When I try to compile a list of the bands I’ve seen live the most times, Hillstomp is right towards the top of the list. I know I’ve seen Agent Fresco and Sugar Ray seven times each… but I have a hard time pegging down exactly how many Hillstomp shows I’ve witnessed. Last night’s CD release show at Nectar in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood marks at least the sixth time I’ve seen country-blues-rock-bluegrass duo, and friends it was by far the best.
Hillstomp ALWAYS puts on a great live show. We’ve heard them in some larger clubs like the Crocodile and in tiny joints like High Dive. But Nectar seemed like the perfect venue for them – really high ceilings, a floor that opens up to the outside, and a stage that puts them high enough that you can see them play. Because you have to watch John and Henry lose themselves in the music. It’s like they’re having a religious experience. And it’s part of their power. Last night they were at their peak – John rocked so hard on the bucket drums and washboard that he lost both his hat and glasses multiple times as the spirit of the blues overtook him, and Henry was a man possessed when he put his bandana over his face Wild West bandit style with his mirrored shades to rock out some slide guitar. The crowd was way into it – this was the most active audience I’ve seen at one of their Seattle shows, with plenty of dancing and yes, at one point even a relatively good natured country dancin’ mosh pit. Didn’t see that coming.
The sound system was able to give the band what they wanted to capture their low-fi, raw, dirty sound. “I want the vocals to sound shitty. But not bad,” John told the sound guy as they were sound-checking. And if you’ve heard them before, you know exactly what he’s searching for – gravely and hollow, like you’re listening to the blues on one of those huge old 1930s style radios in the wood cabinets that are about three feet high. When the kick-drum mic fell out of a position a few times during the show and the crew fixed it with duct tape John remarked, that if he’d know that was how they were going to take care of it he’d have done it himself, because he’s nearly surrounded by the silver stuff, holding his old mics and stands together. There is no pretension here. Let’s set this up so we can get to the good stuff and start playing music. Yes, they have a specific sound they want to achieve; but at the end of the day it’s about being authentic.
I find it hard to believe I haven’t written about Hillstomp before given how many times we’ve seen them and how much I love their live album After Two But Before Five. But I haven’t, and that’s a situation that needs to be rectified. Fortunately after taking a bit of a hiatus Henry Kammerer and John Johnson got back together, got into the studio, and gave us their fourth album, Portland, Ore. Hillstomp’s live shows are a mix of slow and fast numbers, but much of Portland, Ore is geared toward the slower songs, tracks showing that Johnson has a surprisingly good voice, one generally kept echoey and tinny with their old school mics, but that captures a depth of emotion and connection to the music. I believe we also get more banjo from Kammerer on this album, and he plays it with passion. Put it all together and you get a much more down-home feel, one that could break out into a revival or a country dance at any moment, and a bit more upbeat than their last album, the aptly named Darker The Night.
Last night was the first time I’d heard Hillstomp’s newest material. As a live band they’re at their best when they’re fully possessed by the spirit and going a hundred miles an hour like they’re running with the devil himself on their tails. But their slow numbers really kick ass on CD, where it’s not all about power and noise and speed and sweat and PBR, when you can truly hear their fantastic musicianship.
After one play through the CD I had three early favorite tracks. “The Cuckoo” has an eerie start, with Kammerer’s guitar setting a sombre tone and the echo turned all the way up on Johnson’s vocals, which are complimented perfectly by Kammerer’s harmonizing. It’s a slow, deep song, with a steady drum beat and a touch of a military march style snares. The spiritual “Don’t Come Down” hooks me right away with it’s opening lyrics, not because I’m particularly religious, but because of the power of the begging in Johnson’s voice as it opens:
Jesus… what’s your plan… for me?
Jesus… what’s your plan… for me?
My days are growing few,
And I still can’t see.
Kammerer’s banjo drives the song forward, with the percussion limited primarily to maracas and something that sounds a bit like a cow bell, and just a couple of sneaky, quick drum taps to get you through the first three minutes before more substantial drumming kicks in to finish it off. The closing track “Meet Me at the Bottom” is one of the fast numbers on Portland, Ore with the quick pace and beats that caught my attention the first time I heard them play years ago. It’s foot-stomping music and classic Hillstomp.
I’m glad John and Henry got back together to give us Portland, Ore, because Hillstomp is everything that’s great about seeing live shows in small venues. And the fact that they can put their own spin on American roots music in a way that captures people’s attention confirms their talent. Keep it up, brothers, and I’ll keep going to see you play.