One good thing about reviewing Steve Hill - there’s none of that having to go checking the names of his bandmates. That album title, The One-Man Blues Rock Band, is the literal truth. Credit to Hill though, I didn't spend the duration of this live album, recorded in Quebec last autumn, brooding about the truly solo nature of his enterprise.
The album opens with the spiky guitar intro of ‘Rhythm All Over’, leading into a jagged, ringing riff. And the rhythm in question is stomping. When Hill sings “I’m beating on your door”, you very much get the idea.
|Steve Hill - full spectrum one-man blues|
Pic by Szymon Goralczyk
To begin with this may seem like his default mode, with the grinding beat of ‘Go On’ and the pounding ‘The Collector’. But the latter meshes single note guitar work with chords and slide in impressive fashion, while Hill delivers an original lyric with a rumbling vocal. And once you get past the lurching, bluesy riff of ‘Damned’, Hill displays more variety.
‘Tough Luck’ ripples with steely, acoustic-sounding guitar played off against measured harp, in a slow and reflective outing featuring very bluesy lyrics. ‘Never Is Such A Long Time’ meanwhile, is a tense affair, with Hill spitting out twitchy guitar licks over low key drums, before stretching out on a squealing solo on which he somehow manages to work in counterpointing figures. How he does that is beyond me, but the bottom line is that he manages to conjure up the full sound of a band.
The uptempo classic R’n’B of Little Walter’s ‘Hate To See You Go’ – also recorded by the Stones - maybe demonstrates that it’s not so easy for Hill to do drums that swing like Charlie Watts. But hell, I ain’t going to damn him for that, and with its ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ groove it still delivers plenty of voltage from the crunching chords and squalling notes of its intro to its eyeballs out solo.
But if he can’t quite pull off swing single-handedly, Hill still manages to get laid back and soulful on the simple, different, and romantic ‘Emily’. And then he does a handbrake turn into the downbeat, brooding, ‘Nothing New’. Its lyric, about how “I been thinkin’ ‘bout all the things I’m gonna do to you” has a dark, borderline obsessive vibe akin to The Police’s ‘Every Breath You Take’. And in fact, in the midst of pondering the singularity of Hill’s musicianship, it would be easy to overlook his penchant for good words, whether his own or someone else’s. But they keep cropping up - even if the Black Keys-ish ‘Still Got It Bad’ has a bit of a plodding air, it manages to tell a tale of marital deceit in withering fashion.
‘The Ballad Of Johnny Wabo’ is a down home blues with a low key opening, that then rouses itself into a slide bonanza over nothing, it seems, but a bit of hi-hat – and appears to have the crowd going nuts. It’s a good warm-up for the set closer of ‘Dangerous’, an iconically strong track with a grabber of a riff over a great, simple rhythm.
Personally I could do without the encore of ‘Voodoo Chile’, mountainously OTT guitar solo and all. Going toe to toe with Jimi seems like a futile exercise to me, but I’d hazard a guess I’m a minority on that point. What I will say though, is that the mastering of the album could have been better. The whole damn thing should simply be louder – I had to whack it up to 11 to get an acceptable degree of punch – and on a few occasions crowd applause is clipped off so abruptly that it undermines the live experience. And on another tack, I’d have liked Hill to take a real time-out to deliver the kind of shimmering acoustic playing he demonstrated on the likes of ‘Troubled Times’, from his last studio album.
Steve Hill may be The One-Man Blues Rock Band, but he’s not a one-trick pony. He may not be a game-changer, and his approach may wrap him in some artificial limitations, but there are layers in his material that I think we’ve still to fully grasp. What this outing proves though, and what I already knew from seeing him live, is that Steve Hill is a guitar-toting, cymbal-whacking, drum-booting, ass-kicking joint-rocker.