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By Nate Jackson
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Punched In the Gutbucket
Blues don’t have to suck, at least when Portland’s Hillstomp play them
Henry Kammerer’s cell phone is breaking up when he tells me he’s got to interrupt the interview to shoo a dog off an Olympia, Washington, road. But I don’t mind. Not only do I appreciate talking to a musician who cares enough about a random canine to postpone his publicity, but also his shitty connection harkens back to an era that fits the mood given off by his band, Hillstomp.
Singer/guitarist Kammerer and drummer John Johnson play the sort of down-and-dirty blues that would make Son House, Lightning Hopkins and Skip James proud. Aside from the fact that they’re two white guys from Portland, Oregon, Hillstomp could pass for a down-home Southern act who’ve spent time picking crops under the hellacious Mississippi sun. But they haven’t, and Kammerer was well-aware of the potential dangers of playing the blues in that region of the country.
“It was scary as shit when we took this Southern music down there,” the 29-year-old says. “But it was also really cool. We were embraced because people understood what we were doing. Some guy in Memphis got pissed off at us because he didn’t think we were from the West Coast. He was trying to be a dick, but was totally complimenting us.”
The blues is in a strange predicament. Anyone who has ever picked up a guitar has heard all about how the basis of rock & roll is the 1-4-5 structure of this American music. Unfortunately for the genre, Chuck Berry’s beefed-up interpretation of a sound pioneered by the likes of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf laid the foundation for legions of future guitarists to ape him, not his predecessors. Since then, the blues has relied on its superstars to remain afloat, but each time an icon such as John Lee Hooker passes away, there’s a balding bar band waiting to take his place.
“The blues has a negative connotation among a lot of younger people,” Kammerer says. “With all respect, a lot of blues music kinda sucks. It’s the same uninspired, unoriginal 12 bars. It sounds like a cover band, and that doesn’t appeal to people. Blues doesn’t have to suck. Ninety-five percent of the blues is crap; the other 5 percent is what I’ve chosen to devote my life to.”
Hillstomp’s music is simple and direct. Johnson uses a kit with traditional drums and buckets for a style akin to your best friend slapping his knee while you strum a guitar. He doesn’t overplay nor underplay; instead, he’s in the groove, allowing Kammerer to hang on the one for minutes on end, a fusion conjuring images of old men with missing teeth playing gee-tars on front-porch rocking chairs. Two-piece bands were introduced to the underground-music world by the Flat Duo Jets and popularized nearly two decades later by the White Stripes and the Black Keys, but Kammerer says Hillstomp’s organic roots stem from an open-mic night, not a desire to mimic other duos.
“I worked with John,” Kammerer says, “and he came to see me at an open mic. He didn’t know what I was doing, but he enjoyed it a lot. He tapped along using an empty pint glass, and the rhythm he was playing was exactly the beat I heard in my head. [Now], the music goes fine with the two of us because it never sounds empty.”
Although Hillstomp call Portland home, Kammerer is quick to point out the band treat the city as just another tour stop. The group’s first album, One Word, received local critical acclaim upon its 2005 release, but since then, the city “doesn’t know what to make of us.” This might have something to do with either the lack of blues in a region dominated by tattooed hipsters and dreadlocked artists, or Hillstomp’s recent leap into the world of becoming full-time musicians. A July/August 2007 tour required the singer/guitarist to ask for a two-month absence from his job as a bartender; instead, his boss helped the duo take the plunge into the unstable world of overnight drives, dive bars and stoned soundmen.
“We started five years ago,” Kammerer says, “and we’ve been professional musicians for a year and a half. I had to ask for two months off, but my boss said, ‘Actually, no. It’s time for you to go for it.’ He said if it doesn’t work out, I can come back.”
Hillstomp perform with the Traveling Accident at the Gypsy Lounge, 23600 Rockfield Blvd., Ste. 3A, Lake Forest, (949) 206-9990; www.thegypsylounge.com. Fri., 9 p.m. $6-$8. 21+; and with Hookah Stew, McDougall and Lindsay Fine at DiPiazza’s Restaurant & Lounge, 5205 E. Pacific Coast Hwy., Long Beach, (562) 498-2461; www.dipiazzas.com. Tues., 9 p.m. $7.