Z.Z. Hill Jr. | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Z.Z. Hill Jr. isn't actually related to Z.Z. Hill, and though his parched upper-register scream is clearly meant to evoke the late soul-blues belter's gospel wail, he's no mere imitator either. In fact, he lacks the taste for artifice he'd need to re-create anyone else's musical persona. On his self-released debut CD, I'm a Soul Singer!, he maintains what seems like total emotional transparency through everything from moody after-hours laments to throat-ripping testimonials. Saloon songs usually reek of boozy self-pity, but on the minor-key "It Ain't Easy" Hill's clear, conversational baritone gives his persona a fragile vulnerability. And when he ascends into a house-wrecking holler on the Wilson Pickett remake "Green Grass," he sounds completely lost in the passion of the moment, oblivious to whether or not the tape is even rolling. Some of his performances, especially on disc, make you wish he paid a little more attention to working his audience: "Down Home Girl," a run-of-the-mill mid-tempo blues, could have used a bit of old-fashioned showmanship to liven it up, and his relentless screaming on the ballad "Try Love One More Time" pretty much obliterates the song's core sentiment. Onstage, though, this absence of entertainer's craft isn't as conspicuous, if only because he's so riveting to watch. You never quite know when a transformation will hit him or how long it'll last, but sometimes, after breezing through most of a set, he'll happen across a lyric or a groove that inspires him and wail through verse after verse, bent almost double and pouring with sweat. Then, as suddenly as it began, it's over, and he's crooning a mellow ballad or trading quips with his band. Saturday, 9:30 PM, Lilly's, 2513 N. Lincoln; 773-525-2422. Hill also plays every Sunday from 6 to 11 PM at the JB Lounge, 5959 W. Chicago; 773-261-8228. DAVID WHITEIS

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.

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