To say that Heather Gillis has had a remarkable past twelve months would be an enormous understatement. This young lady, approaching the advanced age of 22, is about to finish her degree at FSU early while touring with Butch Trucks and the Freight Train Band and with her own band. We first became aware of her (and were simultaneously bowled over) when she appeared with Col. Bruce Hampton (Ret.) on two separate days at Magnolia Fest 2015 at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park.
Since then, she has impressed every time out, especially at Florida’s music showcase, Orange Blossom Jamboree, with her own band and in a titanic guest slot with Come Back Alice, themselves on a spectacular musical trajectory.
Friday, September 16, was the first of two nights in the Tampa Bay area — this night at Ka’Tiki on Treasure Island. Her original quartet drummer, Marlon Williams, had just recently returned to the band, and regular bass player Kyle Chervanik could not make this date. Only tenor saxophone man Nyan Feder was there in familiar support. There was a “fill-in” bass player. In addition, the quartet was augmented by a keyboard player.
You might reasonably think, on paper, that this would have been a lot to overcome. Not only was this not the case, but it was an absolutely tremendous night of music. Part of that is due to the maturity of the young guitar player and her abilities as a band leader. Credit too belongs to Williams and Feder, both great professionals.
And equal credit goes to those “fill-in” guys, Harry Ong on bass and Tommy Shugart on organ and electric piano. These two comprise 40% of The Groove Orient, an excellent funky, jazzy rock band from Orlando who had returned not long ago from a very successful tour out to Colorado and back. As if that weren’t enough, the band was hitting the road the next morning to play a Widespread Panic after-party… in Asheville!
Only a couple days before the Friday gig, Gillis had sent them a list of potential songs they might play for the evening. Talk about cramming for an exam! But these young men are professionals.
If you had never seen The Heather Gillis band, you would have had NO idea this wasn’t her regular crew. It continues to be one of the greatest strengths of the jam community that musicians are constantly capable of stepping up in such circumstances and delivering top-quality performances.
This top-quality performance began with “Check It Out” and “Never Been to Spain.” The quintet did play some of Gillis’ original compositions, but obviously on short notice it was more practical to play some great cover songs. The “room” (OK, Ka’Tiki is an open-air hut with a thatched roof) lit up as Gillis launched into “Midnight Rider,” a tune she has played often with Butch.
Not only have her guitar skills gone through the (thatched) roof, but her vocal depth is amazing. She soared on “Blind, Crippled and Crazy,” which eventually worked its way into “I Know a Place.” Shugart had a great organ solo (love seeing that Leslie horn spinning around!), Williams had a quick spotlight, and Feder had a romp as well. Feder and Shugart also had features during “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”
The Ka’Tiki crowd gave a rousing response as Gillis and mates played “Can’t You See?” Shugart danced over his electric piano and Feder soloed again before Gillis and Williams suddenly drove the piece double-time, finally easing back down at the end. Set break.
It was a joy to meet Amy and Frank Gillis, Heather’s parents. They live in Brooksville and were delighted to be able to attend. As we discussed how remarkable the year has been, Amy shared this story (and I am paraphrasing as closely as I can):
“In high school, when she was 16 or so, she would sit up in her room on Fridays and Saturdays and practice [mom plays air guitar]. We looked at each other and said, ‘I think we might have a problem.’”
Trouble No More, I’d say!
Set two began with Gillis on a stool with her lap steel guitar, opening with “Gonna Be a Storm” from her first album Heather Gillis Band. She allowed this song to segue into “Shake Your Money Maker,” her vocal delivery completely convincing. After the Zutons’ “Valerie,” she soared on “Uptight,” and everybody got to step out, especially Ong on bass. He also provided the nasty into to “Tighten Up,” with Gillis’ best guitar solo of the night (to that point!).
And there was a young couple sitting with mom and dad who got out on the dance floor and putting on a dazzling display, adding just that much more to everyone’s enjoyment.
Gillis was concerned about a new tune they tried called “Fight to Win,” but it sure sounded great to Dan and me… and everybody. It was bluesy with another great guitar solo and a nice organ workout from Shugart. They closed set two with a very strong “I’m a Ram,” allowing it to tilt toward reggae before Feder knocked out another great solo.
20% more of The Groove Orient was digging the show in the form of Bucky Buckingham, the drummer whose great gifts I had only recently been appreciating. Gillis invited him to sit in, and he nailed “Chameleon;” in fact, the entire band did. Feder did his Bennie Maupin thing, and after a brief organ solo, Gillis topped her previous efforts with a long ripping solo. “Sunshine of Your Love” again turned everybody’s heads around, more crushing from Miss Gillis.
“Wild Thing” was fun, and then she abused her wah-wah pedal on one of her favorites, “Goin’ Down.” For something completely different, she pulled out “Last Dance for Mary Jane,” again very well received.
It was time to shut down the Ka’Tiki (except for the free tacos thing), and she chose the Hendrix monster “Fire” — and did it proper. It was hot and heavy, and then the music began to twist and turn and slide into “Mountain Jam,” another song Gillis knows intimately. Ong and Williams were jamming this one like crazy underneath Gillis’ magical guitar, with Shugart and Feder filling in all the spaces.
Are you sure this isn’t her regular band?
Actually, Gillis said she had it planned out where Ong and Shugart would be on the same side of the stage so she could cue them together, but when she arrived the stage had been configured with bass on her left and keyboards on her right. She cued Ong; Shugart never missed a beat.
That’s how professionals roll!
Look for the Gillis Band at Suwannee Hulaween, and she will be an artist at large at Hometeam New Year’s Rally. And she will be back on the Freight Train with Butch Trucks with shows TBA!
Also check The Groove Orient’s Facebook page — many, many shows coming up, including Hulaween.
[SET 1: Check It Out, Never Been to Spain, Midnight Rider, Blind Crippled and Crazy > I’ll Take You There, Have You Ever Seen the Rain?, Can’t You See; SET 2: Gonna Be a Storm > Shake Your Money Maker, Valerie, Uptight, Tighten Up, Fight to Win, I’m a Ram; SET 3: Chameleon, Sunshine of Your Love, Wild Thing, Goin’ Down, Last Dance with Mary Jane, Fire > Mountain Jam (via There is a Mountain)]