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The Anti-Clapton

Rocky Hill hopes to find a smooth patch on his rocky road

The last thing I want is another story where it's 'Rocky's checked out of secret Cirrhosis-By-The-Sea and he's doing well,' " says a gruff, deeply Texan voice over the phone. It's Rocky Hill, perhaps the wildest and scariest -- both on stage and off -- of all the white-boy Texas blues guitarists.

In a career that has seen more fits and starts than a stick-shift car driven by a 15-year-old, Hill is hoping to finally get into gear at the age of 46. His show at the Continental Club on July 18, backed by drummer Eric Reininger and bassist Rock Romano, is his fifth since he launched his comeback this spring.

"You want me to say something controversial?" Hill asks in a brief lull in the conversation. No, Rocky, you don't really have to, not when you've written songs like "Sweet Blood Call," on which you roar, Gonna be hard to miss you, baby, with my pistol in your mouth / You might think you're heading north, but your brains are heading south.

Typically for the star-crossed Hill, "Sweet Blood Call" took nine years to go from the studio to the record rack. It finally came out in 1994 on Midnight Creepers, which, with Texas Shuffle on Tomato and an overproduced, self-titled 1988 disc on Virgin, completes the triumvirate of Hill's releases. None of the discs comes close to capturing Hill's mid-'70s and early-'80s ferocity; none of them gives his metal-melting tone and whistling, artillery-shell harmonics the necessary room to roam.

Today the younger set knows of him only as Dusty Hill's big brother, but older heads still talk about Hill in awed tones. As well they should -- only Albert King could make a blues guitar shriek the way Rocky could.

Hill confesses he's more than a little paranoid in the post-9/11 world. In contrast to the Hill of "Sweet Blood Call," who also urged listeners to "Kiss My Ass," the 21st-century Rocky is not so blunt. Yet in keeping with his wild guitar style, Hill is not one to let a tangent pass by without launching in on it. "Everybody thinks they're in the army these days," he says. "People are afraid to have regular expression. I don't get it. I speak musician. If I say to you, 'I need a hit, man,' you know what I mean -- I'm a musician. Anybody else would think I was trying to hire an assassin. Right? And there's millions of those things linguistically. I have to say to people, 'Do you speak musician?' "

Even through the long years of sporadic activity, Hill always spoke musician. For a long time he did pretty good musician, too. He was born to it. Rocky's mother, Myrl, was a blues singer in Dallas. "She sang 'St. Louis Blues' and those kinda ditties," he says. "Mostly just a club singer, but we were exposed pretty early to that sound."

In the mid-'60s the Hill brothers and Frank Beard started American Blues, an acid rock/blues outfit noteworthy in part because all the band members dyed their hair metallic blue. "There was a band back then called the Green Men with green hair, so we thought, 'Well, we play the blues. We'll dye our hair blue.' So we did, and immediately we got twice as much money a gig."

Innkeepers didn't like the band's proto-punk hairstyles, though. "We used to have to put deposits down to cover the sheets because the dye would rub off." Hill also remembers that the gimmick attracted unwanted attention from a different band of boys in blue. "I got pulled over by the cops one time and the cop said, 'I just wanted to see what you was,' " he recalls.

American Blues also served for a time as the backup group for Jimmy Reed and Freddie King, who took them to all the hippie pleasure palaces from Houston to San Francisco. Hill eventually learned then that his true inspiration was right before his eyes. "We wanted to be like Clapton, and then we read in the paper that Clapton wanted to be like Freddie King," he recalls. "We were like, 'You mean that guy we're backing up…' We didn't think he could be anything because he was from where we were from: Dallas. When you're that young, you can't imagine anything international comin' out of where you live."

Soon American Blues changed where they lived, moving to Houston in 1968. "Dallas was too trendy," he says. "All they wanted from a band was to be a jukebox. We wanted to play original music."

And once on Houston's scene, Rocky made the first of many career-damning choices. He left American Blues. Dusty and Frank recruited the Moving Sidewalks' Billy Gibbons as their new front man and renamed the band ZZ Top.

"I wanted to play the blues," Rocky says. "Dusty wanted to play rock and roll. I was like a kid, a student, hanging out over at Lightnin's house a lot. Mance Lipscomb and all that. Dusty was always more commercially oriented and professional, and I was a stupid hippie musicologist hanging around these old dyin' guys. But I learned a lot."

And what exactly was it that Hill absorbed from the blues masters? "I learned how to play craps and High Chicago."

Hill spent the '70s backing Lightnin' Hopkins on bass and finally played guitar at his wake. He also cut a couple of tunes with Townes Van Zandt and fronted his own band, often featuring a teenage Dallasite by the name of Stevie Ray Vaughan as his opening act. A recording session from that era -- the only one that captured Rocky at his best -- has yet to see release. And the albums he did release did little to further his career. So after the megaplatinum success of ZZ Top's Eliminator in 1983, Dusty started helping his big brother with the bills.

Rocky drank plenty of whiskey back then. But now he's screwed the cap on the bottle and re-entered the ring. "I'm just gonna try to play the goddamn thing," he says. "When I pick up a guitar, it's me against it. I still sound like Rocky Hill -- the anti-Clapton."

Scuttlebutt Caboose

The Boat Yard, Dennis Marshman's "musician's paradise" in Shepherd Plaza, was raided three weeks ago by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. Marshman didn't have a liquor license, so patrons were encouraged (by handwritten signs posted in the toilets) to donate the price of a drink. "They sent in two undercovers on me," Marshman says. "And one Friday night five of 'em came in and made me pour out every damn bottle in the house. I told them about my donation policy, but they didn't believe that was good enough." Marshman says the Boat Yard is now BYOB. "I'm just trying to hang on and reopen, 'cause I don't know how to do anything else with myself," he says. "We're hoping to get a benefit going so we can stay open."… Nashville's Starlings TN, which sounds something like what would happen if Spiritualized's Jason Pierce produced the Will the Circle Be Unbroken sessions, are coming back to the Continental Clubon July 17. If you missed them last time through, and that includes all but about four of you, make sure you make it out this time for an evening of intergalactic hillbilly sounds, led by the otherworldly drone of Tim Stubblefield's ambient bowed mountain dulcimer… Garage popsters Dune*TXrelease Goldenarm at a July 12 gig at Rudyard's. The trio takes the stage at 11 p.m…The free, weekly outdoor music series "Live At Chuy's" is moving from Thursday to Wednesday evenings for the rest of the summer. Former Houstonian Miss Lavelle White inaugurates the new night on July 10 at the Tex-Mex restaurant's Richmond Strip location; Shake Russell and Dana Cooper follow on July 17, ex-Groobee Susan Gibson on July 24, and Aztexon the last day of the month…Many an American act has crossed the ocean to win the fame denied them at home. Jimi Hendrix and the Strokes, to name but two, scuffled through years of fan indifference and press apathy before jetting off to London and instant celebrity. Houston's Raindance is the latest band to try this time-honored tack, with one significant difference: Instead of London, the band has chosen to jump-start its career in Uzbekistan, a central Asian republic near Afghanistan. There, in the capital city of Tashkent, the band gigs at embassies, private parties, international hotels and for organizations like the Association of Tennis Players. The self-described "Texas Gulf Coast Rock and Rollers" are also hoping to become "the first rock and roll band to play Afghanistan." Raindance is led by Wil Van Winkle, formerly of local bands Bad Influence and The Legend Thereof, and his group is one of only four Uzbekistan-based entrants on MP3.com. There's also Setora -- an all-female vocal group whose synth-pop hits "Qaytgin," "Uchkuduk" and "Yosh Tokma Osmon" have earned them the "Uzbek Spice Girls" sobriquet -- and a rock band called Manic Daemons, whose humble leader introduces them as postmodernistic artists. "Our lyrics are extremely deep -- seriously," he writes. "I know you won't like our music since the greatest art is the most hard to be understood." And with lyrics (in passable English) like "I want you, I want you to be here right now, I need you," you know exactly what he means. About not liking his music, that is…RIP, John Entwistle and Ray Brown. So far, it's been a bad summer for touring bass players.

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