This week I saw John Hammond at the Dakota Jazz Club. Hammond might seem to be an odd choice for the Dakota, since his music is folk and blues, but he fits the vibe of the Dakota just fine. For those who don't know, here's an intro to John Hammond. His father, John Hammond Sr., (although Wikipedia tells me John the younger is not actually a junior, but for simplicity's sake I will refer to the elder John as senior) was a producer and talent scout, responsible for discovering, or at least popularizing a diverse bunch of artists, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Pete Seeger, George Benson, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen. The younger John Hammond was a friend of Dlyan's, coming up in the New York City folk/blues scene at the same time, and Hammond actually recorded with The Band before Dylan did. (Okay, so it was before they were called The Band, but it was the same group of guys.) That album, "So Many Roads," has been thought by some to have influenced Dylan's later decision to "go electric." Hammond's style hasn't changed much over the years, he still plays blues and folk songs, and he is really a one-man band. To see Hammond live is really something else. He comes on like a freight train, playing fast and furious slide guitar, blowing his harmonica, stomping his foot, and singing his heart out. Hammond puts everything he has into performing live, and the passion he brings to these songs is electric.
Hammond is a terrific guitar player, he alternates between acoustic and a National guitar. He is a brilliant slide guitar player, I'm amazed at the speed of his licks. Hammond really cares about the songs that he sings, and I would guess that he sees himself as a caretaker, a link on the chain of performers handing these songs down to a new generation. Hammond is old enough to have met most of the great blues musicians in the early 1960's, so now he's our link to these musicians. One of the things that impressed me the most was that Hammond shared a bill with Phil Ochs at Gerde's Folk City in 1963! Ochs is one of my favorite folk singers, and he's also the subject of the very first post on this blog. And sadly, Phil has been dead for so long that I'm impressed to see someone who actually knew him. (I have met Tom Paxton, who wrote a beautiful song about Phil Ochs called "Phil," but I met Paxton before I was really into Phil Ochs.) Anyway, that's slightly off topic. John Hammond puts on a great live show, and all blues fans should see him. And I overheard some of Hammond's conversations with fans after the show, and he is just a super nice guy. He just sat at the merchandise table smiling his broad grin and happily chatting with people. He doesn't think he's a big deal, which is pretty cool. I overheard him say to an Australian fan, "I played at the (whatever venue) in 1981, no, it was 1982, great place." He was asking fans how to spell their names, it's nice to see artists being nice people.
Oh, I almost forgot, Hammond did an album of all Tom Waits songs, "Wicked Grin," and he's a great interpreter of Waits's songs. There's something special when he plays those songs live. The encore he played was a beautiful, haunting version of Waits's song "Fanning Street." It ended the show on a high note.