SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Leon Redbone and John Hammond have been playing their distinctive brands of American roots music for what seems like centuries. But apart from a shared longevity and affection for their like-minded predecessors, the two offer a study in contrasts.
Hammond began his career in the '60s and has emerged as one of the planet's premier players of the Mississippi Delta blues. Redbone emerged in the '70s as an aficionado of early-20th century popular music that includes Dixieland jazz, country blues, folk and even polka.
Hammond dresses casually and performs with striking emotion, often attacking his guitar strings with an aggressive edge and singing out with pain and disappointment. The laid-back, mint julep-sipping Redbone, by comparison, is a one-of-a-kind character, looking ever-so-dapper in his trademark fedora, red blazer and dark glasses as he sings in that drawl-like baritone.
One plays the kind of blues that confronts life's harshest realities, the other resurrects forgotten music as a way of escaping them.
They may seem as unlikely a pair as David Lee Roth and U2's Bono, but their co-headlining gig Saturday at the Coach House offered plenty to cheer about.
First up was Hammond.
The immediacy and gut-wrenching emotion that poured forth from his commanding program of solo acoustic blues was simply startling.
Truly a one-man band, he played brilliantly on standard acoustic, National metal-bodied and bottleneck guitars. He also unleashed howling harmonica solos and sang in a variety of hues and tones that ranged from a gentle whisper to a defiant roar.
He even provided his own percussion work, frequently slapping the body of his guitar with an open hand and stamping his foot in highly rhythmic accompaniment. Even minus electric instruments, his playing was consistently powerful, resonating with an unmistakable depth of feeling.
Occasionally, as during a wicked version of Robert Johnson's "Come On In My Kitchen," mere words took a back seat to more expressive body language. His grimacing face, raised eyebrows and closed eyes subtly but effectively said all he needed to say.
The majority of the songs Hammond chooses, all written by others, are sad, often desperate tales of despair, loneliness, heartache and betrayal. In "Mother-In-Law Blues," Hammond's singing alone captured the protagonist's sense of futility when he cried out: "I'd give everything I own / To see that girl again."
Hammond threw one curveball with Willie McTell's "Warm It Up To Me," drawn from his latest album, 1995's "Found True Love." This upbeat, highly melodic pop-blues tune offered a welcome change of pace from the predominantly darker fare that preceded it. Heck, you could even call this one a feel-good song.
Hammond's interpretations of McTell's "Love Changin' Blues," John Lee Hooker's "Ride 'Til I Die" and Hambone Willie Newburn's "Dreamy Eyed Girl" were selections repeated from his last stopover here. But he avoided any sense of repetition because, like country legend Merle Haggard, Hammond is one of those exceptional singers who lives in the moment and who probably couldn't play a song the same way twice if someone had a gun to his head.
The one-hour set ended with back-to-back performances of "Hard Time Killing Floor" and Son House's "Preachin' Blues." Both spotlighted clean yet dazzling finger-picking and Hammond's most impassioned singing of the night.
Leon Redbone's 90-minute journey back to the quieter times of the 1920s and '30s was certainly far less emotionally wrenching, but entertaining nonetheless. His loving nod to musical styles from a bygone era certainly had its charming moments.
Redbone clowned with his three-piece band, featuring cornetist Scott Black, clarinetist Dan Levinson and multi-instrumentalist Ian Whitcomb. The reigning mood was light and conversational, with Redbone snapping photos of the crowd and blowing bubbles.
Redbone offered a mixed bag vocally, his enunciation poor during several numbers (particularly "Sweet Sue"). But he redeemed himself with clear, expressive phrasing during a tender, romantic song titled "Marie" and when somberly crooning "Love Letters In the Sand."
Redbone also engaged in an odd assortment of warbled vocal mannerisms, which ranged from his quasi-yodeling in "I Ain't Got No Money" to a variety of amusing dah-dah-dahs and la-dee-dee-da-das. (He's also one of the most amazing whistlers you'll ever hear.)
Providing a real spark to the proceedings was the crisp ensemble work of Redbone's supporting players. Whitcomb, who had his own Top 10 hit in 1965 with "You Turn Me On," provided exceptional work on guitar, banjo and accordion. The horn section of Black and Levinson added pizazz to several songs, including revving up Irving Berlin's 1914 ballad, "When It's Nighttime In Dixie."
Other highlights included the nonsensical but infectious "Diddy Wah Diddy," a soaring, glowing rendition of "Shine On Harvest Moon," and the still fresh-sounding "My Walking Stick," the song he first got national attention with in 1975 when he sang it on "Saturday Night Live."
Redbone and his pals affectionately rejuvenated music that's worthy of reaching new audiences. It was disappointing, though, that he didn't take advantage of the live setting. Other than the predominantly scripted banter, he barely spoke to the audience. No song introductions, no interesting tidbits or anecdotes.
It's apparent he's fond of this old-time style of American popular music. But we're left to ponder exactly why.