Review by Fred Rudofsky
Enlightened music fans gave thanks a day early, coming out to Valentine’s Music Hall in Albany for a memorable happy hour set by the dynamic solo artist Ed Hamell, a.k.a. Hamell on Trial, on the busiest bar band of the year – the eve of Thanksgiving Day.
Hamell is, without question, one of the greatest singer-songwriters on the planet and one that few would ever want to follow in a live setting. Playing an ancient, acoustic Gibson through a stack of amps to his right, he is electrifying, espousing the core truths of life by any means necessary. Want a direct route out of the hypocrisies of the 21st century? He is your dressed-in-black sonic guide, armed with a candid camera portfolio of songs, enviable stories about seeing legendary bands (tonight, he spoke of seeing the Lovin’ Spoonful, Jimi Hendrix Experience and the Who when he was 12), wonderfully dirty jokes (sorry, but you had to be there) and guitar prowess.
Opening with “A Little Concerned, That’s All,” a zig-zagging juggernaut that melded Dante’s cosmology and Dylan’s sardonic winks, Hamell meant business – in other words, the fun had just begun. He depicted the
inevitable baggage that comes with dating a divorced woman in “I Hate Your Kid,” and followed it with the epic tale of how he found his beloved pre-war era guitar in a pawn shop (“7 Seas”). Tapping his guitar and playing some deep blues riffs, Hamell – recently signed to New West Records – performed “The Happiest Man in the World,” the rich-in-recessionist-times title cut for an album due out in February. “Global
Tattoo,” a moving, zeitgeist meditation, reflected upon the polarized state of the union (“I want to know, ‘Is freedom flying?'”), alluding to Charles Mingus lyrically and evoking Jimi Hendrix melodically during a terse solo.
Arguably, Hamell’s life has been filled with enough serendipitous moments to fill a book twice the length of Keith Richards’ recent memoir, and one of those life-changing moments, a hilarious adolescent tale of attending an art show in Syracuse, inspired the vivid narrative of “John Lennon.” With frank humor, Hamell addressed the wilder moments youth and young adulthood in “Inquiring Minds,” offering a hyper hypothetical dialogue he would have with his son about drugs, alcohol, robbery and sex – all set to a guitar riff that brought to mind the Miracles’ “Tears of a Clown.” An understated, first-person “Ain’t That Love?” celebrated the fortune that can bring a man and woman together, and lamented just as intensely how a marriage can sadly run its course.
Equally impressive was the cycle of songs about those who society would like pretend do not exist. The non-judgmental “Whores” looked at how the other half lives, and lauded the bravery it takes to live on the margins in the home of the free. “Hail”, from 2003’s Tough Love and dedicated to victims of hate crimes, was unusually soft-spoken yet powerful, especially with its “We can be who we want to be” refrain acting as a concise declaration of human rights.
Songs about the economy will be a motif of the upcoming record, said Hamell, who previewed a trio of gems for the Valentine’s audience. “Jennifer”s Stripping Again,” powered by some awesome rhythm guitar, and
the jazz-inflected rockabilly of “Richard’s Got a Job,” offered snapshots of the lows and highs of finding not only employment, but a sense of self-worth. “Bobby and the Russians” felt like an Elmore Leonard story
adapted by Lou Reed fronting the Kinks: deadpan, eerie and hypnotic. “Halfway,” a song about being “sick to death of lies and mediocrity,” was engaging and cathartic – indeed, the audience felt compelled to yell the “Fuck it!” that punctuated the chorus (“Why go halfway?”) four times, all to the delight of Hamell.
To close out a nearly two-hour set, Hamell showed his versatility and passion for making music on his own terms. By request, he played his ode to the greatest stand-up comedian the world has ever known, “Bill Hicks.” Midway in the performance, Hamell extemporized “Times Union Center” in place of the customary “Saint Gabriel Arena,” mused about what would happen if corporate sponsorship were ever to take over comedy shows in heaven, and then whispered en route to a lung-bursting series of shouts, “He’s alive!!!!”
There is no doubt Hicks would have loved “Together,” which held a wonderfully cracked mirror up to the entropy of old age and romantic devotion. “Television,” a spoken word piece about addiction to cable
network programming, evoked Arthur C. Clarke’s artificial intelligence visions with a merry prankster sensibility reminiscent of Ken Kesey. “The Meeting,” Hamell’s beloved manifesto for being a free thinker in a conformist world, was played at warp speed for the most part, with a marvelous slow blues interlude conjuring up the slide guitar of Muddy Waters, and closing out with an “a cappella face solo.”
“Thank you for letting me be me!” Hamell exclaimed to the small, but enthusiastic crowd, who stayed a while after the show to chat with the leading contender for the happiest man in the world.
HAMELL ON TRIAL SET LIST
A Little Concerned, That’s All
I Hate Your Kid
The Happiest Man in the World
Ain’t That Love?
Richard’s Got a Job
Jennifer’s Stripping Again
Bobby and the Russians
Television (spoken word)