John Hammond's blues
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., September 2, 2003) – On Monday night at Club Helsinki, John Hammond showed why for nearly the last 40 years he has been considered one of the premiere blues revivalists. A veritable one-man encyclopedia of blues styles and repertoire, Hammond entertained and enraptured a packed crowd with classic and obscure blues songs and a few other choice nuggets.

To say Hammond accompanied himself on guitar and harmonica is to do a disservice to the man’s craft, because when Hammond sings and plays, nothing is accompaniment. Rather, he is a one-man band. On many numbers, his guitar playing alone did three- or four-fold duty, providing percussive rhythms and bass lines, and laying down the harmonic base of the tune atop which he built melodic lines and counterpoint with his voice, his harmonica, his slide and fingerpicking.

You could hear Hammond’s voice resonating from his throat to deep within his chest on Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues,” which he followed with a slow, sad, poignant version of Johnson’s “Come On in My Kitchen” and a rarely-heard number by Hambone Willie Newbern. He also played a jaunty, upbeat, rag-influenced tune by Blind Boy Fuller, and a rendition of Muddy Waters’ early hit, “I Can’t Be Satisfied.”

“Love Changin’ Blues” was a ballad full of tenderness and remorse, on which Hammond bent notes into impossibly wavery pitches, sometimes a full step up. His guitar notes duetted with his vocals, echoing or curling around the last vocal note of a phrase, or stepping off from what he sang and then going off on their own.

Hammond also tackled some blues-influenced numbers from the rock era, including the Rolling Stones’s “Spider and the Fly,” on which he conjured up the whole group. He got a similar effect out of a Billy Boy Arnold tune he originally recorded in 1965, in a famous session produced by Leiber and Stoller of Elvis Presley fame and engineered by Phil Ramone. The original session included guitarist Robbie Robertson – then of the Hawks, later of The Band -- and Stones bassist Bill Wyman, and it was an obvious attempt to get Hammond some of the early rock fame that groups like the Stones and other British bands were garnering with bluesy material. The song was a cross between “Crossroads” and “I Wanna Be Your Man,” but Hammond played it in such a way that you could hear Robertson, Wyman and the rest of the group playing along with him.

Hammond also played several Tom Waits songs during the night. A few years ago, Hammond recorded an entire album’s worth of Waits’ songs, and he has an affinity for their unusual melodies and eccentric narrators, contemporary versions of some the scoundrels who inhabit Robert Johnson territory.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on September 3, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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