Devon Gilfillian’s star just keeps on rising. Since he signed with Capitol Records two years ago, the Music City up-and-comer has performed mile-high concerts with Southwest Airlines, graced Austin with appearances at South By Southwest and Austin City Limits, celebrated the 90th birthday of Disney’s most famous mouse, and opened for artists ranging from '60s icons like Mavis Staples and Gladys Knight to modern chart-toppers including Keith Urban and The Fray.
“It has been crazy,” Gilfillian tells Houstonia ahead of his Friday gig opening for Grace Potter at House of Blues and his Saturday morning set at Cactus Music. “It feels like it just started, you know? Like it was yesterday.”
While Houstonians might be hearing Gilfillian’s name for the first time, the genre-bending bluesman is no stranger to music. The son of a wedding singer, Gilfillian grew up just outside of Philly listening to everything from rhythm and blues to Motown soul to Afrobeat. But it was the legendary Jimi Hendrix who pointed the young musician toward Neptune’s valleys.
“Jimi, to me, was such a chameleon,” says Gilfillian. “He wasn’t scared to throw everything together and then light it on fire —literally—and see what happens. That was the biggest thing: not being scared to push forward and blow people's minds with different colors of sound.”
The influence of Hendrix’s musical fluidity is evident in the sonic landscape of Black Hole Rainbow, Gilfillian’s debut record, which dropped last month amid praise from Rolling Stone, NPR, and The New York Times. The new album marks a departure from the swampy, straight-ahead blues-rock showcased on his earlier EP. Recorded with Grammy-winning producer Sean Everett (Kacey Musgraves, The War On Drugs, Alabama Shakes), Black Hole Rainbow masterfully blends Gilfillian’s rich, soulful vocals with mind-melding psychedelics, classic vinyl flair, and hip-hop beats.
"I hate being put into a box; I want to rip the box open," Gilfillian says when asked of the change in his sound. “As an artist, I feel like you're always learning how to take in the whole picture of what is going on in your head. I feel like I just got better at voicing the whole picture that I was seeing."
Even with Gilfillian’s musical evolution, the blues that grounded his older work still simmers below the surface of Black Hole Rainbow. The musician says he felt its rumblings so strongly that he incorporated the genre’s essence into the record’s theme as well as the juxtaposing images that appear in its title.
“The blues, to me, is a way of getting through depression,” says Gilfillian. “That’s what Muddy and Elmore James and all those cats back in the day were doing, and that’s what Kendrick Lamar is doing—he's rapping about the struggles that are really happening now and how to get through it. That, to me, is what the blues really is. Musically it's evolved, but the blues to me represent fighting the darkness that’s inside.”
Whether or not he’s captured the full spectrum of this emotional journey or not, Gilfillian says he hopes Black Hole Rainbow blasts listeners straight into zero gravity.
“I want it to feel like there's an earthiness and organic musicianship there, but also like an alien is in the room,” he says with a laugh before adding, “I don’t want my music to sound like anything else. I definitely don’t want to be limited to any genre.”
If Gilfillian keeps to his current trajectory, he won’t be limited by any stratosphere either.
Feb 14 at 8 p.m. Tickets from $29.50. House of Blues Houston, 1204 Caroline St. 888-402-5837. More info and tickets at houseofblues.com.
Gilfillian also performs at Cactus Music, 2110 Portsmouth St., on Feb 15 at 11 a.m. More info at cactusmusictx.com.