Concert Review-John Hammond
Caffe Lena, 4/7/06
Glenn Weiser for Metroland, April 13, 2006

In the mid-1960s, a young John Hammond Jr., the son of the famed Columbia Records A&R man, had his sights set on music stardom, but it was not to be. He had a gig at the Café Au Go-Go in his native Greenwich Village fronting a band that included Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, but both sidemen left to become rock icons. Then he hired a hot group out of Canada, the Hawks, consisting of Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, and Levon Helm, but as soon as they hit New York City, Bob Dylan stole them away and they later became the Band. After a few further unsuccessful attempts to get bigtime airplay, Hammond returned to his first love: fingerpicking country blues guitar, augmented by rack-mounted harmonica and topped with his incredibly convincing singing. In a brief interview before his late set at a full Caffe Lena last Friday, Hammond, now 64, hinted that he hadn’t made the kind of money he would have had things panned out as he had hoped, but his loss has for decades now been the acoustic-music world’s gain. When he took the stage soon thereafter, he proved once again that he is one of the undisputed masters of the folk blues.

Hammond’s approach has long been one of taking songs from any period of the blues and even rock material (he released an entire album of Tom Waits songs—Wicked Grin—in 2001) and either partially or completely creating his own guitar accompaniments. Thus his cover of an early Rolling Stones tune, “Spider and the Fly,” sounded like it could have been played in the Mississippi Delta in the 1930s. On the other hand, he began his version of a Robert Johnson classic from that time, “Kind Hearted Woman,” by following Johnson’s complex guitar part, and then breaking away to improvise lead lines high up the neck like the rock player he once aspired to be. The results in each case were killer.

The slender, bushy-haired bluesman led off with an ode to an automobile, “Slick Crown Vic,” that he said had been his first original song in 42 years, thumping away on the bass strings while wildly racing around the reeds of the harmonica and then singing like his life depended on it. Next he played a slow blues from the early 1950s by Muddy Waters sideman Jimmy Rogers, “That’s Allright,” setting up some intriguing call-and-response phrasing between his guitar and harmonica by soloing on the harp during the long notes of his guitar part and vice versa. Blind Lemon Jefferson’s funereal “One Kind Favor” was mesmerizing in his hands, as was the Dylanesque imagery in his cover of Tom Waits’ “Gun Street Girl.”

A couple of songs didn’t fare as well, though: Hammond’s hard-driving picking on Blind Boy Fuller’s “Step It Up and Go” overpowered the Piedmont blues classic, and he played Skip James’ ghostly “Hard Time Killing Floor” on a badly out-of-tune steel-bodied guitar. When he started singing, though, those peccadilloes could be forgiven. Hammond closed with a dazzling slide- guitar showpiece, Son House’s “Preaching Blues.”

Opening were Glen Falls bottleneck blues stalwart Mark Tolstrup and also Pat Wictor, who played the acoustic guitar lap-style like a dobro. The pair took turns performing original songs, Tolstrup’s showing a marked Delta blues influence, and Wictor’s ranging from more generally rootsy to contemporary folk.

Index of Metroland Articles by Glenn Weiser    ©2006 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved.  

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