A Few Minutes With… John Hammond & G. Love
Interview & story by Don Wilcock
“So much of it has to do with your vocal delivery,” says G. Love, who shares the bill with Hammond at Skidmore College’s Zankel Music Center on Sunday (September 7) in a benefit concert for Saratoga Springs’ famed coffeehouse, Caffe Lena. “I mean, ultimately that’s kind of everything, isn’t it? If you put the time in with the records and stuff, you can really get it down and sound authentic and stuff, but in the end it’s always the voice that gives you away. Then you realize it’s not Blind Blake playing or not Robert Johnson playing.”
John Hammond does sound more like the old line Delta blues masters Blind Blake and Robert Johnson than he does Bob Dylan, who first brought him to the fabled Caffe Lena in early 1963. “I get very comfortable doing these songs that I’ve been doing for all these years that no one has ever heard before,” says Hammond, “and I feel like I can get all inside and outside them.”
On his 35th album – a live recording called Timeless – Hammond covers aging chestnuts by blues masters like Little Walter, Sleepy John Estes, Skip James, Elmore James and Howlin’ Wolf. “Heartache Blues” is the album’s only original. Hammond began writing late in his career. “I’m not a prolific songwriter,” he readily admits. “I’ve got about eight songs I’ve written. They’re blues. I don’t feel that I need to be writing songs, although my wife disagrees with me and thinks it’s a way to get more money, which is true, but I knew so many great songs. I don’t feel that need to have a big catalog of songs.”
He sighs. “I don’t want to go into my rationales, but anyway, this latest CD is a hot show that came off real good. We had planned the songs in advance, and we had enough to make a good record so I’m happy about that. And I’ve got a whole lot of gigs this year, beginning with this show with G. Love.”
Hammond will tour this fall and into next year with James Cotton and Charlie Musselwhite.
G. Love calls himself Hammond’s musical child, but he has melded those influences into a sound that encompasses hip-hop and the soulful grooves he grew up listening to as a high
school student in Philadelphia. “I wanted to be original and not do what someone else was doing,” says the artist who first performed at Caffe Lena back in 1991 when he was a student at Skidmore.
“I was first influenced by Dylan and then John Hammond and then trying to sound like Muddy Waters.” His most recent album is Sugar with his band Special Sauce. It’s rootsier than most of his albums. “I really tried to learn that song ‘Two Trains’ by Muddy Waters. I think I might have given myself an ulcer by trying to learn how to play and sing that song ’cause I was trying to put so much of my whole body into like wooooah!
“Trying to put so much of my whole body into it was like fucking up my stomach or something, but I don’t know. I think for me, especially listening to my early records, I really sound like a lot of character on the voice almost to like I don’t even recognize myself. Nowadays, I feel I sing more like I talk. It’s more my true voice as opposed to that kid I was trying to be in character.”
Remaining relevant more than a half century after Lena Spencer first opened the doors to Caffe Lena in the midst of the ’60s “folk scare” is a tightrope walk. John Hammond is a survivor. G. Love is an innovator.
“The blues audience really wants to hear the straight ahead blues, and we do do that, but it’s not exactly what we do,” says G. Love, explaining his appeal. “We’re kind of a wild card, blues-oriented, hip-hop garage band in a lotta ways. My audience I think is pretty receptive to everything. (John Hammond’s) audience is a lot older, and they’re a little bit not so much into what we do, especially in a seated venue because my crowd likes to dance and party, and his crowd likes to sit down at a real quiet intimate show where our thing is kind of raucous. When we play Saratoga at Skidmore, I’ll just do an acoustic solo so my set is a lot more blues oriented.”
Sarah Craig, the person who makes it all happen at Caffe Lena, deserves enormous credit for walking that half-century tightrope and maintaining a schedule that cuts across generations with the best acts that appeal to a wide demographic. “Is she still running it?” asks G. Love about Sarah and the Caffe. Yes, I respond.
“It’s too cool. When I was in Boston in Harvard Square (in 1992) my roommates were doing canvassing for this group called Peace Action, which was like lobbying to end nuclear weapons testing and just domestic betterment. And Sarah ran that. So Sarah was like the best boss you could have. Matter of fact, she really was a big reason why I’m talking to you.
“As a street performer all the spots were coveted. So one day I showed up at the Park Street station, and I walked down there, and I realized that there was a kid playing, but he didn’t have any kind of amp or anything like that, and I had my amp. So I kinda went down the platform a little bit and pretended like I didn’t know he was playing and set up and started playing, and, of course, I was drowning him out.
“So he came and walked over and says, ‘Hey, how ya doin’? I was playing down there. You sound great.’ Anyway, we became friends even though I tried to snake him on his spot, and his name was Fordham Merzy. He had a band. He was a college kid. Anyway, one night I was working at Peace Action, and I got a call from him. ‘Hey, the opening band for tonight cancelled. Can you do this gig?’ And so I looked over at Sarah, and said, ‘Can I go do this gig?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, go ahead.’
“So she let me out of work that night, and I went to this gig, and that was kind of a really important night. I mean there was no one at the gig except for the band I was opening for, the bartender, the cocktail waitress and her boyfriend, who was looking through the help wanted ads. He was a struggling drummer, and it happened to be Jeff (“The Houseman” Clemens), who became my drummer, and then we put the band Special Sauce together that night.”
And a career was born.
WHO: John Hammond & G. Love
WHAT: A benefit concert for Caffe Lena
WHEN: 7pm Sunday (September 7)
WHERE: Skidmore College’s Zankel Music Center, Saratoga Springs
HOW MUCH: $35, $47 & $75 (available in advance online)