Steve Hill – Interview and Gig Review

Steve Hill
December 4, 2012 – Back in June T-MAK World had the opportunity to see Montreal bluesman Steve Hill at the Horseshoe Tavern. He led off North By Northeast with a show on the Wednesday and was one of the highlights of the night. Ever since then, he’s been on our radar to see again and thanks to Mavis and Kerry at Dockery Devil Entertainment, we were able to get an interview with Steve ahead of his return show to the Horseshoe last Tuesday.

Steve Hill

SH: Steve Hill
SM: Steve Mallinson

SM: We saw you at NXNE back here (at the Horseshoe), how often do you get down to Toronto?

SH: That was the last time. I used to play in Toronto fifteen years ago quite often. I got a bunch of Maple Blues awards nominations, I got one, nominated for a Juno and I was playing pure blues back then. And then I just decided to do rock ‘n roll and I did rock ‘n roll for about ten years. I had a different agency and they wouldn’t book me in the rest of Canada and eventually five years ago I got with Feldman (booking agency), so I started playing Toronto again, and then I switched agencies again, so I stopped playing Toronto… and I just started playing here again.

SM: You were saying pure blues… that’s one thing that comes very strongly across…

SH: That’s what I’m doing now. I’m back to doing that. The way that I do it now, to me, it makes a lot more sense. That’s the kind of blues that I like. All the Chess Records stuff and the Delta blues stuff and John Lee Hooker. But obviously I try to do it my way, it’s a bit different. I mix in country music and some rock n roll in there but it really is just me trying to play blues basically. But I’ve been doing it for a long time so I guess I know about it now.

SM: Who are some of your blues influences?

SH: John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, I’d have to say Howlin’ Wolf and the list goes on and on.

SM: Montreal, what’s that like for blues? There’s quite a diverse music scene there but how is it for blues?

SH: It used to be better. When I moved to Montreal twenty years ago, only on St. Denis St. you had like ten blues clubs that were all close by and it was a bit like Austin, Texas on 6th Street. And that was great but then all the clubs they all closed. I don’t play the blues clubs anymore. I play halls and sometimes I’ll play clubs but they’re not necessarily blues clubs per se. I do okay, I do about a hundred gigs a year but I can’t say the blues scene is doing great in Montreal right now. It used to be much better.

SM: And the gigs, mostly in Montreal?

SH: Mostly in Quebec, all over Quebec, a bit in the rest of Canada, France and sometimes the odd gig in the States.

SM: Where were you raised?

SH: In Trois Rivieres, that’s an hour and a half from Montreal.

SM: You have an English name and you’re from an English speaking family?

SH: Yeah, originally but I was raised in French. English was always important for my Dad, for us to learn how to speak English and the kind of music I like is not music that’s done in French. I tried doing it and it doesn’t seem right to me. Some people have done it. Pagliaro, Michel Pagliaro, I don’t know if you know him. He’s had Canadian hits in the 70’s, I played with him for about three years. He’s had top ten hits both in English Canada and Quebec, in English and in French and he can do it just as well in French as in English. And he does rock n roll and he did a bit of country, some blues. He’s kind of a major influence on me. Unfortunately I can’t really do it in French for it to sound as good, and I don’t know, it kind of comes in English. Eventually I’ll do a French album I’ve been thinking about it for a long time but I would need good songs for that which I still don’t have.

SM: It would be hard to write I think, it would definitely sound different.

SH: Yeah, yeah, it’s the sound of it that’s different.

SM: How many records do you have now?

SH: Seven.

SM: And the last one, the solo album, that came out when?

SH: May.

SM: In May, so that’s fresh, so there’s no plans I guess to be working on any new ones.

SH: Well the solo record is called Solo Recordings Volume 1, so I have to do Volume 2 and I’d love to record with my band again, but right now I have so many solo gigs that it would be stupid to release a band album because it’s really picking up the solo thing and it’s easier for me to tour obviously this way.

Steve Hill

SM: So speaking of your band it raises the question of the solo thing. It’s an unusual thing to be sure. What’s the genesis behind that?

SH: It all comes from a guitar. If two years ago, you would have told me I would do a solo thing I would have said that you’re crazy. But a friend of mine is he’s like my guitar pusher. Cuz I’m into old guitars, vintage guitars and vintage amps and he buys and sells. So every time he has something that he knows that might interest me, he calls me or he comes to my place. And he brought a 1956 Gibson ES-225 to my place. I plugged it in and I tuned it to open tuning and it was just the perfect guitar for that type of blues, you know. And I didn’t have money at the time to buy it so he went home and he called me a couple hours later and he said…, he’s from Drummondville, and he goes, “I’ll give you the guitar if you do a solo gig in Drummondville. I’ll organize the whole thing, I’ll sell the tickets”. I was like, “OK!” But this guy knew me 20 years ago and I used to do solo blues stuff which I had stopped doing so long ago. So he knew what he was doing. And the gig went really well, so I called my agent “I had a great time, book more of those gigs” and it seemed to be really easy to book so… And gradually I added the bass drum and then the hi-hat, and started working on an album and the album came out and it was in the top ten the first week it came out in Quebec for the first time in my career.

SM: We’ve seen solo, just straight solo guys, I guess the unique thing is the bass drum and the hi-hat. Is that difficult to learn?

SH: It took a little while. It’s just the balance.

SM: Cuz you’re rocking back and forth on your feet.

SH: Yeah, you gotta have cowboy boots, that’s the main thing and you’ve gotta keep your balance.

SM: All while playing and singing.

SH: Yeah, yeah, but you know it’s nothing really complicated, I’m foot stomping just on the beat.

SM: Back in I think it was around April (note: it was May, link here), right here at Horseshoe, I saw a band called Four On The Floor from Minnesota and there was four guys and the three non-drummers all had a bass drum in front of them. They didn’t have a hi-hat though and I think that would be a heck of a lot easier with just one foot rather than two.

SH: I started with one and when I recorded the album, I just started using the hi-hat for the last three songs that I recorded and I still wasn’t comfortable doing it but I’ve done 60 gigs since the album came out so now it’s not a problem at all. It’s really natural. I find that, and I played with a band the other day and I still have the feet tapping the same way as when I’m playing solo.

SM: So tonight I imagine it’s just going to songs from the solo album?

SH: Maybe something else… but mostly stuff from that. Well Hendrix would have been 70 years old today. So I might do a little special for the occasion.

Thanks very much to Steve Hill for the interview.

Steve Hill
Shortly after our interview Hill took the stage and blew us away with a killer show using that ES-225 and playing some wicked slide guitar. Highlights included King of the World with its sexually charged lyrics, the very dramatic Granted, my personal favourite, with its edgy tension it sounds like it could be used in the soundtrack of a movie. The Ballad of Johnny Wabo is about Toronto. I remembered this one from the NXNE show. It was at this point in the show that Hill began to put his virtuosity on display and from that point on it was pretty much a barnburner the rest of the way. The softer blues side of the show was over and there was no turning back. He totally killed it the rest of the way starting with Robert Johnson’s Preachin’ Blues leading into the Howlin’ Wolf song Spoonful (written by Willie Dixon, btw). A completely unexpected treat was a few bars of a very eerie version of Black Sabbath’s Black Sabbath, which was absolutely wicked before it broke into a uptempo Voodoo Child (Slight Return) to close the show.

When I first read Steve Hill’s bio on the NXNE website, I had some reservations just as many reading this article might have. A solo guy singing, playing guitar, bass drum and hi-hat. Is it a gimmick, a novelty act? The answer is No!! This guy is totally legit.

He’s a great blues guitarist that just happens to augment the sound with a drum and hi-hat and it totally works. Would HIGHLY recommend seeing his live show and picking up his great CD, Solo Recordings Volume 1, for any fan of the blues.

Set List
Ever Changing World
Comin’ Back To You
Gotta Be Strong and Carry On
King of the World
The Ballad of Johnny Wabo
Preachin’ Blues
Rollin’ Stone (Muddy Waters song also played by Hendrix)
Black Sabbath
Voodoo Child (Slight Return)

Interview, review and photos by Steve Mallinson
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