John Hammond engages the blues at Calliope concert

Monday, 27 September 2010 12:00 AM Written by 
John Hammond at the Carnegie Lecture Hall. (Jim White photos)

I didn't really expect John Hammond to put on a bad show for Calliope Saturday night at the Carnegie Lecture Hall -- I don't think I've ever seen him do a bad show. But this one seemed especially outstanding.

Maybe it was the relative calm of the Lecture Hall atmosphere (compared to the noise level of a club or festival setting) that made it much easier to hear the subtleties and nuances in the intricate guitar work that the 67-year-old Hammond has been mastering for about 50 years now -- and the same is true of his vocals. At times, Hammond dropped his volume levels down to near zero, and you could practically hear him breathe the lyrics.

Whatever the reasons, probably having a lot to do with talent, Hammond gave a substantial crowd 90-fine minutes of great blues, mixed with some stories drawn from the deep pool of his musical experience, never letting stories overshadow the music. And as always, he takes care to credit the artists whose music he performs -- the artists to whom he owes his career.

But it occurred to me as I thought about the show, and Hammond's music, that John is much more than a vessel for this great old music to pass through. Watching his emotional performance, filled with the intensity of all great blues performers, it seems that Hammond has become the artist, and not just a performer who basks in their reflected glory. John Hammond has become one of the people whose music he performs.

John Hammond and his well-worn Resonator.
And he does perform it. From his rousing opener, Little Walter's "Just Your Fool" to the rocking encore "Tuff Enuff," it's like watching a blues history lesson set to music. Great music.

He worked in a few original songs, written and played so that they are almost indistinguishable from the classics -- "Heartache Blues," "You Know That's Cold" and "Come to Find Out" are fine songs.

But when he shines is when he works over the classics -- kind of like a PBS oldies show: Lightning Slim's "Mean Old Lonesome Train," a quietly intense reading of Robert Johnson's "Come On In My Kitchen," a worshipfully elegant version of Blind Lemon Jefferson's "One Kind Favor," a Tampa Red tribute with "It Hurts Me Too" (in response to one speaker's invoking Tampa Red's name and wondering who would name their child "Tampa Red," Hammond wryly noted that Tampa's real name was Hudson Whittaker).

That's just a sample of the song list, which seemed to alternate between soft and hard, gentle and tough, tender and raucous. The set list seemed to exist only in Hammond's mind, and his intuitive pacing and song selection seemed to create just the right mood.

Hammond also managed to work in what he called his only hit single, "Early in the Morning,"  "I Wish You Would," from 1966, when Pittsburgh took to the song and brought him here, as he put it, "to lip-synch the song on a local TV show."

He closed his set (before the encore) with a guitar-thumping, foot-stomping, revival-flavored "Preachin' Blues," the Son House classic that contains one of my all-time favorite blues lines:  "You know I wanna be a Baptist preacher, just so I won't have to work."

It was a very fine night for classic blues and their fans.

A few footnotes:

-- The opening act was Darly Fleming and David Bernabo, playing in a sort of edgy, avant-garde jazz-folk vein, with Fleming as the singer-songwriter half. I won't pretend to underestand all that they were doing, but it was fun. And their closer, titled, I think, "The Father of Our Country was a Momma's Boy," was enjoyably deranged.

-- The crowd was plentiful (maybe three-fourths capacity), and seemed to know just when a few well-timed whoops of appreciation were needed.

-- I noticed a nearby couple, one of whom was reading from something like an iPad or large Kindle all through the show. I guess she could still hear the music, but hearing without watching Hammond work is like watching TV with the sound off -- sort of.

-- My photos: Flash is frowned up in these circumstances, so stage lighting is what you get. I kind of like the effect without much touchup, but that's just me. Comments welcome.

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