With barely enough room to unwrap a sandwich, fans of all ages shuffled through the restaurant and headed towards a compact stage where Nikki Hill, nicknamed the "Southern Fireball," kept the coals hot. It was a good day to know the twist.
Standing at Hill's side for two high-energy sets was her husband and fellow co-owner of Deep Fryed Records, Matt Hill, who played hotrod riffs on a pair of beaten-up electric guitars. Rounding out the grooves were local rhythmists Joe Meyer and Sal Ruelas on drums and bass.
A recent St. Louis transplant, Nikki Hill moved from her home state of North Carolina in 2011. There, her musical upbringing had its beginnings in a church choir, and she would later develop her distinctly sharp vocal style, one that recalls the soul of R&B singers such as Etta James and is spiked with the gritty energy of rockers including Little Richard.
"As you can see, Little Richard is a big inspiration to me," the tattoo sleeved, headscarf-wearing singer told the audience before launching into a lively version of "Slippin' and Slidin'." Richards' "The Girl Can't Help It" had already been played earlier, and "Rip It Up" was still to come -- along with several other explosive covers including Otis Redding's "Shout Bamalama." The group also performed originals including those from Hill's self-titled EP, which features the tracks "I Got A Man" and "Strapped to the Beat."
Compared to a much more relaxed, seated set at Venice Cafe earlier in the month, Matt and Nikki Hill turned up the heat for the Blues City audience on Thursday and seemed to have fun doing it. Between songs, Matt turned to his reflection in the window and began to comb his greaser hair; Nikki gave a wink to the audience. "You see what I have to deal with?" She later grabbed his bottle of Abita Purple Haze and took a sip. "What's mine is mine, and what's his is mine," she said with a smile.
The crowd was hanging on Ms. Hill's every word and included members who had already had her on their radars following one of the singer's past performances at the Deli's weekly music event, the Thursday Night House Party. "I see a lot of familiar faces out there," Hill said in between songs. "This is my Blues City crew."
Hill later said that her group would be doing a lot of touring during the coming year, and stressed the importance of St. Louis' music scene, and of Blues City Deli as a venue.
"Soon there will come a time when you won't be able to squeeze in here," she said. Audience members' heads swiveled to register the wall-to-wall human traffic. That time is now.