There’s no doubt about it, watching Steve Hill play is mesmerising. Like most hot-shot axe-slingers, he started off playing guitar in a blues band at home in Canada, although he can get a tune or a rhythm out of almost anything that can be plucked, blown or hit. When he went solo, he went all the way, eventually jettisoning the band completely, going on stage and playing everything himself, literally. He has a separate pickup under the lower strings of his guitar, which routes through an octaver to a bass amp, so he thumbs the bass notes while picking the guitar at the same time. He plays a kick drum, a snare and a hi-hat with his feet, and plays another hi-hat and a crash cymbal with a drumstick fixed to his guitar headstock. Various other percussion instruments are fixed to parts of his kit or his body; a maraca, a tambourine, a can full of coins taped to his foot. Oh, and he has a harmonica frame round his neck too. He has released several CDs of this incredible solo work, but you still won’t believe it until you see it.
Ultimately though, there are some things you simply can’t do all at once: drum rolls, guitar overdubs, harmony vocals, that kind of thing. So this new record, Dear Illusion, doesn’t claim to be a one-man band recording, as Hill has drafted in award-winning drummer Wayne Proctor, ex of Aynsley Lister and King King, and a full horn section. Other than that, it’s all Steve. This is another of those albums whose release was scuppered by the pandemic, but the extra time has allowed a degree of buffing and honing, so he claims it’s a better product in the long run. And I can well believe it – hard rockers, tuneful melodies and weeping ballads all sit side by side, and the total package is better than it has any right to be.
The opening number, All About The Love, is played as a one-man-band with the addition of two different horn sections, and it’s a real mix of styles. The thumping, mid-rock verses, which Hill says he recorded in France with one horn combo, have a clear flavour of The Stones’ Undercover Of The Night, then it morphs into a jolly, Blues Brothers-style chorus, recorded back in Canada with a different set of horns. Now that needs some editing prowess. Keep It Together is an upbeat, good-time song that opens with a great, groovy riff on the harp which is carried through into the guitar; Hill sings with the rough-edged growl of J. Geils or Steve Gibbons. This is a highlight of the set, and the earworm song that was stuck in my head after I finished listening to the album.
Everything You Got is the lead single, (check out the fantastic video featured at the foot of this page); another song with a positive message and a superb, driving rhythm. Hill overdubs a classic Telecaster guitar and an even older Les Paul on this one, playing slightly different strum patterns on each side of the stereo mix, as well as doing an answerback solo – again, something you can’t do by yourself on stage. He bares his soul in the weeping title track, Dear Illusion, a slow, bluesy ballad with Beatlesque ‘60s overtones, before he goes back to the good times with Steal The Light From You. It’s another catchy, melodic, major-key pop-rocker, backed by an extensive horn section; a bit of Motown in there, maybe even a little ‘70s glam rock.
Don’t Let The Truth Get In The Way (Of A Good Story) is the second single and the album’s pièce de résistance in some ways; a complex arrangement with numerous rhythm and tempo changes, as well as a social message. It starts with light guitars over a gently chugging rhythm, with juggernaut slow rock patches coming in at intervals. Follow Your Heart is another ‘60s-tinged pop-rocker with lots of horns, and the pivotal song as it happens, because this was the one that required a drummer in Hill’s opinion, and caused Wayne Proctor to be drafted in – Proctor also ended up mixing and mastering the whole package.
So It Goes is a guilt-ridden ballad about a close friend who apparently died in a motor accident. Musically, it features a glorious finger-picked dual-acoustic guitar backing with another instrument that could be a mandolin, but it’s beautifully done. She Gives Lessons In Blues reverts back to the rocking theme though, and has a lot in common with Gary Moore-style heavy blues. The ten-track set is topped off with Until The Next Time, another melodic ballad, with a gentle shuffle drum and piano backbeat. It also has a tremendous acoustic guitar solo, which may be the best guitar work on the album.
Hill claims that Proctor only played drums on six of the ten songs, but apart from the drumless So It Goes, it’s not easy to pick out which are the other three. The numbers he plays as a one-man band still have some guitar and vocal overdubs, plus the ever-present horn section, so none of them are purist solo recordings as on some of his other albums, but it’s a tribute to his ability that all of them sound like a full band. As I said before, you’d never believe he could pull this off live unless you see it with your own eyes, but this is certainly the best set I’ve heard from Hill so far. Whichever way you look at it or listen to it, it’s a great rock album.