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for September 27, 2004

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On Trial: Hamell On Trial
by Pat Pierson

Whether or not the summer of 2004 goes down in history as the place where rock and roll prevailed and held its ground remains to be seen.
I did not go to Randall's Island to see The Stooges reignite shortly after David Jo played the New York Doll on true New York soil. Not out of cynicism, but mainly because the multi-billed outdoor festival event wasn't the place I cared to witness these "Legends of the Fringe" hit pay dirt three decades after the fact. Still, it was great to hear that The New York Dolls and The Dictators went out for blood and glory and truly wowed the 12,000-plus in attendance on their home soil. That's a very very cool homecoming, l-u-v.
I heard all the news second-hand from Ed Hamell, the single force behind the artist known as Hamell On Trial. We spoke shortly after his third night of weekly Tuesdays for the month of August at NYC's Fez. Before I could get down to brass tacks, Ed--who's wont to go on about the state of rock and roll and its history-- asked me if I was at Randall's Island and proceeded to tell me what I missed.
Obviously, I had mixed feelings about not going, and hearing Hamell's raving truly made me wish I got off my sorry ass to see it, despite the traffic hassles and the impending hurricane. Still, truth be told, I need the intimacy of a club to connect with the feral force of great rock and roll where the sonic intensity is palpable and the performer's passion has less obstacles to overcome to connect. Ergo Hamell On Trial at Fez...
Hamell's August residency got off to a not-so surprising slow start with about 60 people the first week. Since the closing down of NYC's Village Underground, Hamell's been scrambling for a good stage to call "home" and draw the fans in. NYC is damn fickle and Ed's been at odds with keeping the buzz lit. Not all for naught: Week two things were buzzing and growing with 100 plus digging the scene. It was falling into place... The zone. Hamell's new stage. Fez rocked!
Week three was the explosive one with a nearly-packed Fez screaming along with all of Hamell's rants and raves. I was smiling. This was hard fought, yet again, for one of today's most unrecognized rock and roll forces. Despite an artistic output that's still expanding on the concept, Hamell On Trial's career opportunities start and stop with some annoying predictability. Well, not so predictable, but one senses Hamell's just waiting for the next shoe to drop whenever something rosy arrives.
It's been happening since his major label debut with "Big As Life" in 1995: a major car wreck being the most significant. (It came about as close to ending his life as anyone's worse nightmare. Much of "Tough Love"'s material was inspired from it.) Our most recent conversation did not go back to recount all of these pain-in-the-ass moments; life can suck. Hamell knows this. He prevails and moves forward.
"Tough Love" is definitively forward for those who follow, or for those who love rock and roll and the lives of great singer-songwriters. I know, because I continually exhume the artist's past work whilst attending as many area performances as possible. The live shows and the records basically exist separate of one another, despite the discs being the places where the tunes remain after the lights go down and the place where they'll be when the next century's Ken Burns digs back to excavate the ghost of rock and roll for a world in need of reminding.
Of course, the "live footage" which will be "discovered" amongst the time capsules, family friends and old diehard fans three generations removed, will tell the tale. It may sound exhaustive. A two-minute jolt of "Sugar Free" or "The Meeting" will quickly prove this guy was as menacing and riveting as The Stooges, The Clash, Jerry Lee and Johnny Cash.
I saw it at Fez on August 14th so striking it left me speechless. Really... there's no way to explain it. One man with a battered acoustic guitar singing and playing as if life depended on it. Of course there's a gazillion "passionate" musicians and artists out there, so what is it that makes Hamell On Trial, so different. Mainly it's the aesthetic concept. He's refined his own sensibilities for rock and roll and whatever "folk" concept you care to draw. It is folk in the sense that it kicks the inherent emotional essence of what was once known as protest songs. There's anger, frustration, cynicism--yes--but it's balanced with intelligent insight and hard fought wisdom. There's a palpable understanding that Hamell's seen the far reaches of the everyman/woman and has come back to vent and reflect. In between he'll go on a tirade of inexhaustible off-colored jokes and stories, depending on which way the audience reacts. He rides the wild surf, as one of his songs states.
The recent run of shows at NYC's Fez ended on high note with an almost sold-out audience screaming for more more more. Even though that's what should be expected from such a high energy performance, in Manhattan it's never a given. Right now, Hamell's got a one-man play in the works, which is a natural extension of his caustic stage persona. He's still doing the rounds all over the place. This month he will even hit Alaska. Next time he's within your traveling range, be sure to catch him blow the roof off whatever establishment welcomes him. Right now, NYC's Fez has done just that for our area and the triumphant return is not that far around that bend.

©2004 Pat Pierson
[Pat's excellent publication, Yeah Yeah Yeah, featuring a one-on-one interview with David Bowie and more information about the New York music scene in general than one could expect to hold comfortably in one cranium, is available at a fine and knowledgeable newstand near you. -Ed.]

All material ©2001-2014 Sean Carolan, except as noted.


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