Friday, July 20, 2007

Mr. Billy

Mister Billy is a very popular children's entertainer from Wisconsin. He performs over 300 shows a year, which is an amazingly busy schedule for any performer, but especially for someone doing energetic live shows for kids. Obviously, he is great at entertaining kids in a live setting, but his CDs also stand up on their own, with a lot of great songs and energy, and a nice variety of styles and approaches.

Much of Mr. Billy's music has the feel of classic rock 'n' roll, and he appropriately rips on guitar, with many cool riffs on his songs. Vocally, he's got a twangy blues rock delivery, which can also be very expressive when needed. If I had to pick another artist that he reminds me of, it would probably be ZZ Top, ranging from their early raw music ("La Grange", "Cheap Sunglasses", etc.) through their more commercial later music ("Legs", "Sharp Dressed Man", etc.), and also on another end of the music spectrum, he's kind of like Howard Jones.

Mr. Billy has released four CDs, and while most of them are electric guitar-based, his latest album, Batteries Not Included, is all acoustic, though still with a lot of the same rock feel to it. It starts off with "Good Morning", which has a catchy and funky feel and includes a very nice counterpoint section. This is charmingly quirky and reminds me of my friend Kent Olmstead, who writes and produces cool indie rock with the band Fast Sundae. "Clap Your Hands" is a participatory rock anthem, which largely cops the "Satisfaction" riff at one point. "We Went to the Sea" chugs along nicely with an enthusiastic chorus of kids. By and large, Mr. Billy seems to be targeting the younger range of kids with these songs, and he does a really good job of appealing to their interest and attention.

Songs like "R-I-N-G-O" and "The ABC Blues" are kind of fun the first time for me and then don't really hold any interest beyond that, but kids would give them more longevity, and ultimately that's what matters. Other covers on the album are either hit or miss, and my definite preference for Mr. Billy's recordings are his original songs, which are very memorable in their own right. My favorites are in the middle of the album, starting with "Something Fishy", which is a take on the old "Teasing Mr. Crocodile" song and has a cool Grateful Dead with minor chord harmonies kind of sound. Next is "Chug-a Chug-a Choo Choo", a very catchy blues rock hit with an amazing sped up fiddle break (see video below). "I Heard Said the Bird" is a really fun 50's rocker a la Elvis and the Stray Cats.

The album closes with two more great songs. "Bernie the Bubble Breathing Dragon" has some terrific chord changes and a nice "don't play with fire" message. "Goodnight Sun" is a gorgeous lullaby. There is another Grateful Dead comparison here, but this time in the sense of some harmonies that don't quite lock in together. But just because the harmonies are a little off on "Box of Rain" or "Uncle John's Band" doesn't mean they aren't still great songs to listen to, and the same thing definitely applies for "Goodnight Sun".

I wanted to feature Mr. Billy and Monty Harper subsequently, because they have worked together on a few projects. The pair collaborated on both "Chug-a Chug-a Choo Choo" and "Goodnight Sun", and one of my favorite songs on Monty Harper's new Get a Clue album is "Can You Guess?", featuring Mr. Billy's arrangement and instrumentation.

I also received Mr. Billy's Greatest Hits album, which includes a wider variety of styles and sounds, and features his electric guitar sound. "Seuss on the Loose" has that modern ZZ Top sound that I mentioned before.
"The Ants in Your Pants Dance" is kind of like a cross between Huey Lewis' rock songs and "Hand Jive" from Grease, and is thankfully nothing at all like my own song of the same name (another example of what I said in my recent Idea Tree 2.0 post, that the same idea or title can yield totally different results). "First Day!" is partially a parody of "Summertime Blues" with a bit of a Scorpions riff and ably tackles the tough job of making the first day of school seem like a great thing. For some kids it is (and for parents, definitely), but for many a little propaganda like this might help ease the long walk out to the bus stop after the all-too-brief summer fun. "I Like Dinosaurs" has a really great riff and a B-52s 80's rock feel. "Let's Go Writing" has a bass riff that's kind of a fast version of "Peter Gunn" and a sweet vocal echo on the hook. "Bubble Trouble" goes some interesting directions and has very clever sound arrangement. "Don't Call Me a Bird" is a neat riddle with a Sting/Bon Jovi/Howard Jones flavor.

You can gather from some of my descriptions above that Mr. Billy is pretty heavily influenced by 80's music, running the gamut between 80's rock and metal and 80's synth pop and new wave. So
that might be a determining factor as far as how well parents will take to his music. But regardless, kids will find a lot to love in Mr. Billy's songs, and they might be a good way to transition your kids into listening to your old Flock of Seagulls and Men Without Hats albums.

Mr. Billy's website

1 comment:

Saints and Spinners said...

Mr. Billy might well be up our alley. For a time "Safety Dance" was my daughter's and my theme song... that is, until we got into Romanian disco.