A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
May 25, 2007
For years and years I’ve basically dismissed John Hammond Jr. as a well-meaning but inconsequential blues interpreter. Granted, Hammond, who is playing at the Santa Fe Brewing Company on Friday, May 25, has been at it for 45 years now.
The son of the hallowed producer who discovered Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen, Hammond the younger released his first album in 1962, the same year Bob Dylan’s first album was released. This was an era in which Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, and Son House were doing the coffeehouse circuit, and the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williamson ruled Chicago like tribal warlords.
My attitude toward Hammond was always, “Why should I listen to this guy when I can listen to the originals?” Undoubtedly some latent reverse-discrimination attitude was at work here.
I’ve got to admit that attitude didn’t change until a few years back, when Hammond released Wicked Grin, a blues-upped collection of songs by Tom Waits. I guess you could ask, “Why should I listen to this guy when I can listen to Waits’ originals?”
But on that 2001 album, Hammond did everything artists are supposed to do with cover songs. He got to the kernel of each tune and added fresh perspective. There are several cuts on Wicked Grin — “Murder in the Red Barn” for instance — that I like as well as or better than the originals. The album made me re-evaluate my attitude toward Hammond.
But I don’t think it’s just my attitude that’s changed. I think Hammond has gotten better with age. Not only does his most recent work rock more than before, but his voice has aged exquisitely. Whether he’s going into a falsetto cry on Junior Well’s “Come Into This House” or doing a one-man call and response on the choruses of “Take a Fool’s Advice,” he sounds like a grizzled blues prophet.
While I’m not ready to say that Hammond’s latest album, Push Comes to Shove, is as good as Wicked Grin, the new record is one of the freshest-sounding blues efforts I’ve heard in months. It’s nice and raw, hard-edged in places but with a lighthearted feel throughout most of the tracks.
He’s assembled a cool little roadhouse band, with the most valuable player (besides Hammond himself) being Bruce Katz on keyboards. Most of the record features Hammond on electric guitar, which, as far as I’m concerned, is Hammond’s greatest strength despite all his years as an acoustic-blues troubadour. On this album, Hammond’s guitar is loud and raunchy but not flashy. It grates and howls.
Push is produced by Garrett Dutton, better known as the one who put the Love in G. Love & Special Sauce, a group known for its hip-hop-informed blues rock.
In the album’s liner notes, Hammond’s wife, Marla, says the producer met the artist at a 1992 Hammond show near Philadelphia. Dutton was too young to drink at the time, and he approached the first couple he saw who looked like they were old enough to buy him a beer. It turned out to be the Hammonds. (The notes don’t say whether the couple defied Pennsylvania liquor laws and illegally purchased alcohol for a minor.)
Hammond and Dutton next crossed paths in 2005 at a train station in Japan. And from that encounter this album grew.
Although Hammond’s never been known as a songwriter, most of my favorite tunes on Push are Hammond originals. This includes the title song, which kicks off the album with some nasty, distorted guitar licks; “You Know That’s Cold,” which rocks hard with Hammond on National steel guitar and harmonica; and “Take a Fool’s Advice,” which sounds as if he’s communing with the restless ghost of Willie Dixon.
For all us Wicked Grin fans, there’s a Waits song here called “Cold Water.” It’s a gospel-flavored tune, a natural singalong number that reminds me of The Band at the group’s best. Katz even sounds like Garth Hudson on organ and accordion. The good-time feel of the song is belied by some of the verses that describe a grim world:
“Seen them fellows with the cardboard signs/Scrapin’ up a little money to buy a bottle of wine/Pregnant women and Vietnam vets/Beggin’ on the freeway, ’bout as hard as it gets.”
Modern blues just doesn’t get much better than this.
Hammond plays at 7 p.m. Friday; Santa Fe Brewing Company is at 27 Fire Place off N.M. 14, south of Santa Fe. The cover is $19 in advance and $25 at the door; call 424-3333 for information.
Hammond also plays the Outpost Performance Space (210 Yale Blvd. S.E. in Albuquerque, 505-268-0044) at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 26. Tickets are $25 or $20 for Outpost members. And he’s at the Silver City Blues Festival at Gough Park (corner of Pope and 12th streets) at 6 p.m. Sunday, May 27. If you want to drive down to Silver City, the festival is free.
*King Hokum by C.W. Stoneking. Speaking of acoustic-blues troubadours, here’s a record by an American-born singer who moved to the outback of Australia as a child and got his start busking on the streets of Melbourne.
Performing all original material, Stoneking goes right for the swampy, spooky soul of the blues on songs like “Don’t Go Dancin’ Down the Darktown Strutters Ball,” which opens with a clanging bell, a barking dog, and ominous footsteps. Stoneking plays a banjo that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Waits tune like “Murder in the Red Barn.” By the end of the first chorus he’s joined by his band, The Primitive Horn Orchestra, which could only be described as Dixieland Goth. (They sound a lot like Stoneking’s Voodoo Rhythm label mates The Dead Brothers.)
But as the title reveals, most of the album is dedicated to hokum — funny, suggestive blues that springs from vaudeville and even minstrelsy. I hear echoes of 1920s and ’30s acts like Barbecue Bob & Laughin’ Charlie and Butterbeans & Susie (especially on the comic dialogue of “You Took My Thing and Put It in Your Place”). And “DoDo Blues” sounds a lot like an old Emmett Miller blackface routine.
It’s politically incorrect on several levels, but it’s loads of devilish fun.