4 May 2018, Common Room, Hastings By Rosheen FitzGerald
Bill Hickman’s an elusive man. His 2010 EP, Ghost of Smoke, evades internet sleuthing, although it has left its traces across the web. So on a Friday evening, cloistered in a corner of Common Room, all that there is to pique my expectation is a promotional poster, proclaiming Out of the Smoke, Still Burning – A Gutsy Hard Hitting Band of Original Americana. Coupled with the Treasure Island character – drinkin’, cussin’, fightin’, ne’er-do-well pirate, Billy Bones, who presumably gave the band their name – there is reasonable promise of spit-on-the-floor, ground in the dirt, whiskey-swilling country ahead.
The man of the hour – a bearded, baseball-capped dude in plaid shirt and beater – strolls up to the mike with the house lights still up, looking like he’d wandered out of the trailer park. He breaks out the acoustic guitar and a voice like Eddie Vedder, had he settled down in suburban Hastings. I experience a slight sinking feeling as he rolls out his newest number, a lament of lost love that comes across as ‘nice guy’ whinging containing the lyrical gem, “I might just step into the street/ No one’s going to miss me”.
But my fears, for the most part, prove groundless. The pace picks up as the band is built by degrees with a drummer, and an extra pair of guitarists whose repertoire includes slide guitar and mandolin, but eschews the bass. Encouraged by a vocal crowd that have come with the intention to get loose, what transpires is a good old-fashioned hoe-down.
Well-chosen covers – from Johnny Cash, R.E.M., and the Frank Burkitt Band to name a few – punctuate original compositions, with a range of influences – classic country and western for sure, but also twinges of Yiddish folk music, elements of metal and grunge, and a truly memorable 90’s style guitar solo. A wide net is cast for lyrical inspiration, from disparate experiences such as waking up in Victoria Hospital, having a difference of opinion with a barman, being paranoid about the news, “being a dick”, and things that piss him off in general. He has an uncanny ability to wring emotion out of the most pedestrian of scenarios, showing himself to be a man with a past, speaking honestly. Authenticity like this is currency in the modern age. The comedic schtick with which Hickman intersperses musical numbers is as much a part of the act as the tunes, and he is absolutely at ease in the spotlight, playing up the off-beat oddball.
A slow start to the second half drags a little – songs of love and regret come across as somewhat indulgent. But sweet-faced couples rock in tandem and groups that once frolicked together now sway in time, arms wrapped about one another’s waists. A sure-footed couple whirl and jive, completing the aesthetic. And with masterful command it picks up once more to leave on a high. Bill Hickman says it best: “This may be one of those moments that you never get in your life again, so I recommend that you go for it!”. With relish, we comply.
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