A lesson in country-blues

John Hammond tells his musical story at the Big Room

John Hammond

John Hammond

Photo courtesy of skyline music

John Hammond, Tuesday, Jan. 19, at Sierra Nevada Big Room.

A rapt audience filled the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s Big Room on Tuesday, Jan. 19, to hear guitarist John Hammond (not “John Hammond Jr.” as so many people mistakenly call him; Hammond Jr. is his father), who spent a little more than 2 1/2 hours spinning stories and singing the kind of country-blues for which he’s most noted. After a few opening numbers that featured him playing an acoustic guitar, rack-mounted harmonica—plus some very active foot-stomping—the genial bluesman began to preface each song with either a story about it or about himself. And after more than five decades of concertizing and recording, he has plenty of both! In fact, the event was half music and half stories, with the latter eliciting a lot of laughter from the crowd.

Now 73, Hammond described how he began his career 50 years ago, just when interest in country-blues was whetted by the discovery that many of the men whose music he and his fellow young acolytes admired and emulated were still around. Hammond shared how he and some of his peers went down to Chicago’s Maxwell Street to see their idols in action.

And so it went: an amusing, relevant account of the song he was going to play and then a stunning version of it, especially when he picked up his National “resonator” guitar and treated us to some magnificent slide-guitar work. His harmonica playing was another story, as most of the time I found his screeching destroyed the delicate mood his guitar playing had so eloquently established. As, for example, on his own “Heartache Blues” where, after lamenting his woman’s behavior (“She’s so mean and evil”), his smoke alarm-style harmonica almost ruined that song—and others—for me.

As a devotee of country-blues, Hammond’s focus on Robert Johnson is truly noteworthy (no pun intended), and his heartfelt rendition of Johnson’s “Come on in My Kitchen” (“’cause it’s goin’ to be rainin’ outdoors”) was a fine tribute to the man whose heart-wrenching songs of love and betrayal have fascinated generations of blues lovers. Among the many stories Hammond related was this gem that occurred during his performance at the 1986 Sacramento Blues Festival: He introduced the song “My Time After a While” as being by Buddy Guy (who’d erroneously “stolen” the songwriting credit) only to be confronted by an irate Bob Geddins, a Bay Area record producer who was in attendance, who shouted at Hammond that he had written the song—which was true.

As much as Hammond thrives on the acoustic country-blues live, the multiple blues-award-winning guitarist has often chosen to play newer material on an electric guitar in the studio with others. In the 1990s, for example, he recorded with Little Charlie & the Nightcats, and in 2001, he conspired with Tom Waits, who wrote all of the songs for Hammond’s album Wicked Grin.

One of Hammond’s flag-wavers is his rousing, foot-stomping version of Skip James’ “Preachin’ Blues” (“Yes I’m gonna get me religion/I’m gonna join the Baptist Church/You know I wanna be a Baptist preacher/Just so I won’t have to work”) that ended the well-received show and led to a brief encore.