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Photo: Joe Putrock

Notes from the Fringe

Punk-folk rebel Hamell on Trial speaks truth to power while hammering the kinks out of his new one-man show

By Mike Hotter

 

A rich vein of dissent once ran directly through popular music, but things are looking pretty anemic these days, at least on the surface. Thanks largely to the mega-media conglomerates who own the airwaves, Americans are fed a steady musical diet of REO Speedwagon, Foreigner and Styx—if some present-day Rip Van Winkle woke up from a 30-year coma and tuned his dial to the FM, chances are he would assume nothing much has changed. As the culture goes down in a blaze of glorious kitsch, while Baghdad and Tikrit burn for real, mainstream America has Paris Hilton dreams set to the beat of 1982.

That’s where Ed Hamell and his guitar come in. Here is a man who loves rock and roll, but not for any escapist reasons. For more than a decade, his Hamell on Trial persona has traveled the roads of North America, Europe and Australia like a post-punk Paul Revere, spinning harrowing and hilarious yarns of up-close-and-personal encounters with the seamy underbelly of the American way of life, dateline circa 2010.

But after years of playing the rock-club circuit, Hamell says, “things sort of ceilinged off. It’s the same 120 people in Chicago, the same 80 people in Atlanta.” With an eye on bringing his music and message to a larger stage, Hamell has fashioned a new one-man show titled The Terrorism of Everyday Life. While serving as a consummation of a lifetime in the rock and roll trenches, Hamell also piles on his takes concerning American politics, the war on drugs, race relations, mass media and the culture wars. In other words, he takes on topics most contemporary musicians wouldn’t touch with an 8-foot Irishman.

“I attended the Folk Alliance conference, as a prospective client, and I was fucking amazed at how little political shit there was,” Hamell says, as he restrings his 1937 Gibson hollow-body. “It seemed to me, that day, that no one wanted to rock the boat because, if you start talking about Ann Coulter’s cunt at a festival, you’re not going to get hired.” Hamell grins, “Then I kind of understand why I wasn’t drawing in the South.”

As someone who ranks Charles Bukowski and Lenny Bruce next to John Lennon and Joe Strummer on his list of influences, Hamell has met with some resistance for his NC-17 rated material. Like his comedic heroes Bruce, Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks, Hamell isn’t averse to taking things to extremes in order to not only make a point, but make an impression. He says it’s all about what one has accomplished at “the end of the day.”

“The end of the day is when you’re like 60 or 70 or 80, and you’re looking back at your life and saying ‘Well, what did I do?’ To my mind, if you’re singing, y’know, Matchbox 20 songs, I don’t care how big the arena was—that was your life?”

You can tell a lot about a person by the state of their guitar. And for all the spoken word and comedy that color Hamell’s idiosyncratic approach to performing, it’s his battered 1937 Gibson hollow body which goads and supports his message. Hamell’s has a big hole right below where his strumming hand sits. Many of Hamell’s tunes are based on train rhythms, Chuck Berry riffs morphed into hardcore-punk dust devils. But the hole in his guitar isn’t caused solely by his claw-hammer right hand. “When I play, I sweat like crazy. Much of it has to do with the sweat, wearing it down at the bridge—it all collects at the bridge, you know?”

Ed Hamell was raised in Syracuse, where he saw the hopes and dreams of many of his working-class peers run aground by substance abuse, hard knocks, or simply lack of opportunity. Hamell’s father, a Jewish tool-and-die-maker, who Hamell says could have been a doctor with the right breaks and education, instilled in his son a skeptical nature and a sometimes devastating sarcastic streak. Hamell’s mom was Catholic (“I’ve got guilt you wouldn’t believe,” he quips early on in his show), and part of his unique approach to music was formed when he took part in playing folk masses from the ages of 13 to 17—or roughly the same span he started taking organic mescaline trips on an almost daily basis.

“Eating the Lord’s body, drinking his blood—when you’re tripping, there is nothing more surreal than the Catholic Mass. Marilyn Manson has nothing on that.”

At first wanting to be the Keith Richards to someone else’s Mick Jagger, he joined a string of good bands with pretentious frontmen, eventually causing Hamell to cut bait and take the lead himself. As Hamell succinctly puts it, “It was important for me to stumble on something that was distinctly me.”

The fortuitous stumble came in the form of a request to play solo as part of a benefit show for a friend in need. Hamell didn’t even own an acoustic guitar at the time.

“Initially, I shied away from it. Then I got another call from the person running the benefit. He said, ‘Hey, the guy’s dying—would it kill ya?’ So I called it Hamell on Trial, as in, every musician in town was going to be there scrutinizing my very amateurish performance.”

What may have been amateurish to Hamell turned out to be genius to others, and soon record deals and tour dates were in the offing, including a two-year layover in Albany, where he played often at the now long-since-defunct Half Moon Café.

“Nobody ever came. If I got 10 people it was a big night. But it really made me learn a lot, and that’s where this current show started.”

Inspired by a person from his then-record label to try his hand down in Austin, Texas, Hamell, always the wary Northerner, was pleasantly surprised by the reception he received.

“Austin not only reveres the old guard—the Butch Hancocks, the Stevie Ray Vaughans, even the Butthole Surfers to some extent, they’re Texas boys—they really are very embracing of newcomers. I thought, ‘Oh, I’m a Yankee, they won’t get me.’ But they were very much like, ‘Wow, you’re weird, we love it!’”

In recent years, Hamell has received major support from another trailblazing barricade-stormer, Ani DiFranco, who produced, released and guested on Hamell’s last two studio projects. Along with these career milestones came some degree of personal solace. Clean and sober now for several years, Hamell also has a 5-year-old son, Detroit. When asked if the name was inspired by his oft-stated love for Motor City rabble rousers like the Stooges and the MC5, Hamell replies in the affirmative.

“Yeah, also Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, all the way up to the White Stripes and Eminem—I think there’s a certain blue-collar aggression that appeals to me. My cat is named Iggy. My friend Wammo, from the Asylum Street Spankers, asked me one time, ‘Wait a minute, you named your kid Detroit, and your cat Iggy?’, and I said, ‘Well, Detroit’s no name for a cat.’ ”

The Terrorism of Everyday Life can be seen as Hamell on Trial’s troop surge. He is currently in the middle of a weekly stint at new Washington Avenue establishment the Capitol Grille, a place where Hamell can add or subtract material, and get a lot of that “in your face” frisson that adds to the theatrical element of Hamell’s hyperliterate psycho-drama on America in the waning years of Dubya. (Hamell’s performance this coming Tuesday at Manhattan comedy club Comix will be filmed for an upcoming DVD release.)

Hamell has a steadily growing fan base accumulating over in Europe, especially in London and Dublin, so Hamell and his management (who used to manage the late and lamented Bill Hicks) have decided to strike while the iron is hot. They are zeroing in on the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August, which, with more than a million attendees, is currently the largest gathering of its kind in the world. (Not coincidentally, Edinburgh Fringe is where Hicks had his biggest U.K. breakthrough.) If all goes as planned, backers will be lined up to support future endeavors, which may mean a spot for Hamell on Trial somewhere not too far off Broadway.

Part of what makes Hamell on Trial so enthralling is to see how far someone so obviously talented yet off the beaten track can go in our largely homogenized consumer society. It takes someone with a big fire in the belly to go up against the behemoths, and perhaps find a place some day in the pantheon, jamming out in Rock Heaven with Cobain and Hendrix, while over in the Poet’s Grove, John Fante and Henry Miller are rolling their own smokes and drafting letters, taking God to task for His draconian immigration policies.

Telling the audience last Thursday night one of his countless pop-culture theories (in this case, how Cobain’s suicide led to the boy-band boom), Hamell notes, from under the sweat, “I’m obsessed with when commerce and art meet—as they haven’t done in my life,” Hamell breaks for the laughs. “But I love it—like The Simpsons, how do they get away with it? Like South Park—if I was animated, I’d be huge!”

Well, Hamell shouldn’t be too worried. He’s pretty animated as is (he plays a “face solo” during the show closing “The Meeting”), plus he’s in this for the long haul. His current show ends with what may be the Hamell on Trial credo:

It’s a world of many paths

There ain’t only one right way

And I will keep on rockin’ that until my dying day.

Hamell on Trial will perform his new show, The Terrorism of Everyday Life, at the Capitol Grille (142 Washington Ave, 434-1616) tonight (Thursday, June 14) and next week (Thursday, June 21) at 8pm. Admission is $8.


ROUGH MIX

SWEET RELEASE Two of our area’s longest-tenured acts celebrate new releases his week. On Friday (June 15), rockabilly soldiers Mark Gamsjager and the Lustre Kings unleash their new one, Way Out There, with a release party at Savannah’s (1 S. Pearl St., Albany). The album, which sports a cover photo snapped by Metroland contributing photographer John Whipple, is 11 slices of the classic, throwback sound that has made the band a hit up and down throughout the Northeast and Midwest. The show starts at 9:30 PM; call the club at 426-9647 or visit lustrekings.com for more info.

This weekend sees the release of A Night at the Trauma House, a DVD-CD package from Albany’s own Acoustic Trauma (pictured). It’s the prog-folk-rock trio’s fourth release, and it couples an hour of live-performance footage, culled from one of the band’s semi-legendary private parties, with an audio CD featuring the concert soundtrack plus one bonus tune. They’ll celebrate their new offering with a free show and party at Positively 4th Street (46 4th St., Troy) this Saturday (June 16), beginning at 9 PM. For more, call 687-0064 or visit acoustictrauma.com.

WHAT DO YOU WANT FOR NOTHIN’? You know it’s officially summertime when the free music starts flowing, and it’s looking like the busiest summer in a while for that kind of thing. All the regular spots—Albany’s Alive at Five (which kicked off last Thursday), Music Haven in Schenectady, Scotia’s Freedom Park, and the Guilderland Performing Arts Center—have all posted schedules that are bursting with the sound of free. The Empire State Plaza’s concert series—which kicks off this Wednesday (June 20) with a party at Sign of the Tree Restaurant, featuring live music from the aforementioned Lustre Kings—expands this year, adding to all of the usual theme nights (blues, country, swing, classic rock) the first Plaza Music Fest on Saturday, July 21, featuring the hot new sounds of 1994: Cracker and the Lemonheads are scheduled to headline; Scottish buzz band the Fratellis are also on the bill. (Full disclosure: One of my own bands, Hector on Stilts, is scheduled to open, but don’t let that keep you from attending.)

Of special note in free-land: The Monday Nights in the Park series in Albany’s Washington Park returns after a few years off. The series launches on July 16 with Australian sextet the Cat Empire; also on the schedule are two-tone vets the Ska-talites, roots troupe Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, and Grammy-nominated, multi-lingual singer Angelique Kidjo, who turns up for her freebie little more than a week after opening for Josh Groban at the Pepsi Arena—sorry, Times Union Center.

WHATEVER MAKES YOU HAPPY The summer concert season wouldn’t be complete without the obligatory radio-station-sponsored music festivals. WEQX (102.7 FM) has announced their very first EQXFest, a three-stage event to be held on Monday, July 31 at Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Headlined by alternative-radio staples 311 and Hasidic-reggae superstar Matisyahu, the festival notably features the first Capital Region appearance by TV On The Radio, as well as the reunion of Albany rockers Lughead who, by our count, haven’t made a peep in eight years. More information is available at weqx.com.

Eight days later, on Tuesday, Aug. 7, Channel 103.1 hosts their annual Big Day Out, also at SPAC. Again this year, the festival coincides with the Family Values tour, which features headliners Korn and Evanescence and a slew of bands from the heavier side of the alternative spectrum, spread out over two stages. Check out channel1031.com for more.

Meanwhile, WGNA’s CountryFest, which has taken place in years past at the Saratoga Race Track and Altamont Fairgrounds, has moved to, well, the country—SUNY Cobleskill, to be exact. The show is on Saturday, July 14, and features, among others, American Idol 5th-season finalist Bucky Covington. Ticket info and complete lineup is at wgna.com.

WHERE’D YOU GO? After five years, Albany rock trio the Wasted recently, quietly, called it quits. Lead singer and guitarist Stephen Gaylord had this to say on the breakup: “The Wasted have officially disbanded in order to pursue their dream of becoming soldiers of fortune in the Belgian Congo.” (Sounds like a sweet gig.) Failing that, watch for Gaylord’s new project, Saint Jude Pray for Us, who will “continue to record and perform during periods of political stability.”

—John Brodeur

Let us know about local-music news and happenings for print in Rough Mix: e-mail John Brodeur at jbrodeur@met roland or call (518) 463-2500 ext. 145.



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