Born in Quebec, Steve Hill is one of those mean blues guitarists hailed as the best in the province, if not Canada. He gets down. He gets dirty. He goes for the heart. No wonder he has shared the stage with the greats: Ray Charles, Buddy Guy, Jimmie Vaughan, B. B. King, and countless others. He also has released several solo albums in which he functions as a one man band. His warm, gravely voice and his authentic, soulful sound have earned him the recognition of the Juno awards and others. This year, he is performing both solo and as part of a Hendrix Tribute at the Montreal Jazz fest. I talked to him about his experiences playing with the greats and working on his music.
Rachel Levine (RL): Given the incredible list of people you have shared the stage with, who has been the most exciting person for you to play with?
Steve Hill (SH): As far as experiences, playing with Hubert Sumlin, Howling Wolf’s guitar player, was in my top 5, and I did a whole show with him 17 years ago. Meeting B.B. King was awesome. I got very lucky when I was young. I used to open for a lot of the old blues guys, and they’re all dead now. I got to meet a bunch of them. Albert Collins. I got to talk to them and play with them and see them up close. I was fortunate at that time.
RL: Do you have things to learn from these other great players?
SH: Of course. Every time I go see a concert, I learn something. Every time I listen to an album I learn something. I’m fortunate to be still able to learn stuff from the masters. I’ll give you an example – Hubert Sumlin – I had been listening to Howling Wolf since I was 15. I could never figure out how he got that guitar sound. You’d see pictures, and he shows up to this gig with a guitar, and his manager asks me to tune it, since he’s not good at it, and to do a basic setup on the amp. It was a $250 Fender Stratocaster copy, and I did a basic set up, and he started playing and it sounded just like the record. It was proof that the sound is always in your hands. It was a valuable lesson.
RL: Recording or playing live, which gets you more juiced up?
SH: I like both. I have eight albums that are only my own, plus numerous sessions. I have a studio and record in my own studio. I do recording and mixing. It’s an aspect of the music that I like. What I prefer is playing live. They are two different things. After being on the road for a long time, I want to get to the studio. After being in the studio for a long time, I need to get back on the road.
RL: What’s been your experience going solo? At jazz fest, you’ll be doing a multi-night solo stand. What should audiences expect?
SH: I’m actually doing two things. The first is my one-man-band show. My last two records, Solo Recordings Volume I and II, were done like this. I’ve been on tour with these albums for a while now, and I’m doing 50 shows this summer; I never worked this much. The one-man-band started as a side project, but it got bigger than I expected it to be. It’s a lot of fun. I modified my guitar, so you hear the bass at the same time. I got a bass, snare, and high hat that I play with my feet. There’s a drumstick holder on my headstock. I play the cymbal while playing the guitar. It’s like a blues and circus show. People like it and the reaction has been great.
The second show the jazz fest asked me to put together is three hours of Hendrix. Me and Paul Deslauriers will be putting something on about Hendrix. We’ve been rehearsing a lot about this, and there will be a few guests. It’s great to play some Hendrix. Hendrix is my old hero.
RL: Do you prefer playing as part of someone else’s band in the background or being responsible for the full band?
SH: I prefer playing my songs. I love singing. I write songs. I prefer to do my own thing. I was lucky over the years when my tour was over, and I needed to do another album, and write some songs. I could be a side- man while writing songs. It’s fun to do.
RL: How did you come to play the blues?
SH: Well, I was 12 or 13, I heard Clapton and Hendrix and Cream and my dad’s record collection or someone’s dad record collection. We were a bunch of guys into that type of music in ‘86, and I couldn’t relate to what was on the radio. We loved that old music, and I particularly liked the blues stuff that these guys played. Rock and roll comes directly from the blues. It didn’t take me long to get to the older stuff. I’d read interviews with Clapton, and he’d talk about Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters. I got a cassette of Robert Johnson when I was 13 and was hooked from a young age. I started playing clubs when I was 16. I’m still in love with the blues just as much.
RL: What draws you to the blues?
SH: It’s profound music. It seems simple, but even if it’s always the same three chords, the possibilities are endless. With that basic formula, you can do so many things with it. As a singer, it’s the most fun I can have, singing the blues. As a guitar player also. This music is going to be around a long time. It’ll be around a hundred years from now. People will still be playing the blues.
Steve Hill Solo plays at the Montreal Jazz Fest at Scene Loto-Quebec (Place des Arts) on June 27. 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. free.
Steve Hill plays at the Jimi Hendrix Extravaganza with Paul Deslauriers at the Montreal Jazz Fest at Metropolis (59 St Catherine E) on June 29. 10 p.m. free.