Monday, March 1, 2010

John Hammond at the Dakota: Concert Review

John Hammond

When: Sunday, February 28, 2010 • Where: DakotaWho: John Hammond

For a veteran bluesman, John Hammond doesn’t seem very blue. In fact, he seems genuinely happy, and nice besides. Someone you’d like to hang out with, have a drink with, invite to dinner, maybe even marry and stay married to; his second wife, Marla, has been with him since 1983, serves as co-producer on his records, and travels with him.

Following last night’s one-night, sold-out stand at the Dakota, people lined up to meet them. Marla handled the CD sales biz, taking money and stripping off shrinkwrap. John reached out his hand, smiled warmly, asked “What’s your name?” and made time to chat. I wanted to bring them both home for nightcaps and leftovers.

Paul Metsa

Local bluesmen Paul Metsa and Sonny Earl opened; it was Metsa’s first time on the Dakota stage, and he was glad to be there. He sang and played “Whistling Past the Graveyard,” then Earl came out wearing his harmonica—belt? Holster? Bandolier? Whatever, it was cool. Tunes like “I’m a White Boy Lost in the Blues” and Charlie Musselwhite’s “River Hip Mama” put us in the mood. Earl is a smoother singer than Metsa, whose voice has been called, perhaps too kindly, “whiskey-tinged.”

Sonny Earl

Then Hammond came on stage alone and announced, “I’ve got a whole bunch of songs and I’m just going to play what I feel like.” (Later in the evening, when someone called out a request, he deflected it by saying that David Bromberg once told a crowd, “This is not Burger King. You do not get it your way.”)

You do get a lot of music at a John Hammond show, from famous blues songs to tunes that were lost until he found them again, from classics to originals. (Scroll down for the playlist I scribbled during the show; I think I caught almost everything.) It’s a history lesson and a head-smacking reminder of how rich and varied this genre is, and how expressive of human emotions: bad-ass and bitter, tender and sweet, playful, rueful, hopeful, anguished, desperate, foolish, wise.

Hammond is a one-man band: a voice made to sing the blues, guitar (he had two on stage at the Dakota, wood and steel, and he switched between them), harmonica on a rack around his neck (he’d snap one out and another in), foot on the floor like a Taiko drum. (He stomped so hard the floor actually shook.) His vowels (“who’s,” “blues”) go high and lonesome, like one of those wooden train whistles.

You also get a lot of stories at a John Hammond show, stories that start in childhood (spent listening to the blues on a Nashville radio station) and move slowly through time. He drops as many names as notes but there is no arrogance about him. Some people will say they know so-and-so, or went to the Grammys, or met a movie star and your eyes will roll. Hammond mentioned dozens of blues legends during his set—people he knew and had played with—but he talked about them like a star-struck kid.

John Hammond

His latest CD, Rough & Tough (Chesky, 2009), was a Grammy nominee this year (“It didn’t win, but my wife still thinks I'm a star”). Hammond told us that his publisher, Bug Music, hosted a big party at Wolfgang Puck during which Jeff Bridges came up to him and said, “I love Wicked Grin.” He wasn’t boasting, just sharing This Incredibly Cool Thing That Happened.

He made us laugh by describing blues legend Big Joe Williams as being “about five-foot-nine by five-foot nine.” He mentioned the Crown Vic he had in his early days but didn’t, alas, sing “Slick Crown Vic,” one of my favorite Hammond tunes. Nor did he sing the Stones’ B-side “Spider and the Fly,” a song I especially love in his version. Maybe next time.

As he’s done before (this is the third time I’ve seen him, the first two at the Cedar), he reached out to the crowd, letting us know he knew where he was, that Minneapolis was not just another nameless stop. “It’s our last night of a two-week tour, all the way through the upper Midwest, and it’s balmy here.” (A little joke for Minnesotans.) “We’re so happy to play this beautiful club.” “I started my professional career in 1962 in New York City, where I met Koerner, Ray and Glover”—local music heroes Spider John Koerner, Dave Ray, and Tony Glover.

Near the end of his generous set, nearly two hours, he said, “Thank you for coming. I feel like somebody.”

Afterward I spoke with a person who had worked with Hammond before. “Is he really that nice?” I asked. The answer: “Oh, definitely.”


“Just Your Fool” (Little Walter)
“Heartache Blues” (John Hammond)
“Mean Old Lonesome Train” (Lightnin Slim)
“My Time After While” (Buddy Guy/Robert Geddins)
“Rockin’ Oldsmobile” (?)
“Come On in My Kitchen” (Robert Johnson)
“You Know That’s Cold” (John Hammond)
“Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues” (Skip James)
“Come to Find Out” (John Hammond)
“Someday Blues” (Sleepy John Estes)
“Fattening Frogs for Snakes” (Sonny Boy Williamson)
“That’s Alright (Who’s Loving You Tonight?)” (Jimmy Rodgers)
“Drop Down Mama” (Big Joe Williams)
“Love Changing Blues” (Blind Willie McTell)
“No One Can Forgive Me but My Baby” (Tom Waits, written for Hammond)
“Found Love” (Jimmy Reed)
[Something with the lines “I love you baby like a bulldog loves a hound/You’ve got just what it takes to make a preacher lay his Bible down”]
“Fannin Street” (John Hammond)

Photos by John Whiting

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