Release date: Sept. 19, 2023
By Linda Cain (CBG Editor/Founder)
L to R: Sumito Ariyoshi, Stefan Hillesheim, Dionte Skinner, Darryl Wright/ photo: Shadae Wilson-Hillesheim.
If John Mayall decided to put his legendary Bluesbreakers Band back together and was in search of a hot young lead guitarist who could follow in the footsteps of Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, et al., he need look no further than Stefan Hillesheim.
That scenario with Mayall is unlikely since the 90-year-old blues legend has retired from the road. Nevertheless recent Chicago transplant Hillesheim is a masterful blues guitar slinger to keep an eye on for big things to come.
Originally from Koblen, Germany, Stefan moved to L.A. at age 28 to study at the Musician’s Institute. While there, he played gospel music in various churches around South-Central L.A., Inglewood and Compton. “I owe a lot of my stylistic influences to the gospel musicians I worked with during this time,” he recalls. A few years later, Stefan moved to San Diego where he played with mostly Motown, R&B, Funk and Latin dance bands. He also began writing original blues songs at the time, which led to the artist recording three all-original records in San Diego. Stefan promoted his music and mailed his discs to labels, promoters and radio stations around the country.
“I received a lot of great feedback from the Chicago area. In 2021, I first visited Chicago and instantly fell in love with the city. Just a few months later, I decided to pack up my things and relocate to Chicago,” he says.
“The Chicago blues scene has been very welcoming and inspiring to me. Shortly after I arrived in town, I met my fantastic rhythm section – Darryl Wright on bass and Dionte Skinner on drums – and we have made a name for ourselves as a full sounding three-piece.”
Stefan continues, “Rubbing shoulders and playing alongside seasoned artists like Jimmy Burns, Mary Lane, Demetria Taylor and Smiley Tillmon has helped me further develop my own style,” he notes.
Hillesheim’s exceptional guitar skills were on full display when he performed at Rosa’s Lounge for his When I’m Gone album release party on Dec. 17, 2023. The trio was joined by blues piano great Sumito “Ariyo” Ariyoshi, who is a longtime member of Billy Branch’s band, along with recent Branch bandmate drummer Dionte Skinner. Darryl Wright is a virtuoso, first-call bassist who co-leads the Wright Groove Band. All three of them contributed to Stefan’s excellent new album.
Stefan opened his 90-minute Rosa’s set with the album’s first cut, a rousing version of the Elmore James classic “Done Somebody Wrong.” The guitarist skillfully covers three other tunes by “one of my main influences, the King of the Slide Guitar Mr. Elmore James,” on his new release – including “Dust My Broom,” “The Sky Is Crying,” and “It Hurts Me Too.”
“When I’m Gone,” the album’s title track, is a traditional blues style with a compelling guitar riff, killer slide guitar, and rhythmic changes that keep the music moving. It was the second number of the night on Rosa’s stage and by now it became evident that Hillesheim plays the blues in a style that is very much his own. His guitar playing tastefully pays homage to the tradition -- he doesn’t shred or play too many fast notes -- while at the same time the guitarist “brings it” with his unique use of tone, tuning, technique and chops. He’s not a flashy player, but he knows how to make his Les Paul “speak”.
Hillesheim and the band are masters at dynamics, as he demonstrated on his original tune “Worries, Worries”; that night at Rosa’s, you could hear a pin drop in the room whenever he signaled the band to quiet down, so he could focus on softly bending or gently plucking his strings to create tender melodies or heart tugging notes. Like Derek Trucks, Hillesheim knows how to captivate the listener and convey a song’s emotions with his guitar.
“My Poor Heart,” both on record and live, is another example of Hillesheim and his ace band’s many talents. Hillesheim’s octave-scaling vocals express the emotional distress of the song’s protagonist, much like the pleading vocals of the late legend Jimmy Johnson. Like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Hillesheim can alternate scorching lead licks with rapid fire rhythm guitar to build the drama, and then in an instant, change the tempo and melody to a Latin style, and then back again to a smokin’ hot blues barn burner.
Hillesheim lightens the mood with a rhumba beat for the humorous “Always Get To Hear From You,” a song he dedicates to married men who are obliged to obey their wife’s commands, or else face a cold shower. Stefan enhances his stellar slide guitar playing with a taste of Hawaiian tone and some New Orleans flavor too.
Stefan can deliver a slow, sad confessional blues ballad that brings to mind Stevie Ray Vaughan, but not in a copycat way. “Better Man” begins with a quiet, contemplative solo that draws in the listener, while building the drama about a man who admits he was wrong and doesn’t deserve another chance, but yearns to try to be a “better man.” Stefan plays softly cascading notes that soon catch fire to express the song’s introspection, pleading and confusion.
“The Love I Had For You,” is another sad, slow burner packed with emotion about a lost love that displays Stefan’s abilities to use both vocal and guitar dynamics to express the song’s emotions and build drama.
Stefan takes us down South with his slippery Delta-style slide guitar for “On Down The Highway.” The rollin’ and tumblin’ tale concerns leaving the South for a better life in Chicago: “I can’t escape my shame/ Gonna let that cold wind take away my pain.” Once again, Hillesheim displays his versatility with mastering yet another blues style.
Even though he’s been in Chicago for less than two years, Stefan Hillesheim is already a rising star who is making a big impression and attracting attention on the blues scene, both here and in Europe. And for good reason; Hillesheim knows how to use his prodigious talents to uplift the classic blues format to sound fresh and exciting in his own unique style.
Be sure to download or pick up a copy of his immensely enjoyable When I’m Gone CD and you’ll become an instant fan. And next time he’s performing at a venue near you, don’t miss his live show. You’ll be in for a treat and you’ll likely be in good company. In attendance at Hillesheim’s record release show at Rosa’s were: Bruce Iglauer (president Alligator Records), new Delmark Records artist Sheryl Youngblood (who Stefan sweet-talked into performing “Wang Dang Doodle” with him and the band), Jimmy Burns, Nick Alexander, Toronzo Cannon, Giles Corey and more.
To buy or listen: