Wednesday, August 28, 2019 - Alive After Five Summer Concert Series
If you’ve spent time around the Northwest Music Scene, the name Hillstomp will sound familiar to you. They’ve been making music for the past 17 years and touring with the likes of The Avett Brothers, Reverend Horton Heat, and The Devil Makes Three, while playing festivals across America and Europe, including Pickathon, Telluride, and SXSW.
And yet misconceptions still abound. Let’s start this one… “They’re a Blues Band”. Well, sure, they know how to drive the blues as well as anybody, and credit RL Burnside among their influences, but lots of their songs are played on a banjo and just as suggestive of Appalachia as Mississippi. “They’re a Jam Band”. Fine, it’s impossible not to dance when Hillstomp is in top gear, and there are more than a few barefoot hippies at every show, but Hillstomp songs pulse and pound and whip ya into a frenzy before moving on to the next.
So, then, who are these guys?
Hillstomp is a 2-man band comprised of Henry Hill Kammerer and John Johnson. Henry plays guitar and banjo like a hurricane, and if you close your eyes you’d swear he’s playing 2 parts at once. John Johnson beats mercilessly on his drum kit (which often contains a bucket, brake drum and broiler pan) with the fury of a demon loose from hell. But once you get past the pure ferocity of his playing, you notice that the parts are intricately crafted patterns that provide the framework for Kammerer’s guitar and banjo sorcery. Save for a couple of outlier tracks, there’s just no room for bass guitar, and nobody misses it. This is folk music in its purest form – from loud and gritty, to intricate and poignant, and most importantly, always heartfelt and true.
The whole thing started as a love letter of sorts to North Mississippi blues played by the likes of RL Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. The band stayed there for a few years and then started to morph - adding banjo and becoming more and more confident writing their own music rather than just paying tribute to their influences. The fast and loud songs kept coming, but now they were interspersed with ballads and slow-burners to give the sweat-soaked dancers a chance to breathe. It first caught on in college towns like Eugene and Olympia, but soon bigger cities got it as well. The band set out on national headlining tours, they tore their way through Europe a few times, and opened for more than a few or their heroes.
Following a few self-released LPs and a live album, they had a breakthrough of sorts with their 2010 record, Darker The Night. The record contains “Cardiac Arrest in D”, which became the centerpiece of their raucous live sets – whipping the audience into a transcendental frenzy. Saving Country Music gave the record “2 guns up!”. In 2014, the band released Portland, Ore, which raised the bar even higher. Mixed by Chet Lyster (Eels) and recorded at Fluff and Gravy Studios, the record captured the most authentic snapshot of the band to date. It prompted Dan Aykroyd’s The Blues Mobile to say “Hillstomp is a band out of Portland, hoping to bring the same energy to Oregon that the Allstars brought to North Mississippi”. It caught the ears of the Coen Brothers too, with one track being featured on Hail, Ceasar!
That all brings us to Monster Receiver, released through Fluff and Gravy Records in Fall 2018. Recorded by Juniana Lanning and John Shepski at Fluff and Gravy, the album finds the band challenging the stereotypes once again. Producer, John Shepski, and mixing engineer, John Askew (Richmond Fontaine, Laura Gibson, Wild Flag), teamed up to drive the Hillstomp sound into more experimental territory. The drums and guitar are pushed to the limit on screamers like “Hagler” and “Snake Eagle Blues”, while the gentler sounds on tracks like “I’ll Be Around” and “Dayton, Ohio” seem to stop time for a few minutes. Featuring guest appearances by Anna Tivel on violin, Erik Clampitt (Hook & Anchor) on pedal steel, and David Lipkind (I Can Lick Any Son of a Bitch in the House) on harmonica, the record flows seamlessly between grungy folk, garage rock, and tender ballads. There’s even a disco/funk number buried in there that feels right at home.
Hillstomp is working as hard as ever, tirelessly touring and making asses shake. It’s carried them this far… What else are they going to do?