Hammond's blues keep the traditional music alive and red-hot

POPULAR MUSIC

February 11, 1994|By Scott Timberg | Scott Timberg,Sun Staff Writer

John Hammond

Who: John Hammond with Little Charlie and the Nightcats

Where: 8x10 Club, 10 E. Cross St.

When: Saturday, Feb. 12; doors open at 9 p.m.

6* Call: (410) 625-2001. Tickets are $10.

Blues hounds see John Hammond as a dedicated purist whkeeps blues music's dying light alive.

Since his first record in 1962, the guitarist has sustained the fading Delta and Chicago styles and brought the work of Robert Johnson and Howlin' Wolf to audiences beholden to rock. As commercial pressures have swayed other musicians from their course, Mr. Hammond, 51, has stayed true to the tradition.

But Mr. Hammond sees himself as a musician, not a museum curator.

"I don't have a mission to my life," says Mr. Hammond, who performs at the 8X10 tomorrow. "I don't feel like I'm spearheading a movement or something. I'm a blues singer, and that's what I do."

Those who remember Mr. Hammond as a latter-day Robert Johnson, making spare, tormented Mississippi Delta blues, may be startled by the energy and full instrumentation of his new record, "Trouble No More" (Point Blank/Virgin).

Mr. Hammond says he didn't have any master plan to make the record more boisterous. He recorded with electric R&B band Little Charlie and the Nightcats for two days and found the music that emerged too strong not to wax.

"When I go in to record, things happen spontaneously," he says.

The record features some of the guitarist's freshest playing since his emergence in the early '60s. "Hammond's singing is so at ease, his range so broad, his song selection so dead-on, even a heartbreaker like 'Fool's Paradise' is pure joy," blues critic Ted Drozdowski writes in the February issue of Pulse magazine.

Mr. Hammond's roots still run deep -- "Love Changin' Blues" is a Delta-style solo workout, while "Who Will Be Next" and "Baby How Long" pay homage to Howlin' Wolf.

Mr. Hammond's 8x10 show will include both a solo acoustic set and a more raucous set backed by the band.

Mr. Hammond -- the son of legendary A&R man John Henry Hammond, who discovered Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and Bruce Springsteen -- began playing slide guitar in the late 1950s.

"There's definitely a better awareness now," he says of today's blues audiences. No longer is blues limited to an urban coterie, and clubs are everywhere, not just in Greenwich Village, Chicago and Cambridge. The blues is healthier today than it has ever been, Mr. Hammond says, and the audience is broader than it was during the mid-'60s blues boom.

This year marks Mr. Hammond's 32nd year on the road. "It's very romantic sounding, being an itinerant blues singer," he says. "I'm glad some are jealous. I'm glad some admire me if they do." But it's not all romance. "It's a tough life -- we're on the road 12 months a year."

What keeps Mr. Hammond's spirits up when the plane's late, the club owner's drunk, the guitar won't tune, and a black cat crosses his path? "There are those moments where it really is magic, where it's enchanting to be on the stage, and that keeps you going."

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