by Damian Bradley
The great thing about Seattle is that great musicians grace our presence every day. Last night, blues legend and historian John Hammond (son of the also legendary John Hammond, Sr.) opened a two night run at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley, taking the crowd on a musical journey through the history of American blues.
“I started playing professionally in 1962… have probably played 5000 shows or so since then… 46 year career…. I saw the greats Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker…” John made us jealous of the legends he’s jammed with, scenes he’d seen. John was our bridge to the past, our blues cipher.
Settling early into the groove of the set, John sent harmonica spittle flying, cheeks blown out, sucked in, bellowing the blues. The old-school historian introduced the Jimmy Rodgers tune “But That’s Alright,” a bit of Louisiana Slim, and Blind Boy Fuller’s “Step’ It Up and Go.”
And “who exactly wrote what?” is not an easy question to answer in the realm of traditional blues. Apparently John was playing a show and introduced “My Time After A While” as a song written by Buddy Guy. Robert Geddens happened to be in the crowd and called out, “Buddy Guy didn’t write that, I did!”
John can snap a new Hohner Marine Band in his harmonica neck holder as fast as a gunslinger draws. He knows the dynamics of setting down his acoustic for a slide and his steel body with its brown, worn edges on a silver frame. Slidin’ the 4-bar hi and lo, John stomped a rippin’ cover of Muddy Waters’ “Can’t Be Satisfied.” How has a breakbeat DJ not yet remixed this tune?
For his legendary guitar and harmonica work, the passion of John Hammond, Jr. can not be mentioned without his vocal work. Neck bent back, eyes bulging, soul open, John sings, “Can’t find no heaven no matter where they go… Ain’t goin down this road no more… Hard time killin floor” — Skip James lyrics written 85 years ago, speaking as much today about people in war-torn Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan…
The present times seem to speak to the old blues tunes. “You know that’s cold when you lose your happy home.” How many have lost their house in the past two years? It’s sad how applicable “Fattenin Frogs for Snakes”, the Sonny Boy Williamson song, is to America today.
Next John played the most soulful version of “It Hurts Me Too” that I’d ever heard performed live. His guitar was crying. Did Big Bill Broonzy write the tune or does he just get credit for copywriting a traditional?
With such a storied career, it’s amazing how few original tunes John Hammond has written. But older and wiser, he’s realized “if you write your own song, you can make extra money” and has penned only eight originals in the last five years. He regaled us with one: “Come to Find Out.”
After Sleepy John Estes’ “Someday Baby Blues,” John had a great story about Dion, once a 16 year old rock and roll star fronting Dion and the Belmonts, just before he rocked a fitting tribute to Dion’s “If You Want to Rock and Roll,” from Dion’s Bronx and Blue album.
Turns out all it took for John to play harp with Big Joe Williams for a week was the fact John had a car and was willing to drive Big Joe around Chicago to his gigs. I missed the song title of the cover but can’t forget John’s description of Big Joe: “He was five foot five by five foot five.”
Robert Johnson’s classic “Come on Into My Kitchen” led into John’s final song before the encore, a surprising turn towards Tom Waits.
John found himself in Tempe during a 1974 southwest tour. His gig was a new club with air conditioning to help with the 120 degree weather. “But it’s a dry heat.” He got there early for sound check and hung out all day. John watched the opening act, a young Tom Waits, blow everybody’s mind. Then John’s mind was blown after the show when Tom told him: “I’ve been a fan of yours since high school.” They’ve been friends over the years, and Tom’s and John’s wives talked them into working together. Tom produced John’s album Wicked Grin. John played harp on Mule Variations, from which he closed his amazing set with “Get Behind The Mule.”
Pin your ear to the wisdom post
Pin your eye to the line
Never let the weeds get higher
Than the garden
Always keep a sapphire in your mind
Always keep a diamond in your mind