Hillstomp (all photos by Daniel Ahrendt)
Portland, Oregon’s blues buskers Hillstomp have a reputation on the West coast that they just can’t shake. They’ve been active for a good, long time, playing a combination of hill-country blues and dance-trash percussion mixed with four on the floor disco grooves. If I were to hear that description before hearing them, I would be dismissive of Hillstomp in the same way I roll my eyes at late night drum circles downtown. There isn’t a much better way to describe them in words; it’s their live show that helps you realize hillbilly disco blues might need more exploring as a sub genre.
Comprised of John Johnson banging on any piece of metal/plastic he can get his hands on and Henry Kammerer thrashing away on slide guitars and banjo, Hillstomp put on one hell of a party. Every bar should have a Hillstomp of their very own. The crowd screamed and got into dancing formation as soon as the duo introduced themselves and didn’t stop during their two hour set. Thursday night in Olympia and the audience wanted two encores enough to get them. The Washington capitol loves these guys. The tour posters in the walls of The Eastside Club Tavern were more unified by Hillstomp posters than any other act.
Their material didn’t shift a whole lot over the course of their set. Tempos remained mostly dance floor viable and melodies were generally based on RL Burnside blues. Occasionally a memorable sung melody would emerge or they would play a traditional tune such as “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” but this was far more boogie than a community choir at your local grange. It was the details in their instrumentation that encouraged the dancing to remain at fever pitch. Kammerer alternated between various guitars and his banjo while Johnson effectively diversified drum patterns on his buckets, wash board, and a number of other kitchenware creations. These characteristics amplified through the conch shell that is the fun-loving Hillstomp personality became dominant over the average concertgoer’s muscle control.
It’s easy to see why they’re so loved. Both are magnetic stage presences, awesome uncles that everyone wishes they had. I made a remark to Kammerer before their set about the conspicuous fact that their first names combine to form that of John Henry, one of the staples of American folk tales and just the pun an audience would find endearing. Kammerer replied with a story of playing their original “John Henry” at a tavern of the same name. Really such an event should only end in a giant eye roll at the world of meta, but instead it made them even more care-bearish.
Fellow Portland bluesmen Root Jack came up with the headliners and, while they weren’t mind-blowing, one can only hope to walk in a bar and find these three on stage. Blues solos and songs celebrating Cajun fish cooking. They’re just so nice. Olympia gave them a big dose of the appreciation endemic to the city and both Root Jack and Hillstomp showed their appreciation in turn. They’ll come back in May and will probably hit similar if not the same venues. If you live in Tacoma and are curious as to whether you should see them in Olympia or Seattle, try the former. There’s just something in the water.