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The Muswell Hillbillies channel Tom Petty

  • From left, Jake Goldman, Emily Eagan and Dave Simons of the Muswell Hillbillies rehearse in the basement of Simons’ home in Hadley. Brenna Eagan

  • Julian Simons, on drums, and bassist Aaron Knapp of the Muswell Hillbillies rehearse at the Simons family home in Hadley.  Photo by Brenna Eagan

  • From left, Jake Goldman, Emily Eagan and Jack Simons of the Muswell Hillbillies rehearse in the Simons family home in Hadley. Photo by Brenna Eagan

  • The Muswell Hillbillies, who began in 2010 by channeling The Kinks, here play the music of The Police at a 2017 show at The Iron Horse. Photo by Brenna Eagan

  • The Muswell Hillbillies, who began in 2010 by channeling The Kinks, here play the music of The Police at a 2017 show at The Iron Horse. Brenna Eagan

  • Jack Simons, left, Jake Goldman, in foreground, Emily Eagan, in back, and Dave Simons work on Tom Petty songs at the Simons family home in Hadley. Photo by Brenna Eagan

  • Myka Plunkett, left, and Paula Simons (aka “The Honeybees”) handle backup vocals at a Muswell Hillbillies rehearsal at the Simons family home in Hadley. Photo by Brenna EaganS

  • The music of Tom Petty, the veteran rocker who died last fall, is the subject of the latest show by The Muswell Hillbillies.  Image form Wikipedia



Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Aside from getting gigs, one of the toughest things about being in a band is just keeping it together: From diverging musical interests to friction between players to other obligations in life, band members can easily end up going their own way.

But members of The Muswell Hillbillies, who formed over eight years ago when several of them were still in high school, are still keeping the fires burning — even if they’re now scattered from the Valley to Boston to New York City.

The Hadley-based band, which takes its name from a 1971 album by The Kinks, initially formed as a bit of a lark to play a few shows of Kinks songs, including the cuts from “Muswell Hillbillies.” It was a decidedly family-and-friends, multi-generational affair: The group included six students from Hopkins Academy, another recent graduate, and some older players from Hadley.

Over the years, the younger band members have mostly moved on to other things and places. But the Hillbillies have continued to perform on occasion, and they’ve tackled not just additional songs by The Kinks but the music of Neil Young and The Police.

On Friday, the Hillbillies come back together at The Iron Horse in Northampton to play the songs of another rock legend: the late Tom Petty. The show starts at 7 p.m.

In a recent phone call from his home in Hadley, Dave Simons, the band’s lead singer and main founder, said it still amazes him at times to think the Hillbillies have continued to perform over the years, and that they’ve managed to learn the repertoire of four different groups.

“We originally thought this was just going to be this one-off thing,” Simons said. “We’d put together this unusual band, we’d had fun rehearsing, so we thought we’d do a few shows and that would be it.”

But Simons, a longtime music writer and guitarist who has also played music on the side, said the younger members of the Hillbillies have kept developing their skills over the years, and several of them have continued to come back to play with the group, returning from their homes in Boston, New York, even Seattle to do it.

“I think we owe a big dept to Eddie Forman,” he said, referring to the now-retired, longtime music director for Hadley schools, where several of the Hillbillies had been members of the Hopkins Academy Jazz Ensemble. “The musical training he gave them was really beneficial.”

Simons, who’s 60, and his friend (and percussionist) David Sokol are the elder statesmen of the Hillbillies. Most of the other members — including Simons’ younger son, Jack — are now in their mid-20s.

There have been a few personnel changes over the years, but many of the group’s original members — including Simons’ wife, Paula, on backup vocals, and the couple’s older son, Julian, on drums — will be on stage Friday.

The show, which will feature about 30 Tom Petty songs, will include 12 of the Hillbillies on instruments ranging from guitar to drums to organ to saxophone, although the full band will not perform on most songs.

But, Dave Simons quickly added with a laugh, “There actually might be one song where we will all be up there.”  

Remote rehearsals

Simons said he’s long been a “devoted” fan of Tom Petty, and with the singer’s unexpected death last October, he started thinking the Hillbillies should mark his career with a special show, just as they’d marked Neil Young’s 70th birthday in 2015 with an Iron Horse concert, and the 40th anniversary of The Police’s debut with a 2017 show, also at The Iron Horse.

“I can’t think of someone who was so consistent during his career,” Simons said of Petty. “He wasn’t just coasting on his past hits — ‘Hypnotic Eye’ [Petty’s last album, from 2014] feels like classic Tom Petty.” (In fact, “Hypnotic Eye” entered the Billboard 200 at No. 1, the only Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album that ever hit that milestone.)

Simons sounded out the other band members on the idea, and they were game. But as much as it has been a musical challenge to learn a whole new catalog of songs, the Hillbillies have also faced logistical challenges in putting that material together as a band.

With three key members living in Boston, another in New York City (Jack Simons, who’s working for a sound design company), and others in Hadley — all of them with day jobs and other pursuits —  much of the music has to be rehearsed separately. Ideas for harmonies, instrumental parts and other elements of the songs often have to be shared via email, on phone calls and occasionally via Skype, said Simons.

“It is tough, because Petty’s songs have a lot of moving parts,” he said. “Aside from guitar, bass and drums, there’s a lot of piano, organ, some pretty involved harmonies and backing vocals.”

When the Hillbillies first formed, the band members all crammed into a modest room in Simons’ basement, well stocked with instruments, to rehearse. Simons still works on basic rhythm tracks there with his drummers and sometimes a bass player. Then, as one example, he’ll work out an arrangement for harmony vocals and call the back-up vocalists, one by one, and sing them the section they need to learn.

He said it’s fortunate that three of the younger Hillbillies — keyboardist Emily Eagan, guitarist Jake Goldman, and bassist Aaron Knapp — can come back to the Valley from Boston on occasion to rehearse here. He singles out Eagan in particular, who was just 16 when she joined the Hillbillies as a trombonist, for her musical progress, as she has since learned accordion, piano, organ and harmonica.

“She just turned into a rocker,” Simons said with a laugh. “All the kids became so versatile after that first gig, and they were so enthusiastic about learning all this music that was sort of like ancient history to them at first.”

The players’ musicianship, he added, is strong enough that the band can get on stage after limited rehearsal time together “and put on a good show.”

Ten of the Hillbillies recently were able to get together at chez Simons for a weekend rehearsal. The focus for the session was several of the songs from “Hypnotic Eye,” which will be a big part of Friday’s show, along with well-known Petty hits like “Refugee,” “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “Wildflowers” and “Free Falling.”

And working with young people, Simons added, helps keep his energy level up.

“At one of the last shows we did, I was the only old guy up there at one point, and I looked around at all these young players and thought, ‘Good thing they’re here, because if it was just me and a bunch of other old guys, we wouldn’t make it.’ ”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

For tickets and more information on “A Night of Tom Petty with The Muswell Hillbillies,” visit iheg.com.