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Bolts of blues
The rebirths of John Hammond and John Mayall
BY TED DROZDOWSKI

The shivery howl of bluesman Robert Johnsonís voice and the sound of his acoustic guitar, with its quicksilver slide and rippling phrases, struck young John Hammond like bolts from the Delta sky.

"Suddenly, I knew what I wanted to do," he says over the phone from his Jersey City home, some 40 years later. "I became a blues fanatic. The music of Robert Johnson and Willie McTell and the other country blues players kept me focused in my teenage years, which were not my fondest." Indeed, Hammond and his mother were estranged from his namesake father, the legendary A&R man who discovered a host of talents including Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. "So when I was 19, I left home, got an acoustic guitar, and started playing these songs that I loved. And thatís what Iíve been doing ever since ó playing and traveling around."

Next Thursday, Hammond will stop for a night at the Regent Theatre in Arlington, where heíll join John Mayall ó another artist who helped set the course of modern blues ó for two shows. Hammond was an important part of the í60s blues revival: living proof that a young urban white man could play country blues with authenticity. He recorded brilliant early-career electric albums for Vanguard Records that featured Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, and other great players; he also put together a Greenwich Village band to showcase Jimi Hendrix before the guitar giant was signed. Mayall, meanwhile, was the spearhead of the British blues revival that eventually birthed the Rolling Stones, Cream, and Led Zeppelin. He shattered puristsí expectations with the depth of his songwriting and the strength of the ensemble performances on Bluesbreakers, A Hard Road, and Crusade (all on London Records), early albums that established the reputations of Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and Mick Taylor, respectively, as world-class guitarists.

Both men have continued to enjoy illustrious, full careers. After decades of non-stop touring and recording, Mayall celebrated his 70th birthday last July with a Liverpool concert that returned Clapton and Taylor to the Bluesbreakers fold for the night. Itís captured on the recently released 70th Birthday Concert CD and DVD (Eagle). Hammond, who has also toured and recorded tirelessly, is currently enjoying his highest profile since the í60s thanks to a pair of extremely well-received albums, 2001ís underground hit Wicked Grin, a collection of tunes penned by Tom Waits that Waits also produced, and last yearís Ready for Love, an edgy disc of almost equally unpredictable material produced by Los Lobosí David Hidalgo that glories in the sound of dirty electric guitars running through tremolo-saturated vintage amps.

"I canít tell you how much that recording opened me up," Hammond says of Wicked Grin. "It showed me that I could do material from other genres and put together a band and tour all over the world without a road manager. It opened up a whole new audience for me. Itís just been a tremendous rebirth. To see that Iím still happening and can perform on more levels at 61 is a great feeling."

John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers and John Hammond play two shows, at 7 and 9:30 p.m., next Thursday, March 11, at the Regent Theatre, 7 Medford Street in Arlington; call (781) 646-4849.


Issue Date: March 5 - 11, 2004
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