If there were no women, there would be no blues.
The men in local blues duo Hillstomp know as much. And if you couldn't glean it from the weathered trance blues about lovin', leavin' and bein' left behind that they've banged out around Portland for the past four years, the name of their sophomore album leaves little doubt. The Woman that Ended the World, in title alone, is both an indictment of that other gender and an admission that Henry Kammerer and John Johnson are two guys powerless in the face of it.
Those six powerful words that grace the spine of Hillstomp's latest are pulled from a rant-and-ramble number called "Boom Boom Room East Blues," a definite highlight on an album that manages to take the band's North Mississippi influences and twist them into a series of emotionally raw songs, both hypnotic and tense. "Born as a baby and into a girl," Kammerer spits with venom, "became the woman that ended the world." Some Portlanders might recognize the name in that song as the handle of a now-closed local strip club, but the woman in question isn't a dancer, leadman Kammerer professes. Who is the woman that ended the world?
"I really don't know who that song is about," Kammerer says, glancing over at his sole bandmate Johnson who is giving him a knowing look. "It's not about my ex-wife; it's not. You know that."
So these guys still bicker like they did a year-and-a-half ago when I first talked to them about their out-of-the-blue debut One Word. Johnson still plays with the same patchwork drum kit, fashioned out of five-gallon pails and a grill-cover cymbal. And Kammerer's muffled world-worn drawl still betrays his big hopeful eyes. But some things have changed. Kammerer is divorced and Johnson is on his way. Plus, the duo has logged thousands of miles while touring and has watched its crowds swell.
Hillstomp has become a staple in the local blues scene, having played the Waterfront Blues Festival two years in a row. But it has also become a force in the indie-rock scene, which deemed the duo awesome after a rollicking performance at this year's PDX Pop Now! festival where the two shaggy, bespectacled gents had a room full of this town's hipsterati stomping and clapping to a cover of a song by long-dead Mississippi Fred McDowell.
"It's so strange," says Johnson. "When we play the pop fest, we're the token blues band, and when we play the blues fest we're the token indie-rock band."
Johnson claims that the band has mutated beyond its hill-country blues roots, but it's hard to tell on The Woman. The album, save for the churning bump of-get this-a disco-blues anthem called "Shake It," is pure blues, from the loping guitar and cautionary tale of "Momma Told Papa" to the covers of Muddy Waters and Rainey Burnette. And then there's the album cover, a vivid duct-tape work by local artist Miss Mona Superhero of a striking woman leaving a man on his knees at a rail station.
"The woman in that image is one of the bartenders at Dante's," says Kammerer. "Maybe she'll actually talk to us now."
Will they never learn?
Hillstomp celebrates the release of
with Moonshine Hangover, the Lewi Longmire Band and Pat MacDonald on Friday, Sept. 23, at Dante's. 9:30 pm. $6 advance, $7 day of show. 21+.