november 2008

John Hammond's Real Blues In T-Town

Photo by Michael W. Lurie

John Hammond
The Blank Slate
Tulsa, OK
October 9, 2008

To the small but devoted audience that convened at The Blank Slate in Tulsa, OK, on the night of October 8, it must not have seemed possible that the artist they came to see, John Hammond, is now 65 years old and, as Hammond himself put it, "collecting Social Insurance." Dressed nattily in blue slacks and a peach colored long sleeved shirt, his neatly coifed, swept back hair now almost totally gray, Hammond did not necessarily look all of 65 years old, but he carried himself with the dignified bearing of someone who might be the great-great-grandson of William Henry Vanderbilt, which he is, or, indeed, the son of the music industry's legendary talent scout after whom he is named. When the music started, he was something else again-he's lost none of the electrifying intensity that's marked his work since he made his recording debut in 1962 but he's a long way from being the reverent emulator of various blues vocal styles he had learned his way around even before he taught himself to play guitar while a student at Antioch College. A long, long time ago Hammond quit emulating and started feeling his music, and for the better part of his career he's been one of the most moving interpreters of the ancient tones of the blues, a singer whose fierce expressiveness and guttural moans strike at a listener's primal emotions.

All of these attributes were on ample display during Hammond's riveting near-90-minute set at The Blank Slate. There are no dull moments when Hammond is on stage. Between songs he tells stories from a colorful life as a troubadour that has found him at ground zero of the careers of Bob Dylan (to whom he recommended some backing musicians named Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson, who had played with Hammond-along with Charlie Musselwhite and Mike Bloomfield—on Hammond's powerhouse 1965 album, So Many Roads, and came back on 1967's Mirrors-"we were all equal then," Hammond said at the Blank Slate. "No money."), Bonnie Raitt, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton (both of whom were in Hammond's band for five days before they followed their muse elsewhere), and on and on. He pokes good natured fun at himself, saying no one believes he actually played on a bill with Jimmy Reed, but when Martin Scorsese produced a concert at Radio City Music Hall to help promote his executive-produced PBS series, The Blues, John Fogerty caught up with Hammond backstage and said, "Man, I remember seeing you in Oakland in 1963 with Jimmy Reed!" Hammond acts startled and laughs. "I wish I could have got that on tape," he quipped.

But the music's the thing, and on that count Hammond was at the top of his game in Tulsa. If his between-songs patter amounted to a travelogue through his life in the business, his repertoire amounted to a Baedeker of his journey on record. From his Vanguard years he offered an eerie, supernatural treatment of Robert Johnson's "Come On In My Kitchen" and from 1968's Sooner Or Later album he pulled a thundering version of "Nine Below Zero." He offered a brief, heartfelt tribute to one of his earliest influences, the underappreciated southern bluesman Lightnin' Slim ("all of his songs were outrageous," Hammond said, sounding every bit as thunderstruck by Slim's material now as he must have been in his formative years), and then tore into "You're Old Enough to Understand." Focusing on his more recent work he delivered a blistering treatment of "I'm Tore Down" (from 2007's G Love-produced Push Comes to Shove), and a wrenching, howling take on "Fool For You" (from 2005's In Your Arms Again). Playing acoustic guitar and a 1935 vintage National Steel, he demonstrated a daunting command of blues idioms, a fluid slide technique, and gut-rattling percussive power in his driving, urgent approach. It wasn't merely technique he was showcasing; he played with conviction, as if something were at stake with each note. He told an amusing story about working with Tom Waits as his producer on his celebrated collection of Waits-penned songs, Wicked Grin, released in 2001 (on which Charlie Musselwhite made a return visit to the band), then performed a low-key telling of Waits's "Buzz Fledderjohn" that downplayed the guitar accompaniment in favor of a tighter focus on the near-surreal lyrics, as was entirely appropriate given its source. Unerring instincts and an instant bond with the audience made for a memorable night in downtown Tulsa. And reminded us again of how right on was Waits's assessment of Hammond's rare artistry when the two worked together, to wit: "John's sound is so compelling, complete, symmetrical and soulful with just his voice, guitar and harmonica, it is at first impossible to imagine improving it."—David McGee

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