The Return of Percy Hill

“It was a life changing experience for me”, explains a thrilled Nate Wilson in regards to Percy Hill’s show last September at the Rochester Opera House in Rochester, New Hampshire.

It was one of only three shows the band performed in 2002, but this particular performance is already considered legendary. Percy Hill was staged as a 13-piece ensemble, complete with percussionists, horn section and female back up singers for the three-show run. The Rochester show is due for release as a live CD; the first new official Percy Hill recording in four and a half years! Although this duration between albums is rather extensive, it seems even longer considering how their last recording, Color in Bloom signified a creative peak for the group. A mature and sophisticated sampling of soul, funk, rock, R& B, and flashes of cool adult contemporary that keeps sounding more colorful and inventive with each and every listen. Although the recording is enriching, it may be an awkward listen for people with a limited musical ear or to those that prefer more of a fierce and aggressive edge to their sound. When asked if the description, “adult contemporary”, a sound usually associated with the mellow grooves of James Taylor, Marvin Gaye and Rod Stewart, as being a fair description for Percy Hill, Wilson replies, “any type of description is a complement in my book.”

Playing in a music scene dominated by bands that primarily consider The Grateful Dead and Phish as major influences, Color in Bloom provides a broader sampling of several world-renowned artists that have inspired the modern improvisational music scene. It’s an album that divulges the band’s strong influences in Paul Simon, Steely Dan, Jamiroqui, Sting and Stevie Wonder. The recording won “Album of the Year” at the inaugural Jammy Awards, a ceremony in 2000 honoring the brightest in the improvisational/free form/non-top 40 music scene. It rightfully deserved it; with grooving songs like “Sun Machine”, “313”, and “Beneath The Cover” with their jazzy harmonies and R & B flavor, the album is an polished example of engineering perfection, providing it character and longevity. Instead of building off that momentum, the band slowed their pace and eventually started to perform fewer and fewer shows.

Although Color in Bloom debuted in October of 1998, the award was presented almost two years later in June of 2000. The four band members had already worked its tail off in support of the record by touring all over the continental United States from large theaters and clubs on the east coast to small bars and breweries out west. So, why the long wait between albums after the positive buzz and momentum generated by Color? Did they attempt to wait until there was enough new material that would absolutely knock the socks off their listeners before heading into the studio again? Wilson replies, “Anything we do, we want to knock the socks off our listeners, but it was a matter of other things. We just did a bunch of national touring and it was time to just lay low and being home never looked so good. We instead just stuck with local shows and worked on other things.”

The growth of the New Hampshire based band has been a continual oxymoron. From a six piece at the release of their first and second albums, Setting the Boat Adrift and Straight On Till Morning, (both are now out of print) to a four piece in 1998 around the time of Color in Bloom, their sound has continually developed. Both of these early albums are fantastic by any measure, with diverse, lengthy songs that can hold the listener’s attention and stand the test of time. The recordings dip through Latin, soul and bluegrass influences that are together more spiritually grounded in Grateful Dead waters.

The band’s sound found a new beat of expression when it reconvened as a foursome. The band’s name could have almost been changed from Percy Hill, due to its revamped attack; with two new members being added to the fold joining original members Wilson and guitarist/lead singer Joe Farrell. The new members were longtime friends of Wilson and Farrell – Aaron Katz and bassist John Leccesse. The addition of the multi-talented Katz, who is an accomplished drummer, guitarist, vocalist and songwriter, brought to the fold a bag of new songs that helped revamp the overall sound. His introspective lyrics and catchy ear for harmony and groove along with his consistent and sweet drum beats, kicked the band into high gear. Their sound can also be attributed to Wilson’s constant evolving attack of keyboard arrangements. The harmonies quickly progressed from a jazzy Allman Brothers organ-based sound to a sophisticated orchestrated funk over the course of five years, resembling the polished grooves of late 70’s Steely Dan albums, and some of the Talking Head’s more elaborate efforts. Wilson’s funky 70s inspired Moog synthesizer effects can be heard in a large majority of his playing; most notably on Color in Bloom. A self-described keyboard collector, Wilson describes how he has grown to become an accomplished master of all keyboards from synthesizers and electric pianos to organs. “Well, it’s just a matter of me finding the vintage keyboards and adding them to my sound, it’s all based upon what I’m listening to. Right now I’m into an organ based keyboard, working on playing bass sounding effects. My sound is really incorporated from what I’m listening to… when I’m not playing.”

Les Wheeler and the JV Allstars is Wilson’s tribute to organ groove, in the Jimmy Smith greasy Hammond B3 sense of the term, now brought to modern flavor by the likes of Soulive, whose organ player Neal Evans, Wilson describes as “simply incredible.” The project came to fruition with his fellow band mates and close friends in Reid Genauer’s Assembly of Dust, another band on Wilson’s plate. This is an outlet for Wilson to let loose on the organ and blend in with the soulful sound he’s been so inspired by of late. It’s also a sound he also incorporates into another project of his – Reid Genauer and the Assembly of Dust.

This is a band that originally started as a weekend musical outlet, but has now blossomed into a full-fledged outfit. Their debut album, which was recently released, has gained widespread positive acclaim, and a sold out Northeast tour followed. The new material reverberates in Reid’s finest moments with Strangefolk, playing a large repertoire of brilliant lyrically based songs from that earlier period, while also expanding the band’s musical boundaries. The material on the self-titled debut album echoes in a gospel drenched boogie flavor, primarily due to Wilson’s soulful organ grooves. The band is made up largely of fellow New Hampshire musicians including Leccesse on bass and his good friends, Adam Terrell on guitar and Andy Herrick on drums. “It’s like almost being in eighth grade summer camp”, describes Wilson’s gig with his friends and band mates.

A piano prodigy at an early age, Wilson is the first to admit jokingly that guitar players and drummers get more of the girls. Either way, he’s proud of what he’s accomplished as a universal keyboard player. He had recently completed his senior recital at the University of New Hampshire, which was performed as half-classical and half jazz. The classical pieces included a set of 12 variations of Beethoven and a couple of preludes by Debussy. His jazz section included an impressive spectrum; consisting of an organ trio, a standard jazz section and a piano-bass-drums section as well. This guy could clearly be a session musician and play along the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, or Van Morrison and help elevate their next studio recording to higher ground.

“I would love to do that type of work, I just got to get out there. I’ve been in the studio with Peter Prince lately and it’s been great. The studio is my favorite place to play, it gives me a chance to continually learn new things.”

Just recently Wilson has had the great opportunity of being chosen to score a film called Second Best . The movie stars Joe Pantaliano (The Matrix, The Sopranos), Jennifer Tilly (Bound, Liar Liar) and Bronson Pinchot (Balky from TV’s Perfect Strangers). A person involved in the film’s production, who happened to be a fan of Percy Hill, caught one of their reunion shows in September. While watching the show he became so impressed with Wilson’s accomplished sound, that he couldn’t help but ask him afterwards if a film score was something he’d might be interested in trying. Wilson jumped at the opportunity and will be working on this project along with Leccesse. This is a side of the music industry Wilson hopes to become more involved in and is confident enough to believe the score is going to be a remarkable learning opportunity and provide even better than expected results.

A short time ago, Percy Hill announced a new run of three April shows in New York City, Boston and Hartford. There is hope in the spring air to ride the refreshing momentum from their three night run in September. Wilson wouldn’t say if they would ever play with an expanded lineup again, but it’s to be believed the three shows will indeed have more than four musicians up on stage. Considering the rather expensive logistics of touring with a large band, it’s easier said than done, but the expanded lineup will most likely become incorporated into their local Northeast performances.

When asked if Percy Hill is a valuable resource in today’s musical landscape of ever expanding “jambands”, Wilson replies, “jambands is such an unfair word, more or less it should be called something else…there’s just so much great music in the scene and not all the bands jam, it should be something like, ah…”

“Music that doesn’t suck?” replied the author.

“That’s it…music that doesn’t suck,” Wilson exclaimed.

From out of nowhere, Percy Hill is back on the scene and ready to continually mature and develop their lush sound alongside the ears of their listeners. The next run of performances is an exciting time for the band and its fans to realize exactly what we’ve all been missing the past couple years.

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