Ross Kleiner & the Thrill • You Don’t Move Me


Ross Kleiner & The Thrill

You Don’t Move Me



Making new music in old styles can be a treacherous undertaking. Some understand the form but lack the proper feeling, and produce anything from a hollow echo to a grotesque approximation of the real thing. Others are hypercorrect in every aspect, but so limit their scope that their music appeals only to a fanatical corps of listeners. (Note: some of my favorite music is just like this.) It is rare to find an artist who understands and respects vintage music, and breathes new life into it, without evoking smirks and snorts, or worse, from his fellow faithful. Enter Ross Kleiner & The Thrill, a band from Minneapolis, Minnesota that approaches rock ‘n’ roll music with a fan’s heart and an expert’s ear, and gets it entirely right.

At the core of The Thrill are Cornelius Watson (guitar) and Victor Span (drums), with Elmer Johnston (bass) and Paulie Cerra (saxophone). Providing additional texture are Jon Duncan (piano and organ), Chico Chavez (bongos and guiro), John Rausch (shakers and tambourine), and Gregory Jong (acoustic guitar). (Note: In the working band’s lineup, Kleiner plays acoustic guitar; Brad Collett replaces Johnston and Robert Russel. Cerra; the additional percussion and keys are omitted.) The blues-tinged, tasteful, and imaginative playing of Watson, a stone killer guitarist from Winnipeg, heats up the proceedings without overpowering them, and Cerra’s nervous, taut riffs flesh out the songs.

Kleiner is an exciting, enthusiastic, and refreshingly unmannered singer, and a capable songwriter. The 14 originals on You Don’t Move Me point up his range. The band revs its collective engine at the starting line with “Mighty Mighty Man,” a raw rocker featuring a tremendous riff, pounding drums, and ringing guitar solos.  Reminiscent of The Blasters at their best, this track shows, more than 55 years after “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” just how a nonsense lyric can still improve a chorus. “Go Mad,” a bluesy, stop-time shuffle with stinging guitar, evokes a similar feeling–of Johnny Burnette Trio via Blasters–a few cuts later.

The stripped-down rockabilly boogie “Sleepless Nights” accents Span’s drumming, Johnston’s doghouse bass, and Cerra’s sax before Watson’s guitar shatters the proceedings with Neanderthal force. On the title track, Kleiner warns off his unwanted ex-lover while Span lays down the prototypical hambone beat most often associated with Bo Diddley; the guitar suggests Dick Dale’s Middle Eastern-tinged surf sounds. “Love Machine” recalls the brutal, Diddley-esque R&B of the early Rolling Stones.

“Goodbye Lover,” a quirky tune with an 8-bar structure, melds sunny pop with a vaguely ska-inflected rhythm, yet retains the roots rock flavor of its fellow songs and would work alongside some of Johnny Burnette’s solo sides. “Stealing Kisses,” another up-tempo ’50s-style number cut from similar cloth, rocks harder. Kleiner delivers one of his most spirited vocals on the great jump blues “Clutchin’ Pearls”; breakdowns and a hip middle eight add dynamics and excitement. “Treat Me Right” is jazzy swing in a minor key, with eloquent, whammy-shimmered guitar solos worthy of Brian Setzer.

Kleiner has a real affinity for minor numbers and unexpected notes. “Without You” combines a loping, (spaghetti) Western groove à la “Ghost Riders in the Sky” with surfy guitar and a near-yodeled vocal, to an unexpectedly ominous effect. “The Thrill” features a steamed-window vocal amid Watson’s beautifully fat chording and snaking lines. The excellent “Only Wanna Be With You” blends Latin rhythms and percussion with exotic guitar figures. “Rocksteady” struts coolly and has an almost anthemic quality, in spite of its minor key signature. “I’m Ready,” a laid-back rocker, incorporates touches of surf and rockabilly and a rather tongue-in-cheek, lounge lizard attitude. It is irresistible.

Apart from making a superb album–I daresay it delivers every bit of its promised Thrill–Kleiner’s success is that he absolutely conveys the essence of roots rock, without being overly beholden to any particular stylistic aspect of it. Hence You Don’t Move Me holds tremendous appeal for all lovers of rock ‘n’ roll. Casual fans of Elvis or any of Brian Setzer’s projects, scene-making devotees of The Paladins or Robert Gordon, and obsessively indefatigable rockabilly collectors will all dig Ross Kleiner and The Thrill.


Thanks to the artist for providing the CD for this review.

Here’s Nikki Hill


Nikki Hill

Here’s Nikki Hill

Deep Fryed Records, 2013

Originally from North Carolina and now calling St. Louis home, Nikki Hill is the real thing: a roots rock ‘n’ soul star with the talent of Etta James and the megawatt charisma and sheer detonating power of artists like Rachel Nagy of the Detroit Cobras and the late, great Nick Curran. Her band features a solid rhythm section in Ed Strohsahl (bass) and Joe Meyer (drums), not to mention a well-known guitarist in her husband, Matt Hill, who won in the Best New Artist Debut category in the 2011 Blues Music Award balloting. Nikki Hill dropped a four-song calling card in the form of a self-titled EP last year. Now the singer-songwriter has folded that impressive debut into a full-length album, Here’s Nikki Hill. It is outstanding.

Four songs are drawn from the EP: the fierce, Delta-style boogie of “I’ve Got A Man,” which gives the Jelly Roll Kings a run for their money; the majestic deep soul ballad “Don’t Cry Anymore,” propelled by Matt Hill’s staccato chanks on his guitar and Steve Eisen’s one-man saxophone section, sung at a slow burn (“It’s too late, and I can’t put out the fire” indeed!); and “Strapped To The Beat,” a sassy roots rock number with a boogie-woogie guitar line out of Carl Perkins’s “Matchbox,” again featuring Eisen. The languid, sultry groover “Her Destination” interprets the “nothing can keep me from my lover” theme, even quoting “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” For Here’s Nikki Hill, the cut has been re-recorded to eliminate the saxophone that was prominent in the original version. It now boasts a tougher vocal, dirtier guitar tones, and a snarling solo, with the effect of making the overall atmosphere even nastier and more pheromone-charged.

Here’s Nikki Hill’s new material is thrilling. With its soul-clap drum hits, distinctive bent-note guitar figure, and vicious solo, the phenomenal “Ask Yourself” is reminiscent of Irma Thomas’s 1963 platter, “Hittin’ On Nothin’.” “Right On The Brink” serves dramatic, minor key soul over a churning beat, interspersed with ominous breakdowns that are the aural equivalent of the storms of which Hill sings. “Gotta Find My Baby” sways with a fevered urgency, coming from somewhere in the R&B neighborhood frequented by Don Covay, Ike & Tina Turner, and Eddie Hinton. It is irresistible, from the groove to the speedy amplifier tremolo to Hill’s guileless yet suggestive delivery. Even her “Do-do-doos” are knockouts.

Hill reaches back a few years stylistically for “I Know,” the Barbara George hit out of New Orleans that Freddie King also covered. Her splendid phrasing and some well-placed growls and squeals really bring this to life; Hill’s guitar break, sketching the melody and accentuating it with tremolo picking and pedal steel-like bends, is top notch. Hill completely reimagines the album’s other cover, shifting “Who Were You Thinking Of?” from the Tex-Mex treatment it received in the hands of Doug Sahm and Texas Tornadoes to a ska foundation–only the twanging lead guitars hint at the song’s origins. The audacious move works perfectly. The playlist eases out with a smoky gospel-inflected ballad, “Hymn for Hard Luck,” that left me marveling at the understated power created by just Nikki’s voice and Matt’s electric guitar. Here and across the board, the sound has a delicious vintage vibe, owing to the attentive ears, Grail-like gear, and matchless musical hipness found in the confines of co-producer Felix Reyes’s House of Tone, a Chicago area studio quickly becoming known as one of the world’s premier recording facilities for roots and blues music.

If she keeps making records like this, Nikki Hill cannot miss. She is already wowing audiences on the blues and R&B circuits in the US and Europe, and at the same time knocking ‘em out on the rockabilly scene. I daresay Hill also has the kind of soul and style it takes to conquer the rootsy corner of the (punk) rock universe inhabited by acts like Rev. Horton Heat, Detroit Cobras, and Social Distortion. So get hip if you ain’t, buy Here’s Nikki Hill, tell all your friends about her, and you can say you were in on this explosion at the beginning.


I purchased this CD from

Hillbilly Boogie Surfin’ Blues


Don Leady

Hillbilly Boogie Surfin’ Blues

Don Leady, a founding member of Austin, Texas’s Leroi Brothers, may be best known for his next gig, as front man for the roots-rocking trio The Tail Gators. The original Tail Gators–Leady, Gary “Mud Cat” Smith (drums), and the legendary Keith Ferguson (electric bass)–served up an incredible, one-of-a-kind mish-mash of blues, surf, Cajun, country, Tex-Mex, soul, and rockabilly (among other flavors), and were the band to beat for low-down Americana. It’s been more than a decade and a half since the Tail Gators waxed their seventh and last long-player, It’s A Hog Groove, in 1996, so what a delight it was to discover Don Leady’s new Facebook page and to learn that he has just issued a solo CD to satisfy our cravings for dirty guitar instrumentals.

At just under half an hour’s running time, the appropriately-titled Hillbilly Boogie Surfin’ Blues is short but ever so sweet. Backed alternately by Art Kidd and Nico on drums, and playing all the guitar and bass parts himself, Leady picks up where he left off with the Tail Gators, laying down a dozen cuts of prime–and primal–roots music.  An instrumental trio more than suffices; Leady, a modern-day Don Rich, never even breaks out his fiddle, instead choosing to draw on a dizzying palette of picking and stylistic approaches on his guitar, and to employ a range of across-the-board great tones.

There’s nothing here not to like. The set opens with the charging “Bull Doggin’ Boogie.” Also on the country side of things are “Ice Cream Star,” a fast instrumental of Albert Lee-like precision with a basic boogie section in the middle to cool things down a bit, and the hammer-and-pull-a-thon “Hillbilly Blues,” in which Leady dials in a tone of steel guitar-like clarity. “Thunder And Lightning,” which closes the album, comes out of the same acrobatic bag.

The mid-tempo “Texas Dance Hall Blues” splits the difference between country and blues with panache, and delivers a few off-the-wall surprises worthy of the old Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant sides. If you yearn for pure blues, check out Leady’s cover of the Lightnin’ Hopkins chestnut “Lightnin’s Boogie”; his swinging “Fat Wolf Blues,” with its “Dust My Broom” quotation, tricky syncopations, and high-wire soloing; and the wonderfully wobbly “Slo Bo,” which plays expertly with some of Bo Diddley’s patented Latin-influenced rhythms (but not his famed hambone beat) and tricky chordal lead work.

Leady has a knack for creating moods that are almost tangible. The swamp pop confection “Louisiana Feeling” is achingly, last-dance sweet. Check out Leady’s (reverb) tanked-up frolic, “Echo Surf Boogie,” with its nods to both the California-bred surf styles and to the UK guitar hero Hank Marvin, or his tom tom-driven tribute to the garage rockin’ master, Link Wray, in “Crazy Link.” The Western epic “Ride Of The Ruthless,” originally recorded for the Big Guitars From Texas compilation back in the day, is practically cinematic in its drama and immediacy.

Talk of the Big Guitars series brings to mind a fitting description for Leady’s music: Trash, Twang, and Thunder. If you were a Tail Gators fan back in the day, I suspect you stopped reading some time ago, for at least long enough to track down and order a copy of Hillbilly Boogie Surfin’ Blues. If you are new to the guitar stylings of Don Leady, I can make only this recommendation: Get it if you ain’t got it! It is pure dynamite.


Review copy was purchased from