Saturday, January 30, 2010

Blues legend John Hammond

Here's a review I did of legendary blues performer John Hammond which appeared in the Colorado Springs Gazette's Soundboard web site:

John Hammond, Armstrong Hall, Colorado College, 1/29/2010

"Two degrees of separation." That thought crossed my mind shaking hands with John Hammond Friday night at Colorado College. Here's a man that is one of only 3 or 4 white blues players who is still touring and making albums who was there at the beginning of the 60's blues music revival. You may get to see him Sunday night on television if you watch the 2010 Grammy Awards - his latest (33rd) album "Rough & Tough" (Chesky Records/Jan 2009) is nominated for "Best Traditional Blues Album".
Hammond has been nominated 6 other times for Grammy's and won a Grammy in 1985. By the way, Hammond has also won 3 Blues Music Association awards, twice for "Best Acoustic Blues Artist", once for "Best Acoustic Album". He's known and played with many blues greats including names you might have heard of: Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and John Lee Hooker. He's also played with Duane Allman, Mike Bloomfield, JJ Cale, Tom Waits, The Band, Dr. John and is the only person in the world that can say this mind-blowing factoid: he had Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix in a band together on stage at the Gaslight Cafe in New York City.

It's hard not to talk about the past when talking about John Hammond. His style is very traditional in the country or delta blues vein - characterized by the use of acoustic slide guitar or dobro and harmonica. And while he may channel blues legends like Robert Johnson and Son House, Hammonds gritty down and dirty vocals while demonstrating a total mastery of his instrument brings his own flavor to traditional and original work.

Warming up the crowd at Armstrong hall was singer Fairlight Moriah accompanied by keyboardist Ken Jantzen. Fairlight's blend of bluesy spiritual tonal work was uplifting and at times moving, such as in the piece "Make It Up To You" about watching kids growing.

John Hammond opened his solo 90 minute set with "I'm Just A Fool", a mid tempo 12-bar blues shuffle with crazy riffs and licks alternating vocals and harmonica with ad-libbed harmonics on the guitar. He followed this up with his song "Heartache Blues" done in a slower traditional style throwing in his own lead riffs during the versus and blowing the harp with what I swear sounded like multiple single lead notes over consonant drone base notes on the harmonica - it was amazing work.

A Lightnin' Slim number, "The Mean Old Lonesome Train", "That’s Alright" by Jimmy Rogers, some Howlin' Wolf, and some Robert Johnson all followed demonstrating Hammonds mastery and encyclopedic repertoire. "You Know That’s Cold" by Hammond and "Love Changin' Blues" by Blind Willie McTell (featuring some truly amazing slide work by Hammond) came next. A Hammond original "Come To Find Out", another mid-tempo delta blues styled offering with a walking bass underpinning accented by staccato strum attacks and harmonica fills had Hammond also singing in a reflective vocal style unlike some of his other work.

Numbers by Sleepy John Estes, Little Walter, and Hambone Willie followed. Between many of the songs, Hammond gave a little history or background on where he was when first learned the song (in many but certainly not all cases from the original authors). He told an extensive and humorous story about meeting and playing harp with Big Joe Williams in Chicago (who he was introduced to by friend Michael Bloomfield and who - according to Hammond - knew everybody that was anybody in Chicago Blues) before wailing into a very raucous Big Joe Williams number featuring heavy slide work with high pitched accents. Songs by Tampa Ray, Dion DiMucci (of Dion and the Belmonts fame, a huge blues fan believe it or not) and a "Buddy Guy" recording that was written by Robert Geddins and a Tom Waits song followed. Another Hammond original followed which had its story-line basis from when Hammond got his first paying gig by pumping gas for Hoyt Axton who let Hammond play his Martin guitar after noticing Hammond staring at it sitting case-less in the passenger seat! (You can't make this stuff up!).

Hammond finished the night with Son House's "Preachin' Blues" and left the stage to the audience standing and applauding for 5 minutes. An amazing performance by one of what may be the last great troubadours in American blues history.

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