Sunday, February 17, 2008

Billy Hector "Hard Drivin' Blues"

NIGHTBEAT – 050407 – Billy Hector’s Hard Drivin’ Blues

Ocean City SandPaper

I went looking for the future of rock & roll and found it never left Jersey.

Billy Hector is still here, he’s never left, but has yet to venture to the South Jersey Shore.

And he has it all – guitar licks, tight band, great songs and a new CD “Hard Drivin’ Blues,” being released today. The music is there, but there’s something missing – fame and fortune. He drives hard, but not far enough.

Here he is playing a piney roadhouse juke joint in the middle of No Where New Jersey, 20 miles in any direction from a red light, Wa Wa or gas station, plugging into the mahogany wall of the Hedger House, an ancient pit stop for weary travelers. The Hedger House is technically in Tabernacle, but is actually a few miles north of Chatsworth, the unofficial capitol of the Pine Barons (Post office, no light

The Hedger House location is literally hundreds of years old and you can find it on some of the oldest maps of New Jersey, right there in the middle of nowhere. So it attracts patrons like a light in the forest, especially bikers, Pinies and people who like good music.

It’s acoustic night, with Billy booked by himself, but Sim Cain, Tim Tindal and Winston Roye, his regular drummer and alternate bass players show up anyway and play along without the amps, just for the fun of it.

Sometimes they play with the whole power trio in the other, larger room, and Billy is booked to play outside every other Sunday afternoon all summer, but for this Friday night it’s up against the bar room’s wooden booths, the crowd pressed close together.

Usually Billy Hector plays what they call “down the shore,” but it’s really down the North Jersey Shore. Hector’s done time in Asbury Park, in the heyday, when he first made a name for himself playing guitar with the Shots, Hot Romance and the horn heavy Fairlanes. Stints in those bands earned a whole chapter to himself in Gary Wien’s book “Beyond the Palace,” a chronicle of the Asbury Park music scene. But now it’s different. He’s beginning to branch out beyond the Park, but hasn’t yet made it to the South Jersey Shore.

You know Bruce, Southside Johnny and Little Steve, but if you’re not from North Jersey you haven’t heard of Billy Hector even though he’s won three Asbury Park Music Awards for best guitarist, best blues band and a living legend award. He recently played with Sumlin in Asbury Park and backed Bonnie Rait at the Muddy Waters tribute at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But it’s still Billy Who?

After playing with the Stone Pony’s post-Jukes house band, the Shots, Hector continued playing with Susan Lastovica, and put together a separate power trio that’s come together so tight that you’re not surprised to learn they’ve been playing together for years.

Not your typical new, flashy kid with a guitar, Hector is a veteran journeyman who’s been on the road a long time, though that road has been pretty much limited to North Jersey and New York.

Playing primarily blues, some key originals and classic songs he bends with a Hector twinge, he’s accumulated a vast repertoire and a small but growing clan who follow him from club to club. He plays with with an acoustic gig with Susan Lastovica at the Ragin Cajun every Wednesday in Belmar every Thursday with the trio at Magees (Rt. 88) in Point Pleasant, and a small circuit of clubs like Harpers in Clementon, the Stanhope House, Daddz, Dempsters and Clarkes in Mt. Holly and the Hedger House.

Once a month (May 12) he plays the Bitter End in New York City where he entertains the visiting tourists and is gathering another small cadre of serious city fans.

Having traveled to most of those places to see Hector perform, I’ve come to know some of his most regular crowd – led by Roger Beckwith, a former radio DJ whose Roadhouse web site has been listing live band gigs for the past decade.

I first heard of Billy Hector from one of his fans who claimed Hector is “the best guitarist playing today anywhere,” a statement I challenged at the time, but now have reluctantly come to agree with.

You know how restaurant critics eat at a place three times before rating it? Well, after witnessing Hector performs more than a dozen times at many different venues, I’ve never been disappointed and in fact, he continues to amaze me. He seems to be taking his talent to another level each time I catch his act. Billy Hector is the real deal. Of course he couldn’t just be getting better now, or was always so good, but nobody noticed, so he must be just coming into own.

Hector plays with a decided blues bent, having shared the stage with Bruce, B.B. King, Billy Preston, Bo Diddley, Johnny Winter, Buddy Guy, Dr. John and most recently at Asbury Park with Hubert Sumlin, Howlin’ Wolf’s guitarist. But he gives everything he plays some kind of a unique Hector twist that even makes classic songs (“I Fought the Law,” “Stray Cat Blues) a little bit different.

“The future will not be blues as we know it,” Hector says, “after all, there’s only one Wolf…,” but it seems Billy has a roadmap in his head that will take the blues to another level, and maybe come out with a new Jersey Blues vein.

One Friday night I had the opportunity to see New Orleans piano giant Dr. John, but instead of standing in line to pay $50 for tickets and go through the cattle call arena routine, I caught Billy Hector at a little Piney bar and had a better time. Billy Hector is the Dr. John of guitar, complete with hat, bandanna and style.

Billy has a pug face out of an Our Gang Bowry Boys neighborhood, and a quirky smile that gives you the impression he knows something special, and maybe he does. He’ll play an obscure Dylan – “It’s alright Ma,” with a slide guitar and slow sleepwalking solo. Then he’ll do a totally unique original “Last Night I Got Loaded,” which is to the blues what ska is to reggae - offbeat, upbeat and danceable.

I’ve never fawned over any musician before, but it’s been a long time since I heard such jaw dropping, mesmerizing riffs that take you to some interesting places on such a roller coaster ride that when it’s over, makes you want to get back on again. And nobody’s talking, the whole room is listening and appreciates the fact they are experiencing something special.

So if this guy is so great, why haven’t we heard of him?

Well, the only answer I can come up with is that Billy Hector is part of the North Jersey Scene, and hasn’t yet crossed the South Jersey barrier, which also separates the fans of Eagles and Giants, Flyers and Devils and Sixers and Nets. It’s an unofficial Mason-Dixon line that runs south of Trenton to Atlantic City that is strictly adhered to, even by the Philly and New York mobs.

Like Springsteen, who has never played South Jersey Shore below Atlantic City, Billy Hector and other Asbury Park bands play Spring Lake, Belmar and Point Pleasant, but never consider playing such garage band bar south shore towns like Somers Point, Sea Isle City, Wildwood and Cape May, which might as well be in another universe. We’re outside their territory, which encompasses everywhere in New Jersey north of Atlantic City.

North Jersey bands stay north of AC and South Jersey bands play the South Jersey Shore scene, and that has made all the difference.

Maybe we can have a battle of the bands, featuring a shoot-out of the hottest guitarists, North Jersey vs. South Jersey bands, and Billy Hector and Little Steve verses Lew London and Danny Eyre, and see who comes out on top.

I have a feeling however, that those guitar gunslingers who check out Billy Hector’s chops won’t even show up to duel, though there’s still time for a South Jersey Shore club owner to be the first to book Billy Hector South of Atlantic City.


To check him out in person, Billy Hector will be playing this Sunday afternoon at the historic Hedger House (Rt. #563, Chatsworth Road) in the Pines, and every other Sunday there all summer. He will also headline the Jersey Shore Jazz & Blues Festival [] at Red Bank on June 1.

Though he hasn’t driven far south enough yet, Billy Hector’s new CD “Hard Drivin’ Blues” is now available [See:], with the release party held (Friday, May 4) at PK’s Shamrock in Belmar.

[Bill Kelly can be reached at ]


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