in performance: john hammond

Though his recordings have regularly shifted roots music tactics over the past 47 years, the better part of John Hammond’s performance profile came down to exactly what was onstage at The Dame last night – namely, two acoustic guitars, a harmonica and a voice that is the living embodiment of blues and country blues traditions.

The repertoire alone reflected the stylistic depth that has always been a virtue of Hammond’s concerts. There were tunes by Charles Brown, Jimmy Rogers, Sleepy John Estes, Blind Boy Fuller, Muddy Waters, Billy Boy Arnold, Sonny Boy Williamson, Lightnin’ Slim, Robert Johnson, Skip James and, in a comparatively contemporary turn, Tom Waits and Hammond himself.

Hammond is no mere interpreter of blues traditions, though. Granted, his between-song banter reflected enough encyclopedic statistics about the music, as well as stories about his own performance adventures in the blues world, to fill an autobiography. In fact, if Hammond isn’t already contemplating setting his blues life to book form, he should. But the resulting music in the 100 minute performance merged traditions and influences into a voice that has long been Hammond’s own.

On James’ Hard Time Killing Floor, for example, Hammond’s singing was full of conversational and worldly desperation. This wasn’t blues as mere entertainment. This was the music as a sort of penance, a weary reminder of a world as brittle, emotive and unforgiving as the steel guitar setting Hammond placed the song in.

As usual, Hammond played roughly half the program on 6 string acoustic guitar, including the smoldering Rogers lament Who’s Loving You Tonight and the sly Arnold shuffle I Wish You Would. But when Hammond put the slide to the steel guitar, blew on the harp like it was a siren and kept his own rhythm with the fevered stomp of his left foot, the blues drive became edgier and, at times, deliciously weirder.

On Buzz Fledderjohn, an ultra-creepy Waits tale about an ammo-loving neighbor, Hammond turned from rustic snapshots of country blues to the real life carnival of suburbia (“Rottweiler, Doberman, a Pinkerton guard; I ain’t allowed in Buzz Fledderjohn’s yard”). More direct in its blues attitude was the Waters chestnut I Can’t Be Satisified, a romp performed with a rich, wiry intensity.

Curiously, the evening’s most telling tune was a 2006 Hammond original called You Know That’s Cold, a song about emptiness, age and a shattered sense of purpose. “Maybe it’s just time to go,” Hammond sang from the viewpoint of a lost, archaic and possibly abandoned soul. Luckily, that was one storyline, in a show full of living blues vitality, that wasn’t remotely autobiographical.

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