The Bill Perry Orchestra brings the avant-garde to Gainesville

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The Bill Perry Orchestra is a musical collective unlike anything else in town.

Story and photos by Gabrielle Calise

He once opened up for Marilyn Manson. His songs involve props and strange chants. And for the grand finale of each show, he dons a bright orange kimono and shrieks like Yoko Ono.

Bill Perry has dabbled with the absurd in Gainesville for the past three decades. His band, The Bill Perry Orchestra, is a collective that consists of over two dozen local musicians.

“I can call up different people when I have a show,” Perry said. “If somebody can’t make it, there’s always somebody else that can play the show.”

The size of the The Bill Perry Orchestra has fluctuated over the past 31 years as members move to and away from Gainesville. The group is composed of musicians from a wide range of backgrounds. There’s Perry, who makes his living as a painter; Our Town Magazine’s music columnist, Brian Kruger; and even Chuck Martin, a University of Florida chemistry professor.

“I play in several other bands, but this one is a trip,” said lap steel guitar player  Lisa Johnson.

Johnson, of Perry’s long time musician friends, has been performing alongside him for over three decades. She became an official member of his band a few years ago.

“Some people buy sports cars when they retire,” said Johnson. “I joined the Bill Perry Orchestra.”

The experimental project started in the mid-‘80s when Matt Houston, a friend of Perry, asked if he could use his name for the title of his band.

“I said, ‘If it’s going to have my name, I want to be in it,” Perry said.

His friend has long left the group, but Perry plays on.

As the leader of the Orchestra, Perry comes up with many of the lyrics and ideas for songs. His influences include The Monkees, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention and Captain Beefheart.

“I’m not a musician, per se,” Perry said. “I’m the conceptualist.”

His live performance incorporates a mix of classic rock ‘n’ roll songs and wacky avant-garde pieces -– costumes and props included.

“We’re kind of a cross between a rock band and performance art,” Perry said.

The group performs anywhere from 12 to 20 times a year. While Perry works hard to put on an engaging concert, he doesn’t take himself too seriously.

“I enjoy getting onstage and seeing people laugh and enjoy my shows,” Perry said.

He realizes that some will like his work and some won’t, and he’s okay with that. Over the course of his music career, Perry has played for groups as small as eight people and as large as 450.

At its show on September 19, The Bill Perry Orchestra performed for a crowd of about twenty people in the parking lot outside of the Loop de Loop consignment shop in Gainesville. To kick off the show, Perry held up a toy guitar emblazoned with Mickey Mouse to the microphone.

“Time to rock the house,” the toy said in a squeaky mouse voice, laughing.

From there, things just got stranger.

Perry’s songs are brief and fun, and each one crafts a whimsical story. In “The Library,” Perry reads from a book out loud onstage as his fellow musicians play their instruments. The music starts quiet, building louder and louder until Perry throws his book down and exclaims, “Shhh! This is the library!”

In other songs, Perry uses silly voices to convey their nonsensical narratives. In “Coffee,” Perry howls “I’m joooooooonesing for a cup of coffee. I’ve got the shakes!” In “The Shape of Your Nose,” Perry repeats “I love the shape of your nose,” over and over again.

Despite the unusual concepts, the songs are listenable, even enjoyable. The crowd smiles and claps along during the music.  And sprinkled in between his experimental storytelling ballads, Perry even inserts original blues and rock songs.

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Chuck Martin strums the guitar at a Bill Perry Orchestra concert in September. When he’s not collaborating with Perry, Martin teaches chemistry at UF and performs in several other bands in town. Photo by Gabrielle Calise

But for his grand finale, Perry pulls off one of the most bizarre performances of his whole set list: a song called Yoko Ono Shopping for Oranges.

Swaddled in a vibrant orange kimono with a baseball glove on each hand, Perry screeches out his best impression of Yoko Ono distressed in a supermarket.

“Apples, cherries, no, no, no,” he said. “Oranges, oranges, oranges!”

It’s a spectacle for sure, but something that everyone should witness firsthand at least once in their life.

After all, there’s only one Bill Perry Orchestra.

This article was originally published in the November/December 2015 issue of Our Town Magazine.

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