John Hammond: “I’ve played so many shows in Toronto it was like home away from home many times”

Renowned blues artist John Hammond released a new album Timeless in January, marking over 50 years since the start of his recording career. Recorded live, Timeless finds Hammond doing what he does best – performing solo acoustic before an enthusiastic audience at Chan’s in Woonsocket, RI.

“John’s sound is so compelling, complete, symmetrical and soulful with just his voice, guitar and harmonica, it is at first impossible to imagine improving it,” says his longtime friend and collaborator Tom Waits. “He’s a great force of nature. John sounds like a big train coming. He chops them all down.”

Timeless opens with “No One Can Forgive Me but My Baby”, written by Waits especially for Hammond, followed by a rendition of John’s own “Heartache Blues” and the country blues of Jimmy Rodgers’ “Going Away
Baby”. John sources the venerable music of Lightnin’ Hopkins (“Last Night”), Cliff Carlisle (“That Nasty Swing”), Skip James (“Hard Times”), Chuck Berry, Elmore James and more.

“John Hammond is a master,” adds T Bone Burnett. “He is a virtuoso. A conjurer… A modernist… John is in a very small circle of men with a guitar and a harmonica. Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf, Bob Dylan. The guitar is an orchestra. He’s sending messages. Storytelling. All mystery. Protection. The language goes out through the night.”

Grammy winner John Hammond has been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2011. “A blues legend…with a demeanor that belies his tear-it-up might before an audience” (The New York Times). Over the years, Hammond has released 35 albums. On occasion, he has had guest artists which have included Duane Allman, the Band, Charles Brown, Mike Bloomfield, JJ Cale, John Lee Hooker, Dr. John, G. Love, Charlie Musselwhite, Duke Robillard, Tom Waits, just to mention a few. A staple on the 60’s Greenwich Village folk scene (and friend of Hendrix), Hammond is a commentator during the WNET fundraising special, PBS American Masters Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train A Comin’. His last release Rough and Tough was a 2010 Grammy nominee for Best Traditional Blues Album.

Eric Alper: You’re not really a stranger to Canada. You’ve actually played here quite a bit. You’ve never neglected this country, which is what I love about you.
John Hammond: Well, my first gigs in Canada were in Toronto in 1962.
Eric: Do you remember where it was?
John: It was a club called the Purple Onion on Avenue Road (laughing)
EA: You actually remember that!
John: Oh sure, I’ve played so many shows in Toronto it was like home away from home many times.
Eric: Was that club in Yorkville?
John: It was, it was in Yorkville back in the day and I probably played in the 60s every club in Toronto including the Colonial Tavern and the Riverboat, I could just go on and on…
Eric: When you think of places like that, not necessarily the ones specifically in Toronto, but were they different back then? When you read about those folk and blues scenes, there’s a definite mystique about it. Marc Knopfler says sometimes he just misses the times when he was starting out when he could just get up on stage and play.
John: Well the clubs were pretty well, wide open. I mean, there was various kinds of venues. There were bars that had more band-type stuff, there we folk clubs, there were coffee houses, it was the entire range and it was just an amazing scene in Toronto. Also, in Montreal and Ottawa, I began to play all of these gigs on this circuit. Towards the end of the 60s I began to hit the West Coast – Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg. I’ve been playing Canada every year for the last 53 years.
Eric: It’s about time we make you an honorary citizen too. You’re soon to go on tour with James Cotton and Charlie Musselwhite. You met Charlie back in Chicago, around 1961?
John: Yeah, that’s about right.
Eric: He was playing on your So Many Roads LP, got him the contract with Vanguard in the first place.
John:  That’s right. That was 1964 and then the next year he made his first album for Vanguard, “Stand Back” – so I’ve known Charlie forever, he’s one of the great guys.
Eric: What first attracted you to him? His personality or playing? How did you two get connected in the first place?
John:  We met through Michael Bloomfield, who was a Chicago heavyweight, he knew everybody. I was first introduced to Charlie, I didn’t hear him play until he came to New York with Michael one time, and Michael said “You’ve gotta hear him play,” so we heard him play and said, “You’re on the record.” (laughing) He’s just a phenomenal guy.

Eric: You’ve met so many people and connected in so many dots when it comes to blues and music in general. You picked up Jimmi Hendrix for his band after Curtis Knight fired him back in 1965. Bob Dylan introduced you to Caffe Lena, now the oldest coffee house in the country. Were you just in the right place at the right time? Or was the scene so small that everybody knew everybody else?
John:  It was small and big, at the same time. I was out there, I was ready for anything and everything, unafraid to go and be on the road and I just wanted to play. So, I made things happen for myself and I got to meet some really phenomenal players and collaborate with them and I made my first recording in December of ’62. It was released the next year, so I’m not unfamiliar with the recording studio. Had a chance to work with some great artists including JJ Cale and Tom Waits, G-Love (laughing), and I’ve had a chance to really span a whole five – it’s amazing.
Eric: You mentioned Tom Waits. It was during a recording session in ’92 where Tom Waits just kind of showed up at the studio.
John:  I had met Tom back in 1974 on a tour in the southwest, he opened a show for me and I was just stunned. He was so great. We became friends and hung out for a while, when he was in New York. Then he moved back out to the west coast and I sort of lost touch with him and I was in San Francisco on a recording date with JJ Cale and John Lee Hooker was going to do a duet with me and all of a sudden, there was Tom in the studio. He gave me a song to record and he had to leave before I got to it. So, I sent him a copy of the song I recorded and I still hadn’t heard from him so I called him up, and it was on his answering machine. So I guess he liked it.
Eric: What song?
John:  It was “No One Can Forgive Me But My Baby.” It’s on the new album.
Eric: That must have been so weird. You call him, and then all of a sudden you hear that song.
John:  I guess he liked it [laughs]. That was the answer.
Eric: When you look back on a career that you’ve had. Are there any specific albums that you’re most proud of? Or, do you look at your life and think about moments, rather than albums?
John:  Every recording date is exciting. I try to put all of my energy and imagination into it. Every one that I’ve done, the 35 of them my god, anyway – the first stuff I started to do for Virgin Point Blank in the early 90s, I had a chance to work with JJ Cale and he was just a great producer. I made some, I’m very proud of the albums I made for them. I got to work with some great players, Little Charlie and The Nightcats. Charles Brown, John Lee Hooker. It was very serious stuff for me and I got to stretch out and it was great.

Eric: You’ve often been known as an interpreter of blues songs and smatterings of your own material. How come you havent written more? Is that a conscious effort?
John:  I never thought of myself as a songwriter. There’s a lot of blues singers that don’t write their own songs.
Eric: There’s a lot of musicians period that don’t write their own songs.
John:  They don’t call them “interpreters,” they call them Blues Singers. So that’s what I’ve always been, it’s kind of awkward to be called an interpreter. I’m not translating anything, I’m just doing it my way. The songs that I have written, ive – to incorporate everything I’ve known and done before but it isnt a thing that comes easily to me.
Eric: You’ve gone back and you keep returning to people like Jimmy Rogers, Lightnin Hopkins, and Chuck Berry. What do you think that they all had that makes you want to return to those artists?
John:  It’s not so much the artists as the songs that have inspired me over the years. ive heard thousands and thousands of songs. There’s some that just strike me and that’s what I want to do and I do it. On an inspirational level that’s the way I do it.

John Hammond Tour Dates
Sun. Feb. 15, 2015 – 7:30 PM
Tarpon Spring Performing Arts Center
Tarpon Springs, FL

Thu. Feb. 19, 2015 – 7 PM
Lyric Theater
Stuart, FL

Fri. Feb. 20, 2015 – 8 PM
Ponta Vedra Concert Hall
Ponta Vedra, FL

Sat. Feb. 21, 2015 – 8 PM
Mars Theatre
Springfield, GA

Sun. Feb. 22, 2015 – 7 PM
Eddie’s Attic
Decatur, GA

Sat. Feb. 28,2015 – 7 PM NEW
Meyer Theater/Monroe Cty. Community College
Monroe, MI

Fri. Mar. 20, 2015 – 8 PM
Boulder Theater – with Charlie Musselwhite
Boulder, CO

Sat. Mar. 21, 2015
Pikes Peak Center – with Charlie Musselwhite
Colorado Springs, CO

Sun. Mar. 22, 2015 – 7:30 PM
Vilar Performing Arts Center – with Charlie Musselwhite
Beaver Creek, CO

Tue. Mar. 24, 2015 – 7:30 PM
Fort Lewis College Community Concert Hall – with Charlie Musselwhite
Durango, CO

Thu., Mar. 26, 2015 – 7:30 PM
Fox Tucson Theater
Tucson, AZ

Fri. Mar. 27, 2015 – 8 PM
Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts
Scottsdale, AZ

Fri. Mar. 31, 2015 – 7:30 PM
Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley
Seattle, WA

Fri. Apr. 1, 2015 – 7:30 PM
Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley
Seattle, WA

Fri. Apr. 3, 2015 – 7:30 PM
Admiral Theater
Bremerton, WA

Sat. April 4, 2015 – 8 PM
Mount Baker Theater
Bellingham, WA

Fri. Apr. 17, 2015 – 8 PM
Festival Jazz & Blues de Saguenay / Théâtre Banque National
Ville de Sanguenay, Quebec, Canada

Sat. Apr. 18, 2015 – 8 PM NEW
Le Palais Montcalm
Quebec, QC

Mon. Apr. 20, 2015 – 7:30 PM
Centre for the Arts Brock University / Sean O’Sullivan Theatre
St. Catherine’s, ONT, Canada

Sat. Apr. 25, 2015 – 8 PM
Rose Theater
Brampton, ONT, Canada

Monday, April 27, 2015 – 7 & 10 PM
Tralf Music Hall
Buffalo, NY

Fri. May 1, 2015 – 7:30 & 9:30 PM
John F. Kennedy Center
Washington, DC

Sat. May 2, 2015 – 7 & 9 PM
Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild
Pittsburgh, PA

Sat. May 9, 2015 – 5:30 PM
Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival
Thomson, GA

Thu. June 25, 1015 – 7 PM
McMillan Library
Wisconsin Rapids, WI

Sat. June 27, 2015 – 8 PM
Beverly Art Center
Chicago, IL