- The Washington Times - Friday, January 25, 2002

Bob Perilla makes his living by making music.
Mr. Perilla is the lead singer and guitarist for Big Hillbilly Bluegrass, a local band that performs a mix of bluegrass, country and folk music.
The band performs primarily at East Coast venues, and has a standing gig Wednesday nights at Madam's Organ, an Adams Morgan bar.
Mr. Perilla works about 20 hours a week in a Catonsville, Md., music shop, but he considers the band his full-time job. He takes it seriously.
"I'm not the biggest capitalist in the world, but I think of the band as a small business. All the principles of customer satisfaction apply," he says.
On Wednesday, Mr. Perilla begins his workday about 4 p.m., when he arrives at the Kennedy Center to prepare for a special performance.
After a sound check, the show begins about 6 p.m. and lasts one hour. It is broadcast live on the Internet via streaming video.
Playing the Kennedy Center is a rare treat, Mr. Perilla says, and draws some of the band's out-of-town friends. Even some of his friends from Italy attend this performance.
After the show, Mr. Perilla and his bandmates head to Madam's Organ, where they spend about a half-hour setting up the microphones and sound equipment and removing instruments from their cases.
The show begins about 9 p.m. Mr. Perilla, who sports thick sideburns, black jeans and cowboy boots, steps onto the small stage at the front of the bar and launches into a rousing tune.
Madam's Organ is an eclectic saloon, complete with old-fashioned swinging doors and walls covered with bearskins, mounted fish and Elvis Presley album covers.
It draws the usual mix of Adams Morgan bar hoppers, primarily hip twentysomethings and yuppies looking to unwind after work.
When Mr. Perilla's show begins, the patrons talk among themselves or stare into the mason jar mugs that hold their beer.
But by the time he reaches the chorus of his second song, "Gonna Settle Down," the crowd is singing along with him:
"Oh I long to go back to my darlin'
Back to the one I love so well.
I know she'll be my wife and settle down for life
For she's the one that means the world to me."
Bluegrass music has a big following in Washington, according to Mr. Perilla. Despite its reputation as music that is popular only in rural areas, bluegrass appeals to city dwellers, too, he says.
"There are a lot of misperceptions about what bluegrass music is. It has a huge and loyal following here," he says.
Bluegrass began as music for the poor, but much of it is uplifting, Mr. Perilla says.
That may be one reason why more young people are drifting toward bluegrass, he says.
Mr. Perilla, 48, grew up in the Baltimore area listening to Ray Davis, who hosted a popular bluegrass show on Baltimore radio station WBMD (750 AM).
He dreamed of playing bluegrass music as a student at Georgetown Preparatory School and Georgetown University. After school, he floated from band to band before forming Big Hillbilly Bluegrass about five years ago.
The group has been performing Wednesday nights at Madam's Organ for the past few years. "This is our home venue," Mr. Perilla says.
By the band's third song Wednesday night, Mr. Perilla's face glistens beneath the bright colored lights that hang above the stage.
He smiles through most of the performance. When he reaches a guitar solo, he seems to go into a trancelike state, his mouth slightly agape as he concentrates on each string he plucks.
Mr. Perilla says when he is performing, his mind is always on the next tune he will sing.
"I'm always thinking about what song to choose next. If the crowd is in a somber mood, I'll play reflective music. On nights like this, when I sense the crowd wants to have fun, I'll pick music that reflects their mood," he says.
Between numbers, Mr. Perilla jokes with the crowd. "What do you think of this jacket folks?" he calls out at one point as he motions for the audience to examine his bright blue sportcoat.
"It's a Kmart blue light special," he says.
He also introduces his bandmates to the audience: fiddle player Tad Marks, banjo player Mike Munford, bass player Michael Marceau and mandolin player Akira Otsuka.
By the time the band's first set winds down, the standing-room-only crowd inside Madam's Organ has swelled to the point that the space between the stage and the audience has virtually disappeared.
After its break, the band begins its second set. The performance will conclude about 1 a.m., and Mr. Perilla will begin a one-hour drive to his home near Olney.
Mr. Perilla's band is one of Madam's Organ's biggest draws, says doorman Eric Bjerke. It isn't unusual for the band to pack in 200 patrons on a Wednesday night.
"He's a great performer. He interacts with the crowd. They love him," Mr. Bjerke says.

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