John Hammond Jr. is a steady performer who continues to revive some classic blues material that might otherwise be forgotten. Best of the Vanguard Years
provides a nice overview of his early days.
Hammond began his recording career on the Vanguard label, generating five albums between 1964 and 1967. After stints with Atlantic and Columbia, Hammond returned to Vanguard for three records in the late '70s. Both intervals are represented on this retrospective CD, but only five of the 23 tracks were recorded during the '70s.
Son of a famous talent scout and record producer, Hammond began his blues career during the early '60s when folk music was big among college students and artsy types. Hammond loved early country bluesmen like Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson, and made a name for himself by reinterpreting their classic songs in coffeehouses. Today Hammond still performs solo with acoustic guitar and harmonica, but he also goes electric on occasion. In fact, Hammond was one of the first white bluesmen to record an electric album with his 1964 release Big City Blues, four tracks from which are included here.
Many critics love Hammond's early acoustic albums, but to be honest, most of them bore me. Back in the '60s, Hammond often sounded like a rich white boy trying his damnedest to sing like a black plantation worker. It wasn't until the '70s when he shook off some of his youthful exuberance that Hammond began to make those classic blues tunes his own.
Still, Hammond's early electric albums were quite good, and the acoustic cuts included here are truly some of his best. I love his spirited version of Mose Allison's "Ask Me Nice," which was previously unreleased. The best cuts are the five collected from the great album So Many Roads with Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica, Michael Bloomfield on piano (instead of his usual guitar), and three scruffy cats who would later become rock 'n roll immortals with the Band: Robbie Robertson (guitar), Levon Helm (drums) and Garth Hudson (organ). Recorded in one day, So Many Roads is one of the best of the early white electric blues albums.
Also noteworthy are three '70s tracks with the Nighthawks, as well as a terrific live version of Billy Boy Arnold's "I Wish You Would." The latter is about as funky a solo blues cut as you'll hear.