You can always spot the newcomers at the Crystal Chandelier.
Mid-sentence, they’ll stop talking—and stare—at the first note they hear coming out of Laura Kott’s mouth.
Usually, it’s during one of her standout solos; covering tunes like Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.
It's not uncommon to see jaws drop, and tears fall, at the powerhouse sound of her mesmerizing voice.
Learning to sing in opera, then switching to blues and rock, is an unusual—and challenging—leap. But Kott makes a masterful transition; all while playing bass guitar.
Occasionally, she dabbles in song writing, and counts Grady—featuring Big Sugar’s Gordie Johnson—among her main influences. She describes their music as “Dirty, like motor oil, and stale cigarettes;” and is inspired as well by “anything Willie Dixon.”
She’s earned an undergraduate degree from Brock University, and a Master’s degree from the University of Buffalo.
She and her husband, guitarist John Kott, make beautiful music together. He plays animatedly and skillfully, having launched his musical career by playing the French horn in high school.
“They needed a bass player and it turned to jazz bass and then blues guitar,” he explained, “because my dad liked greats like King Biscuit Boy, and everything with a slide.”
A former pop and contemporary performer for weddings and other gigs, he now gives guitar lessons when not performing in the Max Hillier Band.
Niagara Falls native and drummer Al Saracino modestly told ThoroldNews, “I’m pretty lucky to play with these guys because I started late. I’m 60 now,” added the talented musician. Formerly, he and his wife ran a deejay business in Niagara Falls and Fort Erie, and performed as the house band at a local winery.
Max Hillier is a harmonica afficianado, who began playing in 1990 and joined his first band in 1993. His skill level is such that for two years, he’s taught Introductory Blues Harmonica and Intermediate Blues Harmonica at Niagara College.
The musical mastermind has been at the helm of popular local bands for 19 years now, for 16 as the leader of Gatorbait, and the last three as the Max Hillier Band. Both bands have played Thorold's Canal Bank Shuffle, and rocked the bandshell for Blues in the Battlefield.
Hillier’s musical world collided with the Kotts when John bought an amplifier from him through Kijiji.
According to Kott, he told Hillier, “I love Big Sugar, so if you ever want to do a duet, let me know.”
And the rest is history.
While Hillier chooses most of the material, “Laura and John brought so much to the table,” he stated. “We have people who are so addicted to songs Laura does, especially our two Bob Dylan tunes, and Who Do You Love. We do have to anaesthetize her,” Hillier mused, “because she wants every night to be perfect. I’m pushing her to do more originals.”
“I look at us now as predominantly a blues band, and we can handle all kinds of music. We love local festivals and out-of-town gigs, but honestly, our favourite place to play is the Crystal Chandelier.”
“This is the first place I think I’ve seen where people are actually listening,” agreed Laura. “Al brings a lot to the table because he and his wife had a deejay business.”
All four band members agree they let the audience—to some extent—choose the music.
According to John, “It’s important to trigger people’s (musical) knowledge. The audience picks the songs.”
From Bo Didley to Big Sugar to Bessie Smith, the group’s eclectic play list of cover tunes spans decades and blurs genres, blending classic blues, rock and funk like Hound Dog and Low Rider with more contemporary offerings.
Surprisingly, Smith’s seldom heard—but much beloved—Send Me to the 'Lectric Chair—is one of their most requested songs.
“It’s become a cult favourite,” said Hillier.
While harmonizing in the musical sense, the easygoing camaraderie among band members is also apparent, and contagious. They have a good time; so does the audience.
The Max Hillier Band appears at the Crystal Chandelier from 6 to 9 p.m.every Sunday.
The eatery is located at 3878 Erie Road in Crystal Beach. Call 905-894-9996 for information.