BEST BETS: ‘Many Happy Returns’ for Rehoboth rocker Cliff Hillis

With a new EP and some local summer stops, Cliff Hillis is returning to his roots.

Mr. Hillis, the power pop troubadour who grew up in Rehoboth Beach, will join Dover native and Smyrna resident

Cliff Hillis will join fellow singer-songwriters Sol Knopf, Ed Shockley and Keith Mack Sunday night at the Milton Theatre. (Submitted photo)

Sol Knopf, and Sussex County musicians Ed Shockley and Keith Mack for a “Songwriters and Storytellers” show Sunday night at the Milton Theatre.

Mr. Hillis, who was born in Wilmington, moved to Rehoboth when he was 8 years old and graduated from Cape Henlopen High School. He relocated with his wife Beth Lennon to Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, a little more than a decade ago.

“I did a show at Steel City Coffeehouse and I’d never been to Phoenixville before. It has a neat little downtown and is full of all things vintage, which appealed to my wife,” he said.

“There’s the Colonial Theatre, which has been around for a while but it’s really well kept. It was just this great little downtown that reminded me of Rehoboth when I was a kid growing up. In the ’80s and ’90s, it became a sad, little steel mill town. But it came back strong and we got there before it really exploded.

“We found this wacky 1950s hacienda-type house, which suited my wife’s tastes, and we ended up buying it.”

Despite the move, he’s been back in Sussex quite a bit over the summer, playing at Dogfish Head in Rehoboth Beach with his band, The Forward Thinkers and his Beatles tribute trio The Threetles at the Rehoboth Beach Bandstand.

He’s also been playing cruise shows for the Cape Water Taxi this summer with other local musicians. His last one for the season is on Monday.

“That’s been really fun and I’ve been able to do some acoustic shows with my brother (Roger). It’s always fun getting back to the area,” he said.

Sunday’s show in Milton marks a return for the same musicians who performed there last year.

“Sol put us together and Keith and Ed are two of my favorite guys of all time. They were the guys who inspired me and I used to watch them at The Front Page in Rehoboth. Later, I was lucky enough to be in a band with them for a short while called Moving Day. I’ve always been a massive fan,” he said.

“They spent time in New York City when I was young so it was always a big deal when they came back.”

Mr. Hillis also has a history with Mr. Knopf, albeit a more recent one. He co-produced Mr. Knopf’s 2016 CD “Rehoboth Beach” at Mr. Hillis’ home studio, La Hacienda.

“Sol and I traveled in slightly different circles but I’ve always been a big fan of his songs. We had great fun working together,” Mr. Hillis said.

It’s a mutual admiration society when it comes to the two.

“Cliff is one of those rare dudes who possesses an amazing combination of musical proficiency, technical mastery and creative brilliance,” Mr. Knopf said.

“What really sets him apart, in my eyes, is this innate kindness that makes you feel good just to be in the same space as him.”

Along with being an accomplished singer/songwriter, guitarist and bassist, Mr. Hillis, a veteran of such groups as Philadelphia’s IKE, Baltimore’s Starbelly and Sussex County’s Love Seed Mama Jump, is a sought-after producer and session musician.

His latest EP “Many Happy Returns,” released in June, represents a move back to his pure pop sensibilities — especially the title track with its lush harmonies and catchy chorus.

“That song came about as a result of a weekly songwriter challenge I had been doing where you hand in one song a week for a year. They kicked you out at midnight at the end of the week if you didn’t hand one in. I made it through all 52 weeks and I realized that you don’t have to wait for inspiration to hit you,” he said.

“I wrote it and put it aside. I had been heading toward this serious singer-songwriter style. But I pulled it out again and it was this unabashed pop song that I really liked and just figured ‘what the heck’.”

Of his seven solo works dating back to 2001, it was the first that he recorded, mixed and mastered in his home studio. He said it was a collaboration with Greg Maragos of The Forward Thinkers, who received a co-producer credit on the record.

“He’s one of my favorite bass players and a really good keyboard player and he would record some different parts that would really send the songs in a different sonic direction,” Mr. Hillis said.

“I’m very happy with the way it turned out.”

Songs off of “Many Happy Returns” have been getting radio airplay on Philadelphia’s WXPN and Ocean City, Maryland’s WOCM.

Last month, Mr. Hillis played WXPN’s XPoNential Music Festival for the first time, which he said was a thrill. The influential public radio station has been a supporter of Mr. Hillis for some time.

“They started playing a song of mine ‘Dashboard’ off of ‘Song Machine’ two records back and they put it in their regular rotation. I was getting texts from friends about it literally every day,” he recalled.

“So for an indie guy like me who is plugging away, getting people coming out to gigs just because they heard my songs on the radio, it’s a cool thing to measure your success by.”

After producing four full-length albums, “Many Happy Returns” is Mr. Hillis’ third EP in a row. His last EP “Love Not
War” came out as recently as March of 2016.

“I’ve fallen into this idea that EPs seem right to me,” he said.

“As a listener, I get bored if a record has too many songs on it. In these days of short attention spans, I think it’s best to just record your best five or six songs and get them out there and keep people’s attention.

“It’s my goal to keep doing that as long as I feel good about the songs.”

It’s those songs that he’ll be singing in Milton Sunday night. He said he likes the format of a show like this, where singer/songwriters take turns telling what inspired one of their songs and then they sing it.

“I’ve done more and more of these and they really are great. We all know each other in the case of this one so it’s fun to hear stories that you didn’t know about a song that you’ve heard before,” he said.

“You plan on singing certain songs but then you hear someone mention something else and you think ‘I should really play that one instead.’ It’s always really cool how it evolves.”

Tickets for the 7:30 p.m. show are going fast. VIP is sold out but general admission seats are still available at $15 to $20.

They can be purchased by visiting MiltonTheatre.com, calling 302-684-3038, or at the venue itself at 110 Union St.

Americana singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams will perform Sunday night at the Bottle & Cork in Dewey Beach. (Submitted photo/David McClister)

Williams at Bottle and Cork

Also Sunday night in Sussex County, three-time Grammy award winner Lucinda Williams will perform at the Bottle & Cork in Dewey Beach at 9 p.m.

Ms. Williams is touring in support of her acclaimed album “The Ghosts of Highway 20.”

Pitchfork lauded the record as one that is, “among the best works of her career” and The New York Times highlighting her voice as “rougher and more compelling than ever.”

The album’s narratives revolve around the 1,500-mile Highway 20 (aka Interstate 20) that runs in part from Georgia to Texas. It features some of the most expansive and experimental arrangements Ms. Williams has ever recorded.

Revered guitarists Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz provide the backdrop to her writing and vocals on the new 14-song collection.

Tickets are $35 and can be purchased at bottleandcorkdewey.com or by calling 227-7272.

Poison candy murders tour

It was 119 years ago in August of 1898 when two women of Dover were murdered by a poisoned box of candy sent through the mail. These notorious murders were the first by U.S. Mail.

The trial of the poisoner, a California woman, was covered on the front page of newspapers all across America.

On Saturday at 2 p.m., you can get a chance to hear the story as told by Jan Crumpley during a walking tour.

The tour consists of walking to three places within The Green and also the nearby cemetery. The distance is about a quarter mile altogether. This tour is not affiliated with the First State Heritage Park.

The site of the Saulsbury Mansion with its 40 rooms was built circa 1792 by the Miller family and was the home of the Pennington family in the late 19th century. The story of the murders will be told there.

The tour will then continue to the Pennington plot in the Presbyterian cemetery on Governors Avenue to lay flowers and then to Parke Green Galleries/Delaware Store for refreshments.

Participants are asked to meet at Parke Green on the corner of South State and The Green (the old Golden Fleece site) at 331 S. State St. in Dover. Admission is free. For more information call the Delaware Store at 674-1787.

Neville in Dover

In case you missed it, it was announced this week that Aaron Neville, the famed R&B/gospel singer and musician, will perform a holiday show at Dover Downs Hotel & Casino on Friday, Dec. 8 at 9 p.m.

Tickets can be purchased by visiting doverdowns.com or calling VIP Services at (800) 711-5882. Prices range from $35 to $65.

Mr. Neville’s recording career began in the 1960s, and he first hit the charts with the single “Tell It Like It Is” in 1966, which reached No. 1 in the U.S. R&B listings. His other chart-topping singles came in 1989 with “Don’t Know Much,” a debut with Linda Ronstadt and “Everybody Plays The Fool” in 1991.

Now showing

New in theaters this weekend is the horror sequel “Annabelle: Creation,” the drama “The Glass Castle” and the animated “The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature 3D.”

On DVD and download starting Tuesday is “Alien: Covenant” and “How to Be a Latin Lover.”

Reach features editor Craig Horleman at chorl@newszap.com

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