By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Guilty as electrically charged
To listen to Ed Hamell perform is to understand the power of the acoustic guitar--not merely as an instrument of sensitivity and frailty, but as a weapon, as a knife used to flay away skin and reveal the bloody pulp underneath. Hamell, a Yankee transplanted to Austin two years ago, is much like a cross between Bob Dylan and Billy Bragg (and, at times, Richard Thompson); he discards the folkie's metaphors and gets down to the essence of the story, leaving no doubt that "Big As Life"--which conjures a dreamed image of an outraged Count Basie reading a copy of Life that features a photo spread documenting blacks smoking crack--is about our tendency to forget that hatred has no color.
"I'm all alone now and I got my guitar," Hamell sings on his debut CD Big as Life, "let's think about some stuff we can smash." And, indeed, he destroys the perception of the self-serious acoustic folkie who believes wisdom lies in glib aphorism and weepy revelation. Like a hyperkinetic Josh Alan, Hamell instead revels in the seedy and the heroically pathetic, telling detailed tales of junkies and drug dealers ("Piccolo Joe") and an old friend who stole $214 from a Kentucky Fried Chicken clutching a fork in his bloodied hand, wearing a striped ski mask, possessed by an intensity born of "15 years of Catholic-Italian longings" (on the haunting "Blood of the Wolf"). And they looked up at him, and they laughed...
The name Hamell on Trial almost seems a misnomer: Hamell, when he performs, is less a defendant and more a witness, even judge and jury. Once a journeyman who fronted a band in Syracuse, Hamell now attacks those musicians who peddle derivative sounds and cliches as though they were brand-new: "Band, band, band, band / I don't give a fuck about your band band band band," he chants on the sneering Frank Black-esque "Z-RoXX," "You're bland and oh so second-hand / Man oh man oh man...Buy a fuckin' clue / You ain't Husker Du / Ya ain't even Motley Crue."
He is more than Beat poet, more than solo singer-songwriter, more than guitarist--if only because he is all three things taken to their logical, forceful conclusion. Hamell performs like a man possessed by the demons and creeps of his own conjuring, playing so quickly at times the strings of his guitar seem to melt into one giant burst of sound; other times, the music is only a muted backdrop to words recited, lyrical pictures painted in rage and pathos.
Ed Hamell performs at 8 p.m. January 7 at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, 3120 McKinney Avenue at Bowen, as part of the MAC's new "True Songs of the Highway Patrol" singer-songwriter series. Admission is $3 for D.A.R.E. members, $5 for nonmembers. Call 953-1622 for more information.