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Blues to the Bone: Hillstomp reminds us why we dig the blues 

click to enlarge They've got the bluesman strut down nicely: They've got the bluesman strut down nicely.
  • They've got the bluesman strut down nicely: They've got the bluesman strut down nicely.
They've got the bluesman strut down nicely.
Henry Kammerer of Portland's gritty blues duo Hillstomp is trying to explain why and how he and his bandmate John Johnson play the blues and after hitting some dead ends: He remembers a quote from Keith Richards. In an impressively accurate impression of the Stones axe man's swaggering, drunken-sounding British accent, Kammerer mumbles a few lines about blues being embedded in our collective bone marrow.

After some digging I was able to find the precise text of Richards' quote:

Blues is one of the most fascinating forms of music I know, and I listen to a lot of styles...It's in our bones. 'Cause probably we all come from Africa. We just went north and turned white. But if you cut anybody open, bones are white and blood is red, man. It's kind of deep, you know? And I think maybe it speaks to us in that way. Ancient bone marrow responding to the source.

This might be a damn good reason why people in Bend, as well as the band's native Portland, are getting into the duo - because they're built to like the blues, even if it comes in the form two West Coast white guys armed only with a slide guitar (and sometimes a banjo) and a drum kit that appears to be mostly comprised of junkyard finds. While the essence of Hillstomp is a twisted take on North Mississippi blues, the band also peals some influence from other Americana forms like bluegrass and Appalachian country, while holding true to a simplistic approach most often found in the punk rock arena.

"The simplicity is what lends itself to being universally appealing - it's not complicated stuff. It's really easy to bob your head to," Johnson says, "We've had the good fortune to be embraced by several different camps and scenes."

The men of Hillstomp admit that Portland's music-soaked scene becomes a bit cliquey at times with musicians and fans holing up in specific, genre-specific camps. But Hillstomp's live energy is a perfect genre-buster - bringing all sorts of different folks together to ultimately get down to a variation of the blues.

"People are responsive to a band's energy. I genuinely enjoy every time we play and people really appreciate that. Even if they're indie rock fans or bluegrass fans, what they have in common is that when they come to one of our shows, they enjoy the fact that we're enjoying ourselves," Kammerer says.

On stage the band is a whirlwind of sound, often producing a product that comes off much larger than what one might expect from a two-piece. Listeners often make this same remark in regard to other duos, namely the Black Keys, and to a lesser degree, the White Stripes. The two aforementioned blues/rock duos have the ability to sound like arena rockers when they so choose, but when Hillstomp is firing on all cylinders (which seems to be just about every show) they sound more like a big backyard blues jam rather than a rock band.

But don't get the impression that Hillstomp is some sort of jug band. Despite a ragtag feel (not to mention appearance), both Johnson and Kammerer display undeniable talent. Whether it's Kammerer's R.L. Burnside-ish, whining and whooping slide guitar or the rampaging groove of Johnson's drums, buckets and whatever else he can find to smack around, one can't help but realize that these guys really know how to play the blues.

And you just might like it, because it's in your bones. And who are we to argue with Keith Richards?


9:30pm Saturday, Feb. 23. The Annex. 51 NW Greenwood Ave., 388-1106. 21 and over.

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