Graded on a Curve:
John Hammond,
So Many Roads

The critical line on John Paul Hammond–son of legendary record producer/talent scout John H. Hammond and one of the first white guys to sing the blues–has always been that he tries too hard, and that his studied attempts to sound like a 92-year-old Mississippi Delta dweller slurring the blues cross the line into condescension. Greil Marcus, perhaps the most ferocious of Hammond’s detractors, once lambasted him for his “ludicrous blackface vocals.” Robert Christgau, meanwhile, said Hammond’s “vocal style demeans his mentors.” And so on and so forth.

That said, he’s no more affected than Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart, so why pick on poor minstrel John? He means well and obviously respects the artists he imitates, and actually annoys me less than Waits, whose boho shtick makes me want to shoot a beatnik. Granted, Hammond takes things too far, but that’s what makes listening to him so much fun. He growls and spits and mumbles and does everything but shout. And you haven’t lived until you’ve heard him sing, “My telephone keep rangin’, souuuunnnd like a long-distance cow.”

The only Hammond LP you must ever listen to is 1965’s So Many Roads, and that’s because John’s backed on the album by three members of the Hawks, who would shortly thereafter hook up with Bob Dylan and ultimately find fame as The Band. He wanted to use the entire band, but Vanguard records forced bassist Jimmy Lewis and Michael Bloomfield (who handled piano duties) down his throat. As a result, only guitarist Robbie Robertson, drummer Levon Helm, and keyboardist Garth Hudson played at the sessions. Also on board was harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite.

The results give you some idea of why folks were so impressed by the Hawks, who were then but an obscure bar band from Toronto. Robertson–who would later become a paragon of restraint with The Band–lets loose with an unfettered ferocity throughout So Many Roads. Helm plays with a spartan simplicity sweetened by a healthy dollop of good old Arkansas swing. And Hudson adds his trademark organ swirls to numbers like “Baby Please Don’t Go.” In short, So Many Roads is a Rosetta Stone of sorts, and the key to understanding why Dylan turned to the unknown Hawks when it came to putting together his first touring rock ’n’ roll band.

The LP includes a slew of scorching performances by Robertson, and highlights the frantic playing of Musselwhite, another white bluesman who came up in the early ’60s blues scene. Standout tracks include the ubiquitous Bo Diddley number “Who Do You Love?,” on which Levon bangs out the beat while Robertson plays a short but hair-raising solo. On “Baby Please Don’t Go” and “Big Boss Man” Robertson tosses off short, sharp shards of electricity. And his playing on the chug-a-lugging “Down in the Bottom” brings to mind Bob Dylan’s long sought “wild mercury sound.”

Meanwhile, “Gambling Blues”–on which Musselwhite hammers things home while Helm beats a savage tattoo–sounds like a cut from Exile on Main Street. As for “Long Distance Call,” it’s all vocal overkill and wildcat guitar, and as exciting a showcase of Robertson’s gifts as ever you’ll hear.

Hammond, of course, is Hammond, and on occasion he crosses that fine, invisible line into Uncle Tom territory. On “I Want You to Love Me” he sounds like he’s swallowed his tongue, and drags out the word “me” across two counties. You can practically hear the spittle hitting the recording studio wall. And on “So Many Roads, So Many Trains” he comes off as an Al Jolson for the Greenwich Village coffeehouse set.

John Hammond’s an acquired taste, at best, and I doubt I’ll ever check out another one of his albums, if only because a little bit of Hammond goes a very long way. But I recommend So Many Roads to both blues aficionados and fans of The Band. Robertson’s playing is that ornery, and Helms swings that hard. As for Hammond, it’s impossible to hate a guy who sounds like he just swallowed Junior Wells.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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