April 01, 1989

Red and Blue

Filed under: Archive,Music

Billy Bragg
Dom Polski Centre

John Hammond
Tivoli Hotel

A lot has happened for Billy Bragg in the two years since he toured last. He has performed in the Soviet Union, toured the US with Michelle Shocked, and his latest album, Workers Playtime, has everywhere sold well at its user-friendly budget RRP.

It is only to be expected that the one-time busker and all-time prolo model would be smoother and more urbane this visit, presenting a set designed for bigger rooms and bendier ideologies. It was Bragg who said that the revolution is only a T-shirt away, so it must bemuse him hugely that his own pop hammer and sickle merchandising can’t keep up with the demand.

The familiar 60 watt portable amp from his busking days was carefully placed at centrestage – but this time only for its iconography. Nowadays Bragg’s guitars are radio-controlled from the sound desk and he plays through a bank of speakers big enough for Guns ‘n’ Roses.

Arriving late from a time warp in Hobart, Bragg got down to work with selections from the early albums- It Says Here and St Swithins’ Day hit the spot as did the recent, She’s Got a New Spell, St Valentine’s Day is Over, new last time and one of the best cuts from Workers Playtime, gained even more depth in performance. North Sea Bubble, a new song, is a less catchy opus warning against overheating the All Ords.

In a deliberate attempt to liberate an oldie-but-goodie from the defiled hands of history, Bragg sang Jerusalem with resonance. It was powerful stuff but the sort of thing that can add goose steps to the goose bumps and therefore better left alone. Anyway, he’s not short on anthems himself- There’s Power in the Unions, A World Turned Upside Down and A New England all figured. But not, regrettably, his splendid skiffle version of Who’s Side are You On?

Billy Bragg has always stressed that the personal is political and Levi Stubbs’ Tears, Greetings to the new Brunette and Between the Wars all lit the touch papers. Then Bragg extemporised on safe sex and quality inter-personals, as well as Chernobyl and remembering to vote – but he knows how to keep his text nimble and likeable.

In collaboration with Cara Tivey on keyboards and his ubiquitous cobber Wiggy on the Other Guitar, Billy Bragg played Walk Away Renee, Must I Paint You a Picture, Life with the Lions and ended with the mordant, Great Leap Forward.

For more than ninety minutes he played, sang, exhorted and entertained, lending a voice to issues more complicated than a song can deal with but too important for troubadours to ignore. Looking like the young Trevor Howard, Billy Bragg is a red mole in broad daylight. And he’s still the milkman of human kindness.

It was the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band who first asked the immortal question – can blue men sing the whites? And for nearly twenty-five years John Hammond has been proving that they can. It is fitting that Hammond has been such a resolute keeper of the blue flame since his father, John Hammond Sr, did more than anyone to preserve on record the greatest exponents of American blues.

A scion of the Vanderbilt family, John Sr, after an expensive musical training from Juilliard, worked as an executive for Columbia Records and was responsible for signing Count Basie, Charlie Christian and Billie Holliday as well as fostering the posthumous reputations of Robert Johnson and Bessie Smith. Talent scout without peer, Hammond also snaffled both Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen for CBS.

John Hammond Jr, now in his mid-forties, is himself a peripatetic blues archive and whereas his solo albums for Vanguard in the mid-Sixties were often mannered and his vocal style unduly strangulated, he now inhabits the classic country blues repertoire with unaffected authority.

Travelling light with (what looked like) a custom Maton six string and a 1936 true clinks National Steel dobro, Hammond played two extraordinary nights at the Tiv, treating Adelaide’s appreciative blues brigade to note-perfect renditions of the Delta’s greatest hits.

He certainly covered the waterfront. Opening with John Lee Hooker’s Ride Till I Die and Sonny Boy Williamson’s Help Me, he also played the masterworks of Willie Dixon, Howling Wolf, Sleepy John Estes and Bo Diddley. Keeping apparently impossible rhythm with his harmonica in a holder around his neck, Hammond negotiated contrapuntal intricacies in Blind Boy Fuller’s Step it up and Go and Lemon Jefferson’s See That My Grave is Kept Clean.

But it is the Mississippi Delta on which Hammond’s playing is centred. With flawless technique his National Steel recreated Skip James’s Hard Time Killing Floor and a mesmeric seven minute version of the Son House classic Preachin’ Blues. From the Robert Johnson canon came Terraplane Blues, Come On In My Kitchen, Red Hot Mama and, as a final encore, Love in Vain. John Hammond is an unassuming, fiendishly skilful reminder that the blues are America’s priceless gift to music in this century.

“Red and Blue” The Adelaide Review, No.62, April, 1989, p.25.

1 Comment »

  1. Was at that concert at the Dom Polski centre, as a 19 year old Billy fan, with my Doc Martens on, and singing along to every song, that night will be forever etched on my memory. Cheers

    Comment by Gavin Carr — August 23, 2015 @ 6:00 pm

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