On top of the world 

Canadian bands celebrate Canada Day weekend with multi-cultural styles

WHO: Bill Hilly Band

WHERE: Millennium Place

WHEN: June 30

WHO: Burt Neilson Band

WHERE: The Boot

WHEN: July 2

So just who are Bill Hilly and Burt Neilson? Ask the members of their respective bands where you might find these gentlemen and you’ll be greeted with mischievous laughter. There is in fact no Bill or Burt. The names come from a collective of diverse personalities. And much like our country, whose birthday they’ll help celebrate this weekend, the Bill Hilly and Burt Neilson bands are proud to be distinct and original.

"It’s pretty hard to describe us as just one sound," says Burt Neilson vocalist/guitarist Michael Filipowitsch. "I try to explain it as a blend of funk, rock, bluegrass, jazz, a bit of everything."

Originally the Burt Neilson Band appealed to those who follow the "jam band" scene, such as The String Cheese Incident. However, this Thunder Bay band has found their following branching out to include those who expect the unusual and those who enjoy the mainstream.

"It’s a given that we’re not a mainstream pop band," explains vocalist/guitarist Chris Frye of the Bill Hilly Band. "We’re an acoustic, global, folk explosion. People don’t expect a drum kit when we show up. But in terms of the audience, people always seemed to be wowed and are surprised at how much fun they have and how much dancing they can do without a drummer and without electric guitars. Especially the young folks. I think they’re surprised at how much they get involved."

Perhaps it’s Canada’s multi-cultural background that makes room for music other than the Blink 182s and Eminems. Our hodge podge of ethnic heritages have strongly shaped who we are today and has also created a sound distinctly Canadian.

"There really is something in Canada that makes us open to traditional music and a mixture of things. That’s really what Bill Hilly is. We’re a research group for international forms of music and we arrange them and make them our own thing," continues Frye. "So when you see us, we’re not just a country band, or a Romanian band. We do this wide swathe of styles… We have people in the band whose families come from all over Europe, the Ukraine, the British Isles, Holland and Denmark. We tap into our own roots and try to explore other things as well."

The Bill Hilly Band has had the opportunity to bring that sound overseas. It’s well known that the maple leaf is warmly embraced by foreigners and the six Bills from Victoria were pleasantly surprised by the response to their music.

"I don’t think most people (in Europe) have much of a connection to what Canadian music is necessarily," speculates Frye. "In pop music they know Brian Adams and Celine Dion, but in terms of folk music, they have such a rich traditional background of their own that I don’t think they really tap into Canadian styles. But boy, did they ever respond to our style of fiddle music and so on! They went crazy! We had them dancing on bridges in Prague and in the streets in Strasbourg."

The Burt Neilson Band has been venturing into the American market where they too are greeted by surprised listeners. And although they’re lumped into the same category as many U.S. jam bands, the Burt Neilson Band still manages to bring something unique to their performances.

"As far as Americans go, what they know of Canada is the Barenaked Ladies and maybe the Tragically Hip in places like upstate New York," says Filipowitsch. "They seem to like Canadian bands, but don’t seem to know too much about us. Everywhere we’ve gone, they’ve loved us. But we get comments like ‘I didn’t know people could play in Canada’, or ‘there’s good bands in Canada’ or ‘are there more bands than just you’?"

Growing up in a northern Ontario town, away from the influences of the U.S. border, may have helped set the band apart from similar American colleagues. "I do find a lot of them sound the same," Filipowitsch adds. He also says the simple awareness of where we come from creeps into their style, not in the traditional form like the Bill Hilly Band, but in subtleties he says Canadians appreciate.

Thanks to their musical careers, both Frye and Filipowitsch have been able to do something every Canadian should do: experience our grand country from coast to coast. They offer up their own contributions to the "I Am Canadian" celebrations.

"The other day we were driving from the prairies into the mountains and I was just like ‘wow’. And then I also think about the Maritimes and how diverse it is," says Filipowitsch.

"I suspect Canadian are the friendliest, most hospitable human beings that I’ve met. Travelling and discovering the blend of cultures, like Francophone communities in Alberta that I wasn’t aware of, is just amazing," enthuses Frye. "There is something so beautiful about the openness and friendliness about Canadians and I love it. We are top of the world!"


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