TVD Live: Hamell on Trial at Big Andy’s TV House, 5/9

So there I was, in Northwest Washington, DC sitting on a sofa Big Andy’s living room on Saturday, May 9, 2015, witnessing the miraculous. Namely, the great Ed Hamell of Hamell on Trial and it was a privilege to watch him perform in a space so small. Why, it could hardly have been more intimate if we’d all taken off our clothes like the guy in Hamell’s wonderful song, “First Date.”

Hamell, in case you’re not acquainted with his work, is one of the most idiosyncratic figures on the indie scene. He’s an anti-folk folkie who can play his old Gibson at about 1,000 mph, a teller of filthy jokes who is dead serious when it comes to the state of the world and its myriad casualties, and a survivor of drug addiction who still loves whores and other down-and-outers and insists upon achieving career success on his own terms, which is why he was playing Big Andy’s living room instead of Madison Square Garden. Oh, and did I happen to mention he takes his 13-year-old son Detroit on the road with him, and even brings Detroit to the front of the stage to tell a few jokes? Hamell is truly one of a kind; a compassionate man who loves to tell his audiences to go fuck themselves, and a cynic abounding with empathy. And it’s all in good not quite clean fun, as are many of his most noteworthy songs, such as the wonderfully bilious “I Hate Your Kid.”

The first thing you learn, watching Hamell, is that he loves to tell jokes, interrupts his own songs to tell jokes, and works jokes into his songs. He also interrupts his tunes to tell hilarious true stories, about his old drug buddies and their misadventures, which include smoking cat litter in the hopes that it was a rock of crack even though they knew damn well it was kitty litter, or finding a suitcase floating at sea filled with white powder, which they snorted without effect until they found a medallion certifying the contents as the remains of some cremated somebody.

Anyway, he opened the show with a frenzied guitar riff only to stop and tell the audience he would no longer tell jokes or play political songs and would instead fill his allotted 45 minutes doing interpretive dance. After that he launched into “A Little Concerned, That’s All,” a song about keeping your head in the sand, and followed that with “When You’re Young,” a kinda polka that stresses, at least partly tongue in cheek, the importance of getting wasted and living life on the razor’s edge. It includes the tales about the kitty litter crack rock and the suitcase in the sea, which he insists are true, as well as a prayer to the Lord to turn that pebble of cat litter into crack. The Lord could part the Red Sea; why not stoop to perform a simple miracle He could perform in his sleep?

“When You’re Young” was followed by the very hilarious and melodic “Inquiring Minds,” about the dilemma all parents face; whether to tell the truth about their wild pasts to junior or to lie through their teeth. Hamell knows which side he’s on; utter and total hypocrisy. He recounts his own impressive drug, criminal, and sexual exploits, then concludes by saying that when it comes to fessing up to them, “I’m gonna lie/I’m gonna lie/I’m gonna lie/I’m gonna lie/I’m gonna lie.” “Dad,” says his kid, “Did you ever do anything bad?” “Fuck no!”

After that he played a frantic ode to his guitar called “3 Ships,” a humorous tune about how he finds a cheap guitar in a shop and can only afford it on the installment plan, and decides he’ll buy it when his “ship comes in.” But despite watching Jaws and reading Moby Dick and wearing a Thurston Howell III outfit and watching reruns of The Love Boat his ship never shows up, and his wife finally buys it and he’s saved.

He followed “3 Ships” with the bluesy “The Happiest Man in the World,” which he introduced by saying there was no irony in the song, in which a stubborn ATM machine tells him he doesn’t have a nickel and gives him a bus ticket instead. As the pissed-off Hamell rides that bus he passes all the down-and-outers he’s known and written off doing well, and he has an epiphany. He sees “beggars with the stature of kings” and finally returns to the ATM, which informs him, “Aw, you ain’t really broke/You’re as rich as a king/You just ain’t got any money/That’s the thing.”

One thing that struck me as hilarious about Hamell’s show is his habit of shouting “Fuck you!” or “Go fuck yourself” to his audience, if they don’t satisfy his expectations. Just as funny is “Chris and the Angels,” a tale about working as a 40-year-old in a pizza shop with a 19-year-old prick for a boss. The story ends with a fed-up Hamell grabbing his piss-ant boss by the dick and dragging him into the dining room. He concludes it by saying that you could tell the kid was a “dick-touch virgin,” before launching into the great “Halfway,” in which he pours vitriol on everybody from Creed to Republicans to David Blaine to Starbucks, and which includes a great audience sing-along, with the crowd shouting “Fuck it!” after which Hamell sings, “Why go halfway?” He then performed a new song about how he wanted to teach his son to respect authority, but it was impossible because the world’s full of asshole cops and “now I’m teaching him not to get shot.”

He then delivered on the wonderful “Whores,” on which he rains compassion on the feckless and the fucked, singing “we’re all chumps” who “rise from our dumps” and I “love them just like Jesus” before going into a long high note. He then saluted Andy before diving into the drug tune, “When Bobby Comes Down.” It reminds me a bit of a Mountain Goats tune, and is all about getting out of the volatile Bobby’s way before he loses his buzz and “things get weird.” In the song they go to a diner where Bobby pukes on the table and everything goes south, and Hamell’s simple moral is “I don’t want to be around/When Bobby comes down.”

He followed that with a hilarious tale, “Blood of the Wolf,” about a guy who decides he’s going to hold up a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise with a fork. Much hilarity follows, and believe it or not the perp actually makes off with some money. Next up was a song he performed in a duet with Kinya Dawson on his latest LP, 2013’s The Happiest Man in the World. Called “Together,” it’s a simultaneously light-hearted and bleak look at growing very old with your significant other. He sings about how you’ll be reduced to watching Dancing with the Stars in an old folks home, the front your shirt covered with drool while you go to the bathroom in the pants. Yet despite this dour prospect the characters in the song somehow maintain their dignity, and that’s what gives the song its emotional power.

He then concluded with a song I don’t know, during which he performed his famous “face solo,” which involved much jiggling of jowls and cheeks to the accompaniment of his guitar and which he complained is the only bit of his you can find on YouTube. Not true, fortunately; you can find some great stuff by him, including such stone classics as “First Date,” “Bobby and the Russians,” and the ever popular “I Hate Your Kid.” Hamell has lived a tough life, and been through some hard times involving drug abuse and the break-up of a long-term marriage, but he has survived with both his sense of humor and his compassion for his brothers and sisters, all those whores and junkies and two-bit thieves and alkies out there hustling on the street just trying to make it through the day with their dignity intact.

Which is why I love him. Anybody with that much compassion who can tell a great penguin fellatio joke is somebody America needs, because America is a hard place and needs all the empathy and laughter it can get. I was privileged to see Hamell on Trial in such an intimate setting, was lucky to have him tell me to go fuck myself on numerous occasions, and I’m happy to know he’s out there, doing it his way because he has his dignity and isn’t about to trade it for the bullshit the record industry demands of its artists. God bless Ed Hamell, and by the way, the punch line to the joke about the penguin is “No, just Ben and Jerry’s vanilla ice cream.” If you’re a genius, you’ll figure out the set up on your own.

Hamell on Trial returns to Washington, DC on June 26 at Gypsy Sally’s—and the show is FREE.

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  • Bleaked

    Sounds like a great show. Madison Rectangular Living Room!

    • Michael Little

      It was great!


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