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.
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