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Michael Hill’s Blues Mob playing in Greensboro, NC

by Amy Kingsley

American blues music fermented in the stagnant swamps of the Mississippi Delta, according to legend. In an oval region of northwestern Mississippi ’round about a century ago, poor tenant farmers passed time sliding bottlenecks from nut to headstock and wailing on harmonicas.

Of course, versions of the blues flourished elsewhere. Piedmont bluesmen developed a regional style of finger picking and wrote songs that were more upbeat than the ones written by their Mississippi counterparts.

For a time, both genres evolved in relative isolation. Then recording technology and the internet intervened, and the blues proliferated.

The uniquely American sound even immigrated to New York City, where it dissolved in the cultural melting pot. It was in the Big Apple itself that guitarist Michael Hill discovered the blues. His ensemble, Michael Hill’s Blues Mob, from Brooklyn, advertises their sound as authentic New York blues.

The music – like the city – is faster and flashier than the rural variety. Gone are the ponderous tempos typical of Hill’s forbears. Instead the guitarist moves at a big-city pace, lively and propelled by a rock-solid rhythm section.

“As pertains to our band I guess you could say that there is an energy and intensity to the music,” Hill says. “There are elements of funk, African influence, reggae. I guess you could say it’s a little fusion-esque.”

Hill’s variations are built on the skeleton of traditional blues. He incorporates rock, balladry and shuffle alongside the multicultural influences.

“Let the Ladies Have the Floor,” a cut featured on the Blues Mob’s MySpace page, displays the band’s rowdier side. The foundation is Hendrix-style blues rock, and the lyrics are triumphant. It’s a raucous tune, evocative of downtown bustle.

Hill advocates peace and justice, and like any decent bluesman he shouts out to the downtrodden. The song “Bluestime in America,” catalogs urban anxieties like job loss, debt and hopelessness. “Bluestime” is traditional, from its rollicking phrasing right down to its grimy tone.

“Our music is always dedicated to the spirit of peace and justice,” Hill says. “I firmly believe that music can have a spiritual component on top of the fun and enjoyment.”

New York City figures centrally in Hill’s most iconic tunes, including “New York Heart” and “New York State of Blues,” which might be Hill’s most well known composition. He name-drops the boroughs, recollects the projects and sings about salvation through music. Hill was born and bred in the South Bronx, an area he credits with giving him a strong sense of community. For the past 18 years the guitarist has lived in Brooklyn.

Hill remembers the exact date – Dec. 3, 1970 – when he started playing guitar. His brother turned 13 that day and received a guitar as a gift. Michael, the older brother, determined that his kid brother shouldn’t surpass him musically. The original Blues Mob consisted of Michael Hill on guitar, his sister, and his younger brother on bass.

In the last couple of years, Hill has reduced his performing schedule to spend more time with his family. Recently he has been working with his friend Colin John on a collection of acoustic duos that combine John’s rootsy style with Hill’s musical storytelling. The two just finished recording and will be shopping the album out to prospective labels in the near future.

“Anything that matters to me can be a subject for a song,” Hill says. “I have romantic songs, celebrations, politically conscious songs. I have a range of subject matter that especially relates to the people in New York.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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