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O.C. POP MUSIC REVIEW : A Blues Sandwich: Good to Last Bite

February 27, 1995|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — It was a night for rare sightings Saturday at the Galaxy Concert Theatre.

It's rare to see a guitarist as deft and versatile as Duke Robillard, whose clean, fluent sound and inventive touch were a source of continual pleasure as he and his two-man band delivered the middle slice of the evening's meaty blues sandwich.

It's rarer still to find a musician more attuned to the psychological depth and tremendous emotional stakes inherent in the blues than is John Hammond, who opened the proceedings with a revelatory set played in his customary solo-acoustic format.

Perhaps rarest of all is the chance to see Hammond get off his solo-bluesman's stool to bop a little while fronting a band. He proved he can function on his feet in a delightful closing sequence that paired him with Robillard and the guitar ace's expert rhythm section.

Although Hammond, 52, often has played with bands in the studio, his trademark on the live blues circuit has been the self-contained performance, backing himself with acoustic guitar and harmonica. Over the past year or so, though, he has been sharing gigs regularly with Robillard and his band.

It's a fine partnership. Hammond seemed as comfortable fronting the band as if the electric blues rather than the acoustic version had been his bread and butter for three decades. He even picked up an electric guitar for several songs, displaying a terse, biting style that brought to mind Robbie Robertson--who, along with the other members of the Hawks (later The Band), made a mid-'60s pit-stop as Hammond's backing band before being hired away by Bob Dylan.

The sequence included several songs that Hammond recorded with the Northern California band Little Charlie and the Nightcats on his Grammy-nominated album "Trouble No More." But his coordination with Robillard, bassist Marty Ballou and drummer Jeff McAllister was spot-on, and it makes perfect sense that the four musicians will be cutting Hammond's next record together, starting today in San Francisco.

The tandem soloing during a wry, bouncing version of Howlin' Wolf's "Howlin' for My Baby" demonstrated the mutual feel the players have developed, as Robillard on guitar and Hammond on harmonica swirled up simultaneous gusting licks--suggestive of howlin' for one's baby--that moved independently yet fit together perfectly.

The 50-minute segment included a fine version of Charles Brown's slow, nervous "Trouble Blues" and romping takes on Bo Diddley's "Pretty Thing" and Chuck Berry's "Nadine," which was retrofitted with a sultry, funky-blues groove.

While Hammond's turn with a band was fun, his solo sequence was indispensable, a completely riveting performance that was like watching a series of soliloquies by a great actor. The difference is that Hammond takes his script from the blues archive.

No script the blues can offer is as familiar as Robert Johnson's "Come On in My Kitchen." Yet Hammond, who no doubt has been playing the song for more than 30 years, drove it home as if he had written it himself, and just yesterday at that. His rendition's moaning, grimacing, coaxing evocation of the deep pain and terrible risks that come into play with romantic betrayal was as immediate and piercing as a musical performance can be.

It peaked at the moment when Hammond, singing in a soft-grained voice, couldn't bring himself to pronounce the word "see"--the thing seen, but too painful to be uttered, being final proof that the protagonist's lover has rejected him and prefers an uncertain world to the security he offers.

The 50-minute solo set worked sequentially to show the thicket of feelings, most of them harsh, that lies between lovers (or, more accurately, sundered lovers). "My Daddy Was a Jockey" was a driving start, all wild, rattling guitar rhythms and bravado in its celebration of sexual prowess. The swaggering rider of that song soon was replaced by characters thrown from love's saddle and left smarting from the fall.

Some of the hurting came wrapped in humor, although the humor implicit in the alcohol-soaked feel of "Dreamy-Eyed Woman" merely existed alongside the pain of rejection, rather than relieving it.

The Willie McTell song "Love Changin' Blues" gave further proof of Hammond's ability to bring out the poetry in a slow blues. His set-closer, "Preachin' Blues," culled from Son House, found him zooming all over the neck of his National steel guitar, creating whooshes and gusts that could have served as the soundtrack to the climactic scene of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," when all those bullets of divine substance are unleashed from the violated ark and go shooting around the cave.

To tell the truth, a solo Hammond nakedly singing House's line "the blues crept up on me and blew my spirit away" is far wilder than Spielberg and all his special effects.

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