Alt-rock singer Sawyer Hill has a new band, new songs and 70,000 followers on TikTok. Headlining a near-capacity concert at the Meteor Guitar Gallery in Bentonville on December 8, he played to a hometown crowd with fan enthusiasm approaching mass contagion. The next appearance will be on February 2 at George’s Majestic Lounge in Fayetteville.

At age 24, Sawyer Hill has been a working musician for 10 years. A high-school rocker from Northwest Arkansas with a gap-toothed grin has transformed into a charismatic entertainer who connects with audiences to electrifying effect.

He sings in a smoky baritone, his slender frame draped in a loose suit, kicking up his Doc Martens and swinging his guitar while his near waist-length chestnut hair flies in disarray.

The Meteor’s main room was packed shoulder to shoulder. Most of the tables were reserved for VIPs. Sawyer Hill’s merch concession was sold out before the music started. During the show, fans begged for souvenir picks and drumsticks. Even a broken guitar string that Hill dropped was grabbed like a fouled baseball.

The band’s dozen-song set set featured Hill’s original numbers like Never Once and Firestarters, ranging from heavy rock to ballad. The anthemic Look at the Time is a singalong fan favorite. The band played one cover, Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues.

Hill’s new band is talented and spirited. Drummer Leandro Walter and bassist Joshua Larson form a tight, punchy rhythm section and sing harmony vocals. Walter is an accomplished Argentinian percussionist and music educator with his own fans.

Lead guitarist Blake Doyle brings prog accents to band’s sound with his Zep-inspired arpeggios and pedal effects. The band cites many influences including classic rock, blues, invasion, grunge and pop, but their style can be hard to pin down. With Hill’s distinctive singing, the sound is original enough to set it apart.

Vocalist Hill performed with an easy showmanship honed at hundreds of earlier performances. He absorbed the energy of fans and reflected it back at them.

Opening act Mildenhall played a funky jazz-rock set with brass that energized the ready crowd.

Hill cites Johnny Cash as one of his early influences. His own singing more resembles deep-voiced rock vocalists like Nick Cave, Darius Rucker or Eddie Vedder. It’s a road-worn sound both vulnerable and masculine, laced with yearning. A singer-songwriter at his core, he performs breakup songs that are more wistful than bitter.

In an interview before the show, Sawyer Hill (said to be his real name) recalled growing up in Fayetteville. His brothers and others ridiculed his singing, nearly convincing him that he had no talent. Nonetheless, some guys who were several years older recruited the 15-year-old to join their band.

Before long, that band, Drawing Blanks, was touring from Kansas to Texas and around the south. In addition to Hill, the lineup featured another vocalist and songwriter. ​We were working hard, but it was like banging your head against the wall,” said Hill. Even so, the outfit survived for nearly a decade before succumbing to the malady of having two frontmen.

I experienced every stereotype about touring before I was 18 – the car breaking down, not getting paid, a band member going crazy,” Hill said. He recalled a 100-degree day when the musicians didn’t have enough gas money for their vehicle’s air conditioning so they could get some sleep. They ended up napping on chairs in the furniture section of a Walmart.

Hill said he’s surprised by the success on TikTok, though he and friends worked hard on regular posts. His songs are popular on streaming services and YouTube. He and the new band performed at a sold-out double bill in October at George’s Majestic Lounge in Fayetteville, boosting local support. They’re working on new music for release in 2024.

In conversation, Hill comes across as affable and unassuming. He’s poised and concise in the way he answers interview questions. Maybe it’s an act, but he has an earnest likeability that several fans said helps spread his popularity locally where he’s well known.

As the crowd thinned after the concert, some of the younger Sawyer Hill fans continued milling around the room with dazed smiles – as though half-lidded eyes could see their local star rising higher tomorrow.

Sawyer Hill will perform on Feb. 2 at George’s Majestic Lounge in Fayetteville.

This article appeared originally in the New Haven Independent. Photo by Mickey Mercier