Blues Blow-Out in Denver: Hill Country Revue

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Hill Country Revue
Bluebird Theater
Denver, Colorado
September 26, 2009

Every blues addict needs a regular fix. Saturday night, Hill Country Revue provided not just that for a Denver crowd but a cathartic blast. The twin lead guitars, the solid, sometimes funky rhythm section and the irresistible blues licks did their job and provided the kind of relief that only good rockin' blues can.

Hill Country Revue is probably best known as a side project for two-thirds of the North Mississippi Allstars. Cody Dickinson, brother of NMA front man Luther Dickinson and bassist Chris Chew, has hooked up with Kirk Smithhart (guitar, backing vocals), Ed "Hot" Cleveland (drums) and Dixie Dan Coburn (vocals, harp). In NMA, Dickinson plays drums, but with HCR he gets to strap on a guitar and go right down front. He also sings some background vocals and occasionally plays the electric washboard.

Musically they're close to NMA, but the extra guitar adds another dimension. Many of their tunes are based on a one-chord vamp reminiscent of John Lee Hooker. Think of the Hooker tune "ZZ Top" ripped off and made famous as "La Grange." The one-chord tunes, in particular, create a trance-like sound, but not a catatonic trance. This fare is designed to put you into a booty-shaking trance. Another favorite trick is to build a song around a bluesy lick like those popularized by blues-rock bands of the '70s, Ten Years After and early Jethro Tull to name a couple.

Both guitarists used Gibson Les Pauls (both with sunburst finishes) for that gritty Southern rock sound. Dickinson proved that he doesn't spend all his time behind a drum kit, although his solos seemed a bit canned at times with lots of triplets. Other times, he let the rhythm flow more naturally. Smithhart played slide almost half the time and seemed to be able to channel his inner blues feeling a little more easily. Every once in a while, the two guitarists got together for some twin guitar harmony evoking the Allman Brothers.

Visually, it's hard to escape Chew. This guy has to weigh about as much as the other four band members put together. He's so big, he almost looks out of proportion with the rest of the band, especially against the slightly built Dickinson, who generally stands right in front of him. He's also left-handed, and he holds his left hand that plucks the strings at a 90-degree angle at the wrist, making his whole appearance look just a little out of kilter. But he can play, laying down funky, hypnotic and butt-shaking grooves all night long.

Most of the tunes were originals, many written for the band by Garry Burnside, son of noted bluesman R.L. Burnside. Toward the end of the two-hour set, the band worked in some covers including "Everybody Needs Somebody," Gov't Mule's "I'm a Ram" (actually an Al Green classic), Buddy Miles' "Them Changes," NMA's "Goin' Down South" (actually written by R.L. Burnside), Jeff Beck's "Goin' Down" and "Mocking Bird." All of it moved, and all of it was at least a little bit nasty; just right for a Saturday night.

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