look much better. At two o’clock the next afternoon, menacing thunderheads still loomed overhead. Spuyten Duyvil, our first Acoustic Live showcase act of the day, had been one of those acts in Friday’s Emerging Artists Showcase. A band known for its boisterous spirit, they’d played before the remaining dozen or so diehards standing in the rain. I was fearful that the clouds signaled a trend, but Spuyten Duyvil had some magic up its sleeve. Six of the seven players took shelter in the front end of the 20-foot space created by our two adjoining canopies. The drummer, just outside, braved the elements. Several bars into the song, “Halfway Free,” it became apparent that the skies were benign, under the spell of a benevolent spirit. A stubborn sun emerged, drenching the midway audience in sunshine. The bandleader, Mark, and the lead singer, Beth, cautiously walked out into the sunshine, joining their drummer, Lou, who tastefully played a marching band snare with brushes. Mark played a small tenor guitar in a crisply strummed attack and sang and led the group through a sharp uptempo rhythm with tightly executed starts and stops. Beth did what she always does, belting out each stanza with the ferocity and abandon of a gospel rave-up.

The band at our booth showcase at the 2010 Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, with the sun finally triumphant

L-R: Lou Geser, John Neidhart, Sarah Banks, Jim Meigs (behind Sarah), Tom Socol, Beth Jamie Kaufman and Mark Miller

I followed them part way, staying inside, next to Jim, the harp player, and Sarah, the fiddler, soaking in their swooping melody lines that helped the song fly. Tom, the guitarist, and John, the bassist, remained behind me, helping to drive the song on its merry way. As the last strains of the blues harp finished the song, Mark swung back into the canopy to change his instrument for the next song. The audience joyfully whooped its approval. We’ve uploaded a video of the song to YouTube, that shows the band playing for Alternate Root TV. It includes eighth member, Rik Mercaldi, on lap steel. Rik was not at Falcon Ridge in 2010.

This was my first close-up taste of this phenomenon; an organically formed band whose disparate pieces meshed as if grown together out of the same soil. Many months later, I would sit down to dinner with the group and learn how they formed and grew together.

The Roots

The story, however, begins with husband and wife Mark Miller and Beth Jamie Kaufman, who form the main stem from which the band’s other tendrils sprouted.

Mark was born in Boston and attended Brookline High School. He played trumpet, then baritone horn in the orchestra. After seeing Devo on “Saturday Night Live,” he picked up the electric bass. He told me, “mostly I just carried it around to look cool (hard to do with a baritone horn).” [A brainy, talented player is never JUST looking cool.] After high school, he went to Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He studied ethno-musicology and comparative religions but spent most of his time in the electronic music studio recording songs with his band, music for films and music for modern dance. He met Beth in his first semester. She saw a “sexy, tortured musician guy who was anything BUT boyfriend material,” but was drawn to him nevertheless. [Fate… never argue with it.] Mark invited her to join him on backup with his college band for one gig at a packed fraternity house. Beth remembers, “That one time was crazy but so fun!!” That would be the last time they’d play together for many years.

Beth, a Brooklyn girl, had grown up listening to straight-up folk music, mostly around the campfire at summer camp where, as she stated, “the counselors were all a bunch of politically charged, guitar-slinging late-era hippies.” She developed an appreciation for “pure acoustic, communal music — music that’s meant to be sung together.” She was singing socialist anthems — Ochs, Seeger, Guthrie, Prine — at age 8. She also got involved in musical theater which led to studying and teaching theater, and later, a career in creative education.

A Digital Wizard

After graduation, Mark went back to Boston, where his degree did not prove to be a job magnet. One exchange captures the disconnect between where he was and what the world was offering: “I got one call back from a high school teaching position in religion that did not require a master’s. The first question in the phone interview was ‘Are you Catholic?’ I answered the question with a question... ‘Catholic with a big C or a little c?’ and the line went dead…” [My hero!]

He answered an ad for applicants for radio station sales. Although he says it was a “horrible job,”  it gave him access to the very first personal computer-based digital audio editing system. He became a “bit of a local expert” in digital audio editing.

In spite of an obvious talent in the digital realm, Mark decided to move to San Francisco to become a chiropractor. When he got there, he got hired by Digidesign, the developer of Protools, to support their sales team. As soon as he saw Digidesign’s 24-track recording studio sitting empty all night, he quit his pre-med classes and ended up running their tech support department through the launch of Protools.

At that point, as he said, “deep in the purgatory of the transition from the mature and peaceful art of analog tape editing to the nuclear fallout caused by the insertion of the first generation of PCs into the recording studio, I got a random phone call asking if I could write music for a video game. Needing the change, I said “… sure … I can do that.”

Mark spent the next 10 years building the largest independent studio for video game music and produced soundtracks for more than 100 titles. Beth joined him in California and they worked together for a while.

Early in this period, Mark and Beth played together in a “dismal blues band.” She said, “It was us and a bunch of musician guys that all worked with Mark in the video game scene out in San Francisco. Mark’s boss insisted, so a band was born. Needless to say it was very short-lived. Nevertheless, it was a joy making music with my soon-to-be husband.” While still living in California, Mark and Beth got married, with the ceremony taking place back in Brooklyn.

Their daughter, Dena, now 14, was born in San Francisco. Mark needed something steadier with benefits, so he worked in house first at Sega of America and then at Crystal Dynamics. He became chairman of the Interactive Audio Special Interest Group and helped in the development of standards for a whole lot of digital stuff that, described in “Markspeak,” is not easily translatable in this publication. However, the industry needed no translation and he received the first Lifetime Achievement Award from the Game Audio Guild.

Back East, a Musical Hiatus

A job offer from Harmonix brought Mark and Beth back to the East Coast and Mark worked for them leading “up to but not including the development and launch of Guitar Hero.” Needing out of the game business, he went back for his MBA at Northeastern University.  Then, Mark and Beth moved to New York, making their home in a big, rambling house in Yonkers. Mark had gotten burned out on music during his time in the digital game business and didn’t go near it for a long time. As Beth explains it: “It wasn’t until years later that we began to circle back to music again. In between had been years of parenting and making house. Mark was just wrapping up grad school and seemed to miss music so much. Also, he’d expressed a desire for there to be music in the house while our daughter was growing up.”

The Rebirth

Mark Miller and Beth Jamie Kaufman

One night in Boston, the trip to Spuyten Duyvil began. At a concert at The House of Blues, Mark and Beth saw David Lindley playing “lap slide reggae on something… it had eight strings.” It sounded amazing and they were both mesmerized.

Beth, being very resourceful, managed to find out what the instrument was (a bouzouki — leave it to David Lindley), and got Mark one for his next birthday. When Mark got home from work and saw it, he thought, “God that’s wonderful!… Now I have to learn how to play this thing.” He picked up a copy of Rise Up Singing. “It had a lot of songs with three chords that I knew. I learned how to play it and Beth and I did a lot of singing together.” Additionally, Mark found that playing the old traditional music in the book unlocked something in him and he started to write his own music. He recalled that, “I had written hundreds of pieces of incidental music and two or three lame attempts at pop music while I was in college. Some part of playing all that old-timey stuff flipped a switch and caused me to start writing stuff that had some meaning.” Beth was surprised because she was the one who had gotten into folk music at a young age and never expected Mark to get into the folky stuff. As Beth described it, “The more inspired he became to play and write, the more inspired I became to sing again.” Mark drew upon the history of the area for the band’s name and for inspiration in his writing.

Branching Out

Their house in Yonkers, in the Park Hill section, has a big stone porch out front. That’s where Mark and Beth began to sing and play on a regular basis. The word went out through their circle of friends. The band began to form.

In conversation with three of the other band members during our dinner together, I got to see firsthand why these intelligent, articulate, funny people have so much fun making music together and enjoy each other’s company off stage as well.

Tom Socol is a good guitarist who had played in a lot of bands but hadn’t played out for a long time. He practiced guitar at home a lot by himself. His wife, Ellen, just happened to be Beth’s best friend. Ellen told Beth about Tom. She wanted him to start playing out again and suggested that he join Mark and Beth. Although both couples were great friends, Tom was apprehensive at first because he’d been through some really bad musical matchups  and knew there was a potential for a vast difference in their musical tastes and styles. (“It’s like saying. ‘Oh you both like baseball,’ and then one guy is a Yankees fan and the other likes the Boston Red Sox.”) He described what, in his experience, was the usual process of starting a band this way: “Most of the time, starting a band is like starting an extended family through the Want Ads. ‘We need one husband, one wife, 2.5 children and one pet.’ And whatever walks in the door you try to build on. That would be me [the pet].” He was joyfully surprised to discover that he enjoyed what Mark was playing. He said, “Mark and Beth had been playing on the porch a lot and I started showing up and we started playing more.”

Sarah Banks, the violinist, came along next. She lives on the other side of “their little enclave” in Park Hill. For a while it was just the four of them, on the porch, playing traditional songs and Mark’s originals. Sarah pressed Mark to do gigs, saying, “These songs are really good and we sound really good and we should get some gigs.”

Five members of the band who were present the night of our interview, at practice in Mark and Beth’s living room,

L-R: Mark, Tom, Jim, Beth and John

Mark liked the arrangement the way it was, playing once or twice a week on the porch. He acquiesced but not before telling her, “This is a really cool thing just the way it is, and as soon as we make it more than that, you know, things will get a lot more complicated.”

A good friend of theirs, Steve, a professional bassist, a much more serious musician, joined the group for gigs. He wasn’t into rehearsing but, “he did like the gigs.” He later moved to California.

One of the places that the band began to play on a steady basis was the Hastings Farmer’s Market. One frequent visitor to the market was Jim Meigs, editor for Popular Mechanics and a blues harpist. He’d be there every week, watching Spuyten Duyvil play. He mentioned to his wife, “Wow! These guys are really good!” Then, “Hey, they could really use harp on that song!” Then, “Wow! They could really use harp on ALL their songs!” Mark remembered that “this guy would show up with his tweed case of harmonicas.” Jim would strike up conversations with Mark and casually drop hints about his musical involvement. Mark got the hints and finally asked, “Do you have a harp?” Did he ever! And his own microphone. He was invited on stage for the Little Feat staple “Willin.” Mark liked what he heard and asked Jim to sit in on “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor.” After that, Jim was invited to a rehearsal and then a festival gig. He said to his wife, “I think I’m in the band!”

Another piece fell into place when, similar to what happened with Tom and Ellen, Lou Geser’s wife mentioned to Mark that Lou, needing an outlet, played drums. Mark was looking for a drummer who would “get” the band’s sound. Mark had gotten to know Lou, and knew that he wouldn’t join unless he could “cut it.” Lou’s ability to soften the sound to fit the band’s concept added the perfect touch.

John Neidhart, the  bassist, had started off in folk and blues and had gone through a long  rock ’n’ roll period. He was playing in a cover band and, as a change of pace, was looking for a country band to play with. He entered his credentials to the BandMix.com website. After Steve left for California, Mark wanted to find another bassist, happened to be perusing the site and saw John’s information and extended an invitation. John made contact and came to a rehearsal. While it wasn’t country, he liked the music and thought it was a good fit. However, when he heard gospel-tinged songs and saw no beer being consumed during rehearsal, he became afraid that the band was comprised of Bible-thumping fundamentalists. It wasn’t until the band lugged a big batch of  “craft” microbrewed beer (a band staple) to a campsite at Falcon Ridge that he relaxed and told them of his misperception. He also introduced them to the next member, Rik Mercaldi, who he thought would be a good fit with the band.

When Tom couldn’t attend all of the 2010 NERFA Conference, John suggested that Rik fill in at the remaining showcases and jams. That went well, and when the band’s second CD New Amsterdam was almost done (the first was an EP called In Spite of the Devil), and something was missing, John suggested that Rik come and add some lap steel. Doing overdubs, without previous accompaniment on that instrument, Mark recalled, “he tore up this material.” Mark recalled saying, with a Cheshire cat grin, “This CD just got a whole lot better!” Along with Jim’s Chicago blues harp, it helped to define what the band is about.

The band at our Acoustic Live late-night guerrilla showcase at the 2011 Northeast Regional Folk Alliance Conference

L-R: Rik Mercaldi, Sarah, Jim, Tom, Beth, John, Lou and Mark

All the band members live no more than 10 minutes apart and spend a lot of time together. Beth sums up the band’s spirit in her own terms: “Filling our home with music and singing alongside my husband has been a beautiful gift, enriching our relationship tenfold. Finding my voice again has been truly amazing.”

Establishing a relationship with this band has been enriching for this author as well. Their press copy states: “…foot stompin’, barn burning, rabble rousing live shows blending traditional jug band energy with amped-up lap steel guitar and Chicago-style harp blues.” Amen to that.

To any reader who has not made the trip to Spuyten Duyvil yet… what are you waiting for? There’s an adventure waiting for you.

Beth and John at the 2011 NERFA Conference Thursday night DJ Showcase

Website: spuytenduyvilmusic.com

Upcoming Gigs Include:

Jan 7   8pm Hurdy Gurdy Folk Music Club, Fair Lawn, NJ

28    8pm Jalopy Theater. 315 Columbia St.,  Brooklyn, NY

Feb 6   8pm  The Bitter End, New York, NY

16    8pm Turning Point,  Piermont, NY

Mar 10  7pm Sounding Board Coffeehouse, West Hartford, CT