It's a late Thursday afternoon at Blues City Deli in the Benton Park neighborhood, and the room is so packed no one can move, but everyone moves anyway. Nikki Hill and her band are playing two sets for free; it's her home turf, the joint where she played her first show in St. Louis, in the fall of 2011, and the crowd responds to her as if she were their own.
And she is. Stepping to the stage, her hair wrapped high in a scarf, her tangerine blouse slung low over her soldiers, Hill leads the band into a warm-up tune. The sound is like Sun Studio rockabilly and early '50s rhythm & blues. Think "Mystery Train" as both Junior Parker and Elvis Presley played it, or maybe a Chicago blues combo fronted by Wanda Jackson. The rhythm section of drummer Joe Meyer and bassist Ed Strohsahl urges Nikki and Matt Hill, her husband and guitarist, to cut loose. As the dancers push the tables back, they do just that.
Like an engine or a sentence or a great song, the music of Nikki Hill and her band has no unnecessary parts. The singer claps in time and hollers "Yeah!" as Matt Hill takes a rapid, crackling and sweaty solo, though he's only been onstage for two minutes. Hill's voice cuts through it all with a growl and a wail. This is clearly blues, and it's just as clearly not blues.
Simply call it rock & roll, and simply call Nikki Hill the most exciting young performer on the roots scene in St. Louis.
Nikki and Matt Hill first met in their home state of North Carolina, when the former was a young music fan looking for a community, and the latter was a guitar prodigy trying to make a name for himself. Nikki learned to sing in a Southern Baptist church in her hometown of Durham, and though she didn't appreciate it at the time, the power of gospel singing infuses every line she now sings.
"I do this because I'm a huge music fan," she explains over coffee at MoKaBe's on Arsenal Street. "The cool thing about growing up in the Raleigh—Durham—Chapel Hill triangle is that I got to see a lot of music. I went to the Durham Blues Festival, and I met most of my friends going to see music. When I was fourteen or fifteen I got into punk rock. I went to all of those shows, the whole hanging-out thing. In Chapel Hill, Franklin Street is known for music, with clubs like Cat's Cradle. All the freaks would hang out in front of this old post office, and I'd go there after school, meet friends, get into trouble. I was looking for something different. I loved the energy of it all."
Nikki started singing in a honky-tonk band and eventually met Matt Hill at his shows in the Durham area, though she never had the nerve to sit in with the guitarist at the time. For such a confident singer, she came to performing reluctantly, as if she needed to be persuaded that she had something different, something true to her own voice to share.
As a guitarist, Matt Hill is anything but reluctant. The flash and muscle of his style is as much classic rock as it is blues — but it complements the wildness and sincerity of Nikki's voice.
"We laugh about it now," explains Matt, "but when you ask who buys those records, that's my parents. Who buys the Jon Secada record or the Michael McDonald Christmas album? That's my parents. I hated music as a child, because that's all they listened to. But I had an uncle out in the country, and I'd go visit him when I was around eight or nine. He had been in bands, had drums and guitars, and one day he put on a Creedence Clearwater Revival record on vinyl, and I discovered that there was music that didn't suck. When I was about twelve I got really into Aerosmith. I wanted to be Joe Perry. So my parents bought me an electric guitar. I was going to grow my hair out, stand on a mountain, and the wind would blow through my hair, and the girls would fall all over me. And now look at me!"
Matt Hill moved from the tobacco fields of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and into the city, where he discovered the blues through Bob Margolin, who played with the Muddy Waters Blues Band, and Max Drake, who worked with Howlin' Wolf and introduced him to the great bluesman Hubert Sumlin.
"I became one of those teenage kids who wanted to be a 50-year-old bluesman," Matt recalls, "but I thought, 'Wait, I'm a nineteen-year-old. I should be getting fucked up and listening to Guns N' Roses!'"
In 2011 Nikki and Matt Hill married and decided to leave North Carolina and relocate to more centrally located St. Louis. The move paid off: The last year has been a word-of-mouth whirlwind for the singer and her band. They've done two West Coast tours, performed at the Viva Las Vegas rockabilly and roots festival and shared a bill with the legendary Phil Alvin. Those experiences convinced Nikki to begin writing and record her first EP in 2012. The self-titled, four-song release was cut live in Chicago and features only original material, no covers, a strategic decision to separate the band from blues-based expectations.
"Especially with female singers, there aren't enough doing original writing," Nikki says. "I just wanted to put out what I thought would sound cool. It's interesting when you see the press or tour to another city. You'll read, 'Blues Band!' or 'Soul Funk Band!' But once people actually hear the record or see the show, they know it's rock & roll. For me, blues and Southern roots music is about as rock & roll as it gets."
In mid-May, Nikki Hill will release her first full-length album, Here's Nikki Hill, a record cut once again in Chicago, and again focusing on original songwriting, but this time with three covers, including a fully reworked Ike Turner song, "Gotta Find My Baby," and even a ska version of the Texas Tornados' "Who Were You Thinking Of?" The sound of the album is raw and alive, from the stomping Little Richard-esque rock & roll of opening number "Ask Yourself" to the country-gospel of closer "Hymn for Hard Luck," a spare duet between Nikki's voice and Matt's guitar. "Your hard luck will come to pass," sings Nikki. "Just live on and ease your mind." With its archetypal melody and spiritual themes, it could be a lost Staple Singers classic, but it's truly original, the work of a natural musician.
"Our sound is going to keep developing," Nikki says. "It's neat that people are out there, watching and hearing us develop. I don't want to be just a singer. It's really about that band. I've done other shows with other bands, but it's not the same thing. It's cool to have four people working as a unit, and we make the sound as a unit, no matter what. We never phone it in."