John Hammond: Mr. Americana

Charissa Saverio AKA DJ Rap (photo: Randall Michelson)

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., August 28, 2003) -- For nearly four decades, John Hammond has been best known as a staunch, country-blues traditionalist keeping alive the work of Robert Johnson, Skip James and the Reverend Gary Davis and other delta blues pioneers and legends. But two years ago, Hammond enjoyed surprising success with “Wicked Grin,” an album solely devoted to versions of songs by contemporary songwriter Tom Waits.

While rootsy in its own way, the recording casts Hammond in a whole new light. Freed of the burden of being Mr. Traditional Blues, Hammond followed up the successful “Wicked Grin” with another rootsy, electric effort which acknowledges the blues but isn’t beholden to it. Ready for Love (Back Porch), which came out last February, draws on the work of the Rolling Stones, Muddy Waters, Billie Holiday, country legend George Jones, Willie Dixon, and the album’s producer, David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, among other songwriters. In so doing, it makes a strong case for Hammond – who performs at Club Helsinki on Monday, September 1, at 8 -- as a premiere interpreter of American roots music.

“I’m a blues singer, I always have been, and I always will be,” said Hammond in a phone interview earlier this year from his home in Jersey City. “But in my forty-two year career I had a chance to be on shows with all kinds of roots, folk and blues artists. My ears are familiar with all kinds of sounds. I don’t feel pigeonholed any more. I’m sixty years old. I’ve got experience. I’ve got my band, and my wife who goes with me everywhere and is a tremendous influence on my life and my taste. We’ve just expanded in a terrific way.”

Groove Collective’s genre hop

Are they a salsa band? A funk outfit? A jazz ensemble? An electonica collaborative? Or a jam band? Since 1990, New York’s Groove Collective has been impersonating all of the above with its fleet, interlocking rhythms and seamless, genre-hopping improvisations. In the meantime, its patented fusion of styles has become de rigeuer in nightclubs and at rock festivals, but Groove Collective continues to break new ground, as heard on its recent double-live CD, “Brooklyn, NY 04.20.02” (Kufala). The group has gone through several personnel changes in the intervening years – along the way such noteworthies as Bill Ware and Josh Roseman were counted as members – but the band’s current lineup, which comes to Club Helsinki on Saturday at 9, is as solid as any.

Cowtown contradictions

Call them a trio of contradictions: founded in New York City in the late 1990s as a group specializing in western swing of the 1940s, they’re named after a Parisian nightclub famed in the 1930s for gypsy jazz. Now based in Austin, the acoustic, guitar-fiddle-drum trio’s latest album includes a version of Aerosmith’s hard-rock classic, “Chip Away the Stone.” That’s Hot Club of Cowtown, which comes to Mass MoCA (413-662-2111) on Sunday at 7:30, to provide the soundtrack for a Western Swing Dance Party. The group, which connects the dots between Bob Wills and Django Reinhardt, includes guitarist Whit Smith, a native of Greenwich, Conn., violinist Elana Fremerman, from Prairie Village, Kansas, and Jake Erwin of Tulsa, Okla. -- incidentally, home to Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.

Milwaukee’s mix

“Such a Much” (Groovesburg Joys), the new album by Paul Cebar and the Milwaukeeans, kicks off with a fiery bit of samba rock that’s so groovy you could easily overlook the fact that it’s a version of Leonard Cohen’s dour “Dance Me to the End of Love.” In spite of the group’s name – Milwaukee doesn’t instantly come to mind when one thinks of the breeding ground for funky rock bands – the Milwaukeeans play a funkified brand of rock that allows them to embrace both Bruce Springsteen and Smokey Robinson. The smokin’ album was recorded live at a Chicago club, and Cebar -- who bears a vocal resemblance to Dr. John -- and company will attempt to recreate the musical fireworks at Club Helsinki tonight (Thursday) at 9.

Estrogenous electronica

The electronica scene is as testosterone-heavy as hard-rock, so when a female DJ and producer makes it to the top, much less one that looks like DJ Rap, you stand up and take notice. Born Charissa Saverio in Singapore to an Italian father and an Irish mother, DJ Rap became involved with the British rave scene while studying to be a solicitor. She worked her way up from being a club DJ and mixer to her position today as a singer, songwriter, recording artist, producer, label owner and all-around rave impresario. Her latest album, “Touching Bass,” showcases her remixing skills on two CDs of relentless jungle grooves and breakbeats. DJ Rap is joined by Goldie, SS, Shy FX, and Total Science at a late-night dance party at the Asylum (413-739-7900) in Springfield on Saturday night at 11:30.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 28, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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