Borneo Jazz, May 12-15, 2011
Another welcome friend of Borneo Jazz is the blues, and the festival has hosted some great blues artists over the years, with an undoubted highlight being the outstanding show of veteran harp player James Cotton the previous year. It is fair to say that singer/guitarist John Hammond is a legend himself, coming into his own in the wake of the blues revival of the '60s which revived dormant figures such as Son House, Skip James, Reverend Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt. Just the week prior to Borneo Jazz '11, Hammond was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and his intense set in the balmy early evening left nobody in any doubt as to why.
Hammond's baptism in the blues came at the age of seven, when his father took him to hear singer/songwriter/guitarist Big Bill Broonzy. "It had a profound effect on me," Hammond told the assembled media at the morning press conference. Although he wouldn't get a guitar until he was 18, Hammond was performing just a year later. Exactly fifty years later, Hammond is as passionate about the blues as ever. "Something comes through me when I play. It inspires me to stay on the road 300 days a year," the 68-year-old said. Playing more than ever these days, Hammond has played more than six thousand gigs in his long career to date.
Hammond's career has been well-documented, and he has performed with a who's who of the blues: "I played with [singers/guitarists] Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and Mississippi John Hurt. I've been so fortunate to play with these guys and glean something from them," Hammond says. "I never could have imagined I would be part of that, and then I became it." That Hammond is still playing all over the world to enthusiastic audiences is something he never takes for granted, but neither is he surprised that he always finds an audience: "Every generation discovers the blues," he affirmed.
For an hour Hammond provided a passionate demonstration of just why the blues appeals to generation after generation, in every corner of the world. His repertoire drew from the very roots of the blues, from Robert Johnson's "It's Gonna Be Rainin' Outdoors" to Sleepy John Estes's "Someday Baby Blues." Switching from his 1935 National Guitarwhich looked like it had given loyal serviceto acoustic guitar, Hammond's hands were a blur of string-threatening strum and his trademark slide, zipping up and down the frets. Hammond's harmonica, strapped around his neck, waslike his guitaran extension of himself. Crying slide and wailing harmonica on the raw blues of "You Know That's Cold," suggested his influence on Irish blues guitarist Rory Gallagher, whose legendary acoustic sets mirrored the technique, passion and intensity of Hammond.
Blues vocals are somewhat unique, as the delivery is more important than having a "good" voice per se. As good a guitarist as Hammond is, it's his singing which really holds the attention; as powerful as a Southern Baptist preacher and as soulful as gospel music, Hammond is the real deal. At all times he seemed to be locked in a profound reverie where he was both preacher and confessor. When he sang "Lord, I'm goin' up country where I'm barely known," the world-weariness, pain, and need for renewal in Hammond's delivery were moving. There was poignancy in Hammond's voice, carrying the words of Blind Willie McTell: "Would you walk with a woman who always had to have her way?" McTell was unusual amongst blues artists as he played finger picking style on a twelve-string guitar. Although he died in 1959 aged 61, his music influenced blues artists, folk singers and rock bands, including Bob Dylan, The Allman Brothers, Taj Mahal and Jack White.
More up-tempo numbers such as Muddy Waters 1948 hit "I can't be Satisfied," Robert Geddins' "My Time after a While," Jimmy Rogers' "That's Alright" and Johnson's "Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)" brought the concert to a stirring conclusion. The legendary, near-mythical Robert Johnson was an important influence on Hammond who paid tribute to Johnson on At the Crossroads: The Blues of Robert Johnson (Vanguard Records, 2003).
The inevitable encoreHammond had retaken his chair even as the irrepressible MC Gezza was urging the crowd on to call him backwas Jimmy Reed's 1960 hit "Found Love" with the lyric, "It's hard to believe the condition the world is in, you can't trust nobody and baby that's a sin," which again underlined the timelessness of the blues; what would Reed make of the condition of the world in '11? Apart from influencing Hammond, Reed has also influenced everyone from the Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones to Elvis Presley and Neil Young.