Michael Hill’s Blues Mob
New York State of the Blues
Michael Hill has not been shy about crediting Jimi Hendrix as his primary musical influence, but you may have trouble hearing it on his third Alligator release. This is not to say that Hill hasn’t got guitar pyrotechnics in spades, because he does, but Hendrix’s real gift to this South-Bronx-born guitarist may be more in the stylistic restlessness that Hill and his airtight quartet displays throughout New York State of the Blues, using traditional blues figures as a launching pad for explorations through funk, soul and pop.
In fact, Hill’s lead playing more closely suggests a hungrier Carlos Santana, with his piercing tone and unexpected melodic detours. Coloring between-vocal fills on the opening "Long Hot Night" with fleet scale runs and smeared, feedback-heavy double-stops, Hill seems to want to come out of his corner swinging, quickly following up with a lighthearted blues-preach "A Case of the Blues," laced with his gnarled, elastic slide work. His delicate, tremolo-drenched arpeggios opening "Anywhere, Anytime" put a sweet counterpoint to keyboardist E.J. Sharpe’s throaty organ lines before giving way to a ripping solo.
Elsewhere, such as on the otherwise low-key "This Is My Job" and the barn-busting "Up and Down the Stairs," Hill demonstrates an uncanny ability to work comfortably across several octaves, sometimes in the same bar, alternating between growling bass stomps, mid-range chordal riots and high register, ear-splitting string bending.
Hill has a lot of tricks in his bag, and it’s to his credit that he doesn’t lean too heavily on any one of them. He’s plainly a guitarist’s guitarist. But it’s between the stage-friendly trad blues workouts where Hill’s versatility is best appreciated. A child of the 1970s, Hill recalls two of the best early–’70’s urban laments — "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" and "Mama Sang the Blues." The former he plays more or less straight with a nicely framed sequel piece about the Mama that Papa left behind over a gentle funk backbeat courtesy of bassist Pete Cummings. The latter he howls over a jangled, primitive self-accompaniment and sinister, swampy beat, wrenching the same bitterness as the original with the added flavor of a Delta-laced slide as a gentle reminder where Stevie Wonder’s bitter tale of northward emigration betrayed started from.
With a voice reminiscent of Robert Cray, guitar chops to spare and the willingness to put both to work in the service of accessible pop-blues originals, Michael Hill and this outstanding outfit have everything necessary to move beyond the club gig/album cycle. Whether or not he’s poised to justify the hype his 1994 debut album Bloodlines generated is probably beside the point — this one’s the real deal, period, and Hill and Co. have arrived.
— David Kirby