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Published: 2003/06/26
by Glenn Alexander

Live – Percy Hill


In 1998, Percy Hill released Color In Bloom, widely regarded as one
of the best releases of the year (receiving Album of the Year at the
inaugural Jammy Awards). While it evoked musical comparisons to Steely Dan
and early Stevie Wonder, it managed to carve out an utterly unique niche for
itself on the scene and garnered new fans in the process. However, since
that release, the band has only played sporadically and has subsequently
paired off into other bands, leaving many to ponder the fate of Percy Hill
with little optimism. So, with the release of Percy Hill Live,
(recorded in New Hampshire last fall) it is surprising to find these
musicians and their songs sounding so fresh, as if their 1998 work of art
was but weeks behind them.

At first listen, the album seemed way over the top. With nine extra
musicians, it felt like a conscious move to compensate for something
missing. It seemed to bring back old memories from listening to _Color In
Bloom_, rather than making any new ones. But, as the album soaked in, I
realized they weren't filling in holes, but adding new, vibrant layers
within their songs. The new arrangements were simply accentuating the
original character of the tunes. This is when I realized this album was
bound to create new memories.

It may sound odd, but larger bands (with a few exceptions) are forced to
become more structured and improvisation becomes more tedious. The
collective consciousness is much larger, requiring more focus, more
attunement to the song as a whole, which results in less time exploring new
territory. On this live outing, Percy Hill plays as they are meant to – with a rolling, sharp intensity – and yet they still utilize
these extra musicians to heighten the melodies and the groove in order to
elevate the songs to new heights. These 13 musicians (including a
guitarist, three percussionists, two vocalists, and three horn players)
extend songs past the 10-minute mark with ease, yet move into these
excursions with a fluid, galloping force, exuding a confidence that is
surprising given the number of people involved in the music. Yet, the sound
is undeniably a result of the four musicians at the core. While this is not
the Percy Hill many have been accustomed to in the past, the additions
rarely overpower the voices of Nate, Joe, Aaron, and John, and often lend
their distinct sound a mystic quality that is sometimes smooth and slippery
and at other times layered and dense.

The addition of guitarist Adam Terrell (Assembly of Dust) adds a unique
counterbalance to Joe's playing. Rarely do the two guitarists duel back and
forth. Instead, they leave each other room to carve out their own space in
the songs, adding to the diverse emotions present on the album. Zack Wilson
adds layers of rhythms with his steady, inspired conga playing. Nate
Wilson's arrangements he wrote for the three horn players add a distinctly
new sound to some of the songs, and, as always, his keyboard work is pure
magic. The horns paint a thick layer over many of the song's basic
framework, easing the groove machine forward through their tasteful chord
changes. At other moments the brass section paints bright strokes into the
songs, like with the muffled trumpet sounds on the mystifying journey of
"Color in Bloom". "Chrissy Reid" now has a remarkable resemblance to Paul
Simon's "Graceland" due to the addition of the horns and the
Latin-tinged percussion present throughout, a change that is disarming yet
comforting at the same time. At certain moments the horns stand in the way,
as is the case with segments of "Beneath the Cover." The horns are charted
right along with the chorus, creating a redundant quality not present in the
song's original manifestation. Yet, parts are filled out nicely with the
horns and the singers, creating an odd dichotomy within the song's mood that
at times feels tedious.

While this album does seem excessive in places, as with Katz's "The Now" and
"Make Believe" (two songs whose clichlyrics are only accentuated by
back-up singers), the album as a whole moves forward in a decidedly mature
manner, with the added musicians lending it a quality that proves more
grooved, textured, and inspired with each listen. Nate Wilson's "313" is a
example of this success. It moves gracefully, with the horns providing a
flowing sonic backdrop and the back-up singers sending tinges of joy through
your spine as they jolt the audience.

With the band delivering such a forceful, brave show, undeniably something
that will open more ears to their music, the question remains: Is this but a
fleeting glimpse of the band in top form? Is there any hope for Percy Hill
to finally stick together? Only time will tell. Until that is decided,
we've all got this outstanding memento to keep us at bay.

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