Review by Fred Rudofsky
Photograph by Al Goldberg
It’s a cliche, but Hamell On Trial always delivers, surprising and testifying and edifying audiences great and small.
The audience was small at Valentine’s but great in spirit and obviously open to having their third eye squeegeed clean, as Bill Hicks would put it. For 80 minutes, it was an Occupy Albany event the way a genuine protest should be done, from the heart at 100+ decibels.
Starting a bit earlier than anticipated – hence, I missed a couple of songs – Ed Hamell tapped into the moods of characters real and imagined, playing a battered Gibson acoustic guitar through an amplifier cabinet with the dexterity of Les Paul and the fervor of Wayne Kramer. Yet he had a few tricks up his sleeve. “Ain’t That Love” was a meditative affirmation, sung and played in an understated way, about the school of hard knocks and long-term relationships. “Papa Ooo Mowmow (Hey, It’s for Me)” had a bluesy, ruminative feel to it, and featured a quick-witted joke by Hamell at the conclusion: What did the Zen Buddhist say to the hot-dog vendor? “Make me one with everything.”
Shifting gears and tempos, Hamell tackled the harsh realities (“Jennifer’s Stripping Again”) and moments of light (“Richard’s Got a Job”) in our grim economy. Two favorites, “I Hate Your Kid” (a middle-age confessional about putting up with a date’s obnoxious offspring) and “When You Are Young” (a series of hilarious, bizarre drug stories, set to a bouncing Yiddish folk melody) had the crowd hankering for more. “Chris and the Angels” (from “Rant and Roll”) examined in spoken word fashion Hamell’s early days as solo
musician, making ends meet at a pizzeria in Austin while taking orders from a snotnose kid manager. It was hilarious and all too true.
In 2012, there is is no greater songwriter than Hamell when it comes to taking on the political morass that the USA finds itself in. “Is Freedom Flying?,” which will likely be featured on an upcoming album, tackled the jingoism, fear-mongering and ineptitude of not only the two parties but the culture that has spawned them. Honoring a request (“Bill Hicks”) from the audience, Hamell tapped into the rage and hope of one of his primary influences, the late great comedian from Texas. It was a cathartic, mind-blowing performance.
Equally cathartic – is that even possible? – was the audience participation on the chorus to “Halfway,” a song directed at the hypocrisy around us all. Let’s just say that the f-bomb, shouted in unison by 40-50 patrons over a powerful riff from a resilient guitar older than Bob Dylan, on a Tuesday night, never felt so right.
Closing out the show, Hamell reached deep into the past. “Piccolo Joe” was slam-poetry at its best, recounting all sorts of sordid characters in a James Ellroy-goes-to-Syracuse sort of way. Pulling out a slide, Hamell ripped into the hellacious hoedown of “The Meeting,” a signature tune full of yes-I-can-back-it-up boasting (“I’m like the Beastie Boys/except I’m only one!”), an extended ode to the instrumental genius of Muddy Waters, and a face solo – yes, that is what it was, dear reader who should
have been there! – ending in “I Feel Fine” feedback.
Aside from Hamell on Trial’s upcoming album, look for the documentary film, “The Meeting,” about his extraordinary life and music to be released later this year.
A PARTIAL LIST OF NAMES THAT HAMELL DROPPED DURING THE SHOW
Willie Nelson, Bunny Wailer, William Kennedy, Ice Cube, Buddy Holly, Malcolm X, Joey Ramone, Charles Mingus, Bill Hicks, Creed, Jesus, .38 Special, Greg Bell, Helmet, Billy Price, Pablo Picasso, Chuck Berry, Nine Inch Nails, Smokey the Bear, the Beastie Boys, Muddy Waters, Judas Priest, the Clash
HAMELL ON TRIAL SET LIST
A Little Concerned, That’s All
The Happiest Man in the World
I’m an Artist in America
Ain’t That Love
Papa Ooo Mowmow (Hey, It’s for Me)
Jennifer’s Stripping Again
Richard Got a Job
I Hate Your Kid
When You Are Young
Chris & the Angels
NOTE: Look for Hamell On Trial to return to town again in February for a premiere of new material…