The Horse Flies,
In the Dance Tent
(Live and Kickin, 2000)

I've been a fan of the Horse Flies ever since their 1991 Gravity Dance, and this new album from them is a rare treat -- especially since they disbanded after the death of their bass player, John Hayward, in 1997. In the Dance Tent was released in his memory. It's an exciting recording of a live performance of theirs at the sixth annual Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance in 1996. It's an all-acoustic set focusing on bluegrass, with zydeco flair and some rock flavor. I enjoyed it both on its own, and as a facet of the Horse Flies' work I hadn't heard before except in the way it impacts their other sounds. All ten tracks are long, usually seven to eight minutes, and give the musicians time to settle into the groove and explore variations.

"Iko Iko" is one of my favorites here. Its fusion of bluegrass and zydeco is brilliant, and makes me want to hop up and dance! It's followed by "John Brown's Dream," which is more strongly bluegrass but with zydeco elements, and in a nice long form that gives the musicians plenty of time for elaboration and improvisation. "Late For the Dance" also blends zydeco and bluegrass, but here the emphasis is on the zydeco. "Leather Britches" and "Jimmy Sutton" are also zydeco-based, but with strong enough bluegrass elements to show in practice the Celtic influences on both.

Many of the tracks are bluegrass-based, with the Horse Flies (and particularly bass player Hayward) adding a pinch of rock to the mix. "Pretty Little Girl," the album's first song, adds some zydeco vocals and pacing, but the overall impression is bluegrass, due to Judy Hyman's superb fiddling and the banjo and banjo uke played by Rich Stearns and Jeff Claus. At almost eight minutes long, there's time enough for all the musicians to strut their stuff. "Emory Bailey" and "Swamp Cat Rag" follow it, in a traditional bluegrass vein in which the Celtic influences are clear. "Ride Old Buck" combines bluegrass with a characteristic Horse Flies sound, in an odd mix of traditional and experimental.

"Human Fly" is the track that sounds the most like the Gravity Dance Horse Flies -- no surprise, since it's the one nontraditional track on the album. I loved hearing bluegrass stylings incorporated into the modern, experimental-rock form.

The liner notes express a concern about the quality of the recording, explaining that it hadn't been intended for release. These concerns don't seem founded to me. The sound quality is among the best I've heard in a live recording, and the energy of the performance shines through.

In the Dance Tent is a must for Horse Flies fans, and would be an exciting addition to the music libraries of those interested in American folk, traditional and updated. It would also be a great album to give to a rock fan as a part of an introduction to traditional music. I know it's a treasured part of my own library!

[ by Amanda Fisher ]
Rambles: 30 June 2001

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