I first saw folk singer Anne Hills perform at Musikfest in Bethlehem PA back around 1990. I had spent a few summers wandering through days of music at Musikfest, and I fell headfirst for some great sounds there. I first saw Roy Book Binder there, and as soon as I got back to my room I started playing his “Black Dog Blues” on my guitar as best as I could recall it by ear. I saw Bill Miller there strumming and banging his guitar, breaking strings, filled with powerful feelings. Scott Ainsley too, and some bluegrass bands that blew me away.
So Anne Hills was one of those first folk musicians that I saw perform live. Moving to the “big” city of Allentown meant I actually got to see real live folkies. Hills was mellow and sweet sounding to me, which I liked a lot. I saw David Roth and I think Elaine Silver back then too, all with that mellow cool folky sound that I associate with the 1980s. I recall hearing that soft stuff a lot on the radio back then. I was more taken with the bluesy and energetic stuff, but the mellow folk music was good too.
Almost twenty years later, I saw Hills again last night at a show in Herndon VA. She had a lot of that same mellow folk sound, with alternating-thumb guitar picking and somewhat breathy, easy vocals. Her songs use a lot of geography and spatial settings to draw out emotions. The best-known example is “Follow That Road.” I really liked hearing “Silken Dreams,” about workers in Allentown and the Lehigh Valley. Singing about factory workers losing something as the economy changes, it just works for me.
Hills had quite a variety of songs last night, maybe more than I remember from 1990. She did some great ghost-song poems set to banjo, with very quirky crooked forms. Very cool. She sang a couple novelty-type numbers with a friend on concertina. She also sang some new songs that had very interesting harmonies and chords on the guitar. Some were standard tuning, some were DADGAD, and she still had the alternating thumb bass, but there was definitely some sweet harmonies in the guitar that went beyond thre major chords and a minor in the bridge.
I didn’t get to talk to Hills. There seemed to be a lot of old friends there, and there seemed to be folks hanging around her during the whole intermission, so I didn’t feel like pushing through. I did enjoy the music, and she gave me a sentimental feeling by singing and talking about Pennsylvania. I hope to hear her again sometime soon.