So I had the brilliant idea of taking my laptop out to the living room to work on this review while watching the DVD as it played. The only problem was trying to drag myself away from watching long enough to write anything down. It's hard enough for one man, a guitar, and a harmonica to hold an audience live, but to be able to enthral you enough through a DVD is the sign of someone special.
That's John Hammond (the younger one, his dad being dead now for quite a while) all right, someone special and the new DVD John Hammond: The Paris Concert captures everything about him that's amazing. Normally you're lucky if these concert films have utilized four cameras for a full band, but that's how many they have trained John for this filming at the New Morning club in Paris.
You'd think that listening to one man playing twenty-four solo traditional Blues songs might get a little repetitive, let's face it in the hands of a lesser musician that happens, but with Mr. Hammond that's not going to be the case. First of all he throws in songs that you're not expecting, like Tom Wait's "Get Behind The Mule" sandwiched between more traditional fare.
When you finally get used to the fact that he's pretty near unmatchable playing acoustic guitar blues, he picks up his resonator guitar and demonstrates that you haven't seen anything yet. Most slide players tend to equate speed and flash with substance, not Mr. Hammond. He stretches notes with that round bar of metal (he uses a piece from a sprocket set) like he's playing them on one of his harmonicas.
That doesn't mean he can't uncork a slide run that makes you wonder how he doesn't burn the neck off his guitar he's playing so hard. "Mother In Law Blues" has him running the slide from the bridge up to the head of the neck so fast that you swear you see sparks spraying off the strings.
With his strings howling, his harp crying and his voice growling you begin to understand how the Blues has come to have so many myths about the devil at the crossroads attached to it. You either have to be speaking in tongues in ecstasy during church or possessed by the devil. Since no good Christian is going to be singing about those types of things mentioned in Blues songs, whisky, women, and wild ways…well that leaves only one conclusion to be reached.
John Hammond is a living compendium of the best Blues music sung, written, and performed since the beginning of the twentieth century. From Robert Johnson, Howling Wolf, Muddy Watters, on up to the Blues of the early Rolling Stones, John Hammond: The Paris Concert is a trip through time.
From the Piedmont style of the Carolinas by artists like Blind Boy Fuller, with its roots in the Appalachians and Country Blues, that was popular during the thirties, to the Mississippi Delta, and across the breadth of the United States on up to the streets of Chicago Mr. Hammond can play the Blues in all its variants, shapes and forms. But it's not just the music he knows, the stories he has to tell about the people he's played with and met along the road are equally fascinating.
Introducing a Howling Wolf song he recounts his first meeting with the great artist who was one of his biggest influences. Mr. Hammond had just finished his set on a bill that included Howling Wolf. He had shown up early hoping to meet his idol during the sound check but Howling Wolf hadn't showed by the time John had to perform.
He got backstage after he finished and there standing in front of him was Howling Wolf. The first words out of his mouth to Hammond were "Where did you learn to play like that?" To which Hammond responded by saying "from records". Howling Wolf looked at him for a second and said, "So did I". He then sat Hammond down and talked about those writers who influenced him and how he learned to sing and play.
When your father is the man who produced Billy Holiday, "discovered" Bob Dylan, and worked with most of the great Blues, Folk, and Jazz musicians of his time you either can go in the opposite direction into something like accounting, or do your best to make people forget that there are two John Hammonds in the music business who are related. Of course there are advantages to be had like being able to listen to all that great music at home and absorb it all like a sponge.
But it takes a person with a lot of strength of character to go out and perform on stage with a famous name, playing the music that his father produced. To do it with as much heart and respect as Mr. Hammond is able to imbue his interpretations is a truly amazing accomplishment.
John Hammond: The Paris Concert is a DVD that matches the accomplishments of the man with its capturing of his performance. If like me you've never had the experience of seeing him perform before this production will be a revelation. John Hammond is a bridge that connects our world with the magical world of acoustic blues that he grew up in.
Included along with the concert is an interview with Hammond where he talks about how he got started and his early career. What comes clear from this short little piece of tape is just how much the music means to him. At one point he says that he used to feel compelled to explain himself to people. Now, he says, he just does what he does and if people like it great, if not, well there are enough people out there who do that it doesn't really matter.
(Originally published in June 2006)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.