Review by Fred Rudofsky
Photographs by Al Goldberg
Part retrospective, part preview of an upcoming album and concept show, Hamell on Trial’s performance at the Steamer No. 10 Theatre in Albany was one for the ages. A small but fervent crowd of music fans came in from the cold and got to see one of the best, most prolific songwriters in America up close and personal.
After an introduction by Michael Eck, Hamell dressed in black strode out onto the stage, plugged in his vintage Gibson acoustic and gave a prologue for the night about how his years in Syracuse as a working musician and bartender in an infamous venue had brought him face to face with “the disenfranchised.” Many of the songs during the evening delved into how the other half lives, with Hamell virtually channeling Jacob Riis, Woody Guthrie, Joe Strummer and James Ellroy in a torrent of vivid, heartrending and sometimes unsettling (and often quite funny) lyrics. In between the songs were jokes and stories ranging from corny to wry to obscene – in other words, it was like entering a spectacular microcosm where irreverence topples all pretense and conventional wisdom. Even Hamell himself stepped off microphone to ask the rapt audience late in the second set, “Is any of this linear?”
After a funky “Papa Ooo Mow Mow,” the trio of “Jennifer’s Stripping Again,” “When You’re Young” and “Chris and the Angels” looked unflinchingly at making ends meet, bizarre but all-too-true drug stories and obnoxious co-workers who suffer the karmic wheel. “Richard’s Got a Job” was exuberant, a perfect contrast to its themes of downsizing and credit card debt in the “new economy.” “I’m the Happiest Man in the World,” an ode to finding joy in the simplest moments, saw Hamell beaming, hammering out chords like he was outdoors in winter night to stay warm. To the delight of those who have followed Hamell since the early 1990s, the tandem of “Piccolo Joe” (a poem that could inspire a film) and “Brother Franklin,” a song that Richard Thompson would kill for, closed the first set on a high note.
The second set began strong, with a monologue over one chord that referenced dozens of song titles. The glory and grind of “I’m an Artist in America” revealed what drives Hamell’s creativity. “First Date” prompted laughter from all in its portrayal of a man ingesting various substances to calm his nerves before getting back in the game; “Together” followed, an ode to steadfast love and the indignities of aging quasi-gracefully. “Ain’t That Love?” was dark, soulful and terse in looking back on what keeps two people together despite their differences.
Yet just when it could have been a night about romance, Hamell switched gears and put the spotlight on the state of American politics, parenting and pop culture. “Is Freedom Flying?,” a new song likely to appear on his next album, must rank among the most moving songs Hamell’s ever written. Referencing Joey Ramone and Charles Mingus by name, he looked at the state of the nation with fervent love and utter dismay. Hilariously, “Inquiring Minds” depicted the conundrum of a father being honest about his wild adolescence and young adulthood when confronted by his son about sex, drugs and criminality. Hamell entranced the audience with a poem about “digital anticipation,” and then cranked up his slide guitar for his signature closer, “The Meeting,” a whirlwind thesis statement about candor, confidence and inspiration, marked by a cathartic “face solo.”
Look for the next Hamell on Trial recorded opus this summer; it’ll be worth the wait.
HAMELL ON TRIAL SET LIST
Papa Ooo Mow Mow (Hey, It’s for Me)
Jennifer’s Stripping Again
When You’re Young
Chris and the Angels
Richard’s Got a Job
I’m the Happiest Man in the World
I’m an Artist in America
Ain’t That Love?
Is Freedom Flying?
Next up on the Steamer No. 10 Theatre’s Eclectic Performance series is soulful singer-songwriter Sean Rowe on Saturday (March 17). The new all-star band Babe City opens the show at 8pm. Tix are $13 in advance; $15 at the door. NOTE: You can also enter to win a pair of FREE TIX to the Sean Rowe/Babe City show…