John Hammond, At The Crossroads

Lenny Kaye

By Lenny Kaye

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

John Hammond is the real thing. In a time when the blues have become more a medium for interpretation than innovation, Hammond hews to the old-time religion of the Delta and its effluvial plain, spilling into the rich loam of the many musics that sprang from the field holler and the gospel shout.

A modern blues giant stands at the crossroads with a blues legend.

His father, Hammond Sr., championed country blues when it was unthinkable that the music might appear in the rarified atmosphere of Carnegie Hall (he had invited Robert Johnson to appear at the 1938 Spirituals to Swing concert, but Johnson had already passed on). For John Jr.'s generation, the temptations of rock could just as well have undercut his penchant for the scrape of the slide guitar along the resophonic strings, the roadhouse foot on the floor. In fact, the first time I ever saw him he was fronting an electric blues band at the Cafe Au Go Go on New York City's Bleecker Street. His set featured a guest appearance by a guitarist Hammond was sharing the bill with at the nearby Cafe Wha! It was Jimmy James, née Hendrix, and when the once-and-future Jimi finished showtiming, his guitar was behind his neck, and he was playing the shit out of it.

At The Crossroads

John Hammond

Hammond came back to the mostly-solo acoustic blues shortly after, and there he has remained, resolute, honorable, letting his guitar and harp and high-tenor growl of a voice speak for itself. He has what is most necessary when singing the blues — the yearning for absolution and transcendence, lost in the moment of music as it carries you forth from this life. He is no Blind Willie Johnson, gruff and resolute and stern, or an assured preacher like the Reverend Gary Davis. He's more sly, got a bit of Robert Johnson's sidle and nip at the back of the stable after the horse is gone, and his playing is sharp and percussive and clear as a bell-tone harmonic. His blues rise and fall with intensity and an instinct for the music's inner dynamics, the raw emotion that makes its rigid twelve-bar form infinitely pliable.

He is best at one-on-one settings; the electric cuts tend to fall into late night last-set boogie. At its finest, this album showcases John Hammond standing at the crossroads with his master, Robert Johnson, the most charismatic and haunted of the great country blues players. All the classic hits are omnipresent — "Hellhound On My Tail," "Come On In My Kitchen," "Stones in My Passway" — but stripped down by Hammond, you are guided inside their persuasive and seductive power: part desperation, part confidence man, part conjure.