It takes supreme confidence to stroll onto a stage armed with only a couple of guitars and harmonicas. But if you are blues superman John Hammond, you also have the secret weapon of a lifetime of songs and the greatest stories about the who’s who of the blues world.
That’s exactly what John Hammond did to an enthusiastic crowd last night as he sat down picked up a guitar and thanked us for coming out on a “summer night.” Immediately establishing a rapport with the crowd who welcomed him first with respectful applause and then with rapt attention as they hung on every word.
After a couple of quick numbers on his acoustic accompanied by harp and foot tapping, the stories started. The first detailed his encounter with radio station WLAC in Nashville, a 50,000 Watt powerhouse that used to have a blues show on at night. Since their night time signal “could be heard on the moon,” he was exposed to a number of different artists including Lightnin' Slim. Hammond then launched into Slim’s number, Mean Old Lonesome Train.
The stories came fast and furious after that. We were treated to stories of Michael Bloomfield, Buddy Guy, Robert Geddins, Muddy Waters, John Mayall, Eric Clapton, and an extended story about Sonny Boy Williamson – Rice Miller.
You might think that with a modern audience, attentions may have wandered, but not so with Hammond’s dry engaging wit. The audience was so spellbound that they were so enthralled that the only other sounds were the sounds of drinks being made and cameras being clicked. At one point, while the bartender was mixing a drink, Hammond quipped to him that, “it’s kind of hard to shake it quietly.” He said it with a big smile and the audience gave back a polite laugh. No feelings were hurt as everyone was showing respect for the staff trying their best to stay in the background for the show.
Switching to a Resonator guitar to add a little slide to the show, Hammond moved into Howlin’ Wolf’s Rocket Oldsmobile and Robert Johnson’s Come On In My Kitchen before performing one of his songs, You Know That’s Cold. He finished up that section with a song from Blind Willie McTell.
While he was changing back to his original guitar, Hammond took us on a journey back to his early days in Chicago. He talked about going to Maxwell Street to see the great country blues players who were maybe in their ‘50’s and how he thought of them as “so old.” That drew an appreciative laugh from the crowd, many of whom who would look at that age as being “so young.” From there he launched into a Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon number, Worried Life Blues.
More stories about traveling with Mayall and Clapton then revisiting a group he formed in 1967 called John Hammond And The Screaming Nighthawks. That led to one of his compositions, Come To Find Out.
The story about Bloomfield, Charlie Musselwhite, and Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) was hysterical and Hammond performing Fattening Frogs For Snakes was amazing.
More songs, more stories. Muddy Waters’ Sail On, Honey Bee preceded a look back at the Piedmont Blues style of Blind Boy Fuller, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee. That led to a great rendition of Step It Up And Go, that was followed by Jimmy Rogers’ That’s Alright.
As it was getting later in the show and became obvious that the performance would soon be over, a few members of the audience began offering “suggestions” of songs they would like to hear. Hammond parried them with grace and good humor, quoting Dave Bromberg that “sometimes you get what you get.”
This brought good natured laughter even from the person who was politely rebuffed. Besides, it gave Hammond a chance to tell more stories. This time about Hoyt Axton and later Big Joe Williams before finishing up with Son House.
All in all, it was one of the most satisfying evenings I’ve had in a long time. Hammond proved to me that the blues is not a museum of old and dusty songs. It’s a living breathing organism that has a long lineage of greatness and as long as we have players who are willing to put in the work, we’ll keep it alive. He ran the gamut of great players from the past up through the later masters and played their music alongside of his.
Hammond knew many of these players, and those he didn’t know, he had established some sort of link through other performers and family members. In this way, he was able to offer us the next link in the chain. It’s important to keep these connections and so important to keep this music viable.
Live music is so important to that process and places like the Tin Pan are an incredibly valuable resource. It would be easy for them to just bring in those acts that cater to the crowds that like to be seen in the latest hip place. But they have gone out of their way to bring in acts that might not be mainstream, but who form an important part of American music.
Many of the people who made up last night’s crowd were old friends and prior to the show I saw a lot of visiting going on. I found myself greeting old friends that I had not seen in a long time and was glad to share a few moments with them. In an intimate setting like this, there is little barrier between audience and participant.
Last night, we all participated in an event. And it was glorious.
(Photos by Anita Schlank. Used by permission.)