Blues is still the heart of Hammond

By Craig Harris, Special to Reminder Publications

John Hammond

July 26, 8pm, Club Helsinki, 284 Main Street, Great Barrington, $25

For further information, call 413-528-3384

One of the blues' greatest interpreters, John Hammond, has spent a half- century resurrecting the songs of the masters. Having made his songwriting debut on the 2003 album, "Ready For Love," Hammond, who performs at Great Barrington's Club Helsinki on July 26, returns with five original compositions on his latest outing, "Push Comes To Shove."

"I've written eight songs in the last 45 years," Hammond said by telephone, "and they've all come in the last four. It began real slowly for me. Now, I have a handle on it. I come up with these ideas that have been in the back of my brain for a while."

The blues tradition remains at the heart of the tunes, with Hammond's originals easily mixing with songs by Little Walter ("Everything Gonna Be Alright") and Junior Wells ("Come On In This House"). "When you do a song," explained Hammond, "you make it your own, one way or another. You have to or it sounds mechanical. To have my own songs, and to treat them the same way, they're supposed to sound like all of the other songs except that they're mine."

With his rendition of Tom Waits' "Cold Water," Hammond maintains his connection with the beat poet/songwriter five years after recording an entire album of Waits' songs, "Wicked Gun." "I'd been recording with him on his 'Mule Variations' project in 1999," he recalled, "and my wife got the idea of getting him to produce my next album. She made it happen."

Another tune, "Tore Down," was written in collaboration with hip-hop artist and producer of "Push Comes To Shove," G. Love. "He brought a lot of enthusiasm," Hammond said. "He's a big fan of my music and has been for more than 10 years. He's heard all of my old records. He's a real blues guy despite his hip-hop reality."

With his soulful vocals, acoustic and steel guitar and harmonica backed by Stephen Hodges (drums), Marty Ballou (bass) and Bruce Katz (organ and piano), Hammond is driven to new plateaus.

"They're really fantastic musicians," he said. "I've been playing with Marty Balleau and Stephen Hodges for a long time. They've been on my last four records. I know Marty from when he played with Duke Robillard. He's really melodic and deeply into the blues. He's familiar with country blues as well as more progressive styles," he said.

The son of influential Columbia Records talent scout, John Hammond, Sr., Hammond inherited his father's love of musical roots. Although raised by his mother, his father helped to inspire the muse within him when he brought him, at the age of seven, to see bluesman Big Bill Broonzy.

"I remember meeting Big Bill after the show," he said, "and shaking his hand, which seemed enormous. What a gentle giant he was. When he played, it was overwhelming. It was dynamic."

While the experience transformed him into an aficionado of the blues, Hammond didn't begin playing guitar until more than decade later. "I was never a player," he said. "I just liked music and bought records."

Hammond's entered music as a career quickly. Picking up his first guitar while a student at Antioch College in Ohio in 1960, he began playing professionally a year later.

"Everybody seemed to have an acoustic guitar," he remembered. "I used to watch these guys play and I'd say to myself, 'I can do that.' I bought a cheap guitar and started to fool around. It just sort of overtook me."

Discovering the music of 1930s bluesman Robert Johnson was a revelation.

"Very few people (knew about Robert Johnson) at the time," Hammond said. "He was a mysterious figure from the past. I had bought a record, 'The Country Blues' in 1958. It had Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Willie McTell, Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell. There was one cut from Robert Johnson. It stood out from all the other songs, as good as they were. It became a quest for me to see if I could find anything else that he recorded. I found two more songs of his on a Swedish import record."

When he inquired whether his father knew anything about Johnson, Hammond became privy to a treasure trove of the bluesman's work.

"It turned out that he had four 78s," he remembered, "and he turned me onto this guy who was in charge of the archives at Columbia Records. Columbia owned all of the Vocalion label recordings. He made a tape recording, for me, of twelve Robert Johnson songs. I felt like I was the only one in the world who had this treasure. I made it a quest to learn all of the songs."

As he nears his sixty-fifth birthday, Hammond has no plans of slowing.

"I average about two hundred and fifty shows a year," he said. "It means that I'm on the road a lot. But, it's how I'm make my living."