CHAMPAIGN — Through most of the 1990s Mark Miller lived in California, producing music for video games.
He got out of the business, married a singer-actress who was not performing at the time and moved back to the East Coast.
There he and his wife, Beth Kaufman-Miller, became active in various things. But they felt something was missing.
That changed after she gave her husband a bouzouki, a Greek stringed instrument with a long fretted neck.
"I said, 'Thanks,' but I didn't know how to play that particular instrument," he said. "So I went to look for simple music to learn."
Miller picked up "Rise Up Singing," a songbook for group singing. Using it, he learned how to "plunk" his way through old-time songs.
Then he and his wife began making music on the front porch of their home in Yonkers, N.Y. Neighbors dropped by and mentioned neighbors who played fiddle or other instruments.
Eventually they joined the Millers to make music. Out of that participatory spirit came the band Spuyten Duyvil, now one of the hottest bands on the Americana or roots music scene.
The Dutch Colonial name comes from the creek that separates Manhattan from the Bronx, Miller said, noting that it also was “interpreted by Washington Irving as ‘In spite of the devil,’ which just connects philosophically for us.” The high-energy, rockin' band will be the headline act at the Outdoors at Research Park concert on Friday evening. Rich Warren will likely be there.
The nationally known DJ, who hosts "The Midnight Express" for WFMT in Chicago, is a fan of Spuyten Duyvil; he included the band's "New Amsterdam" on his list of favorite CDs from 2011.
"I remember tossing a cherry bomb into a lake when I was a kid," Warren wrote. "That's how Spuyten Duyvil affected me when I first heard them, and this CD conveys that shock and excitement.
"Great original writing by member Mark Miller along with a traditional tune and one by Libba Cotton, and outstanding vocals from Beth Kaufman blast this group into the stratosphere.
"The basically acoustic octet rocks without running up the electric bill. They are so refreshingly original there's no way to describe them in a few words."
Stephen D. Winick of The Huffington Post took a stab it. He wrote that Spuyten Duyvil — now down to a seven-piece band — mixes rural and urban vibes by combining blues, country, string-band and jazz.
"They're a mighty eight-piece powerhouse of guitars, fiddles and harmonicas, with bouzouki and lap steel for variety, a rhythm section for punch, and high-energy vocals out front," Winick wrote.
Kaufman-Miller provides the high-energy vocals. Trained in musical theater, she has a voice that cuts through. And that's a good thing, Miller said.
"Certainly, when you're dealing with a large ensemble like this, it's very important how the music is arranged and recorded," Miller said. "The music we play certainly has its roots in folk music, and in the folk-music context it's important that the lyrics and the vocals are really forward so the songs really come across. Beth is a great interpreter as well."
She's also contributing her own songs to Spuyten Duyvil, which plays covers as well but in a different style than do most other traditional-music bands.
"Our roots as a band is definitely in old-time and traditional music," Miller said. "All of our CDS have some traditional music on them.
"We try to play a few of those at every show because I think it's important to show people where you come from."
Four of the band members come from a rock background. Fiddler Efrat Shapira, who also does backup vocals, was trained in classical and jazz and once played for a klezmer band.
As an ethnomusicology major, Miller studied African drums and Native American, South Indian and Caribbean music; he plays a variety of instruments.
He said ethnomusicology gave him a broad context for understanding music.
"For me a lot came down to this notion in America that we have of a huge talent divide: There is a huge number of musicians and composers with a large amount of training, and everyone else, everyone else is supposed to watch," he said. "I don't really buy that. Most everybody else in the world participates."
That philosophy means there's always a lot of music in the Miller home, and it led to the formation of Spuyten Duyvil just four years ago.
The band is now up to playing 40 to 50 gigs a year, many of them at folk and roots festivals.
"At the stage we're at, we're not at a place where it could be anybody's sole piece of income," Miller said. "But we're working on it. We're doing everything we can do to make that a possibility in the future."
If you go
What: Outside at the Research Park presents the seven-piece roots band Spuyten Duyvil, with opening act The Diva & The Dude/Kathy Harden & Andy Baylor
When: 6:30 p.m. Friday for opening act and 7:30 for Spuyten Duyvil, with a Green Fair starting at 6
Where: University of Illinois Research Park, 1816 S. Oak St., C.