First of all, the "band" Hamell On Trial is one guy, Ed Hamell, his guitar (a 1937 small-body Gibson acoustic) and lots of attitude. His show at Rudyard's this weekend isn't important because of Hamell's Houston connection(s). Nor because Hamell pays tribute to legendary comedian and native Houstonian Bill Hicks on "Bill Hicks I," off Choochtown, Hamell's soon-to-be-released CD. Nor because Hamell sings, "I like that Houston-town," on the song "Choochtown." And not because Hamell once lived in Austin and, like all Austinites, suffered from Houston envy. No. Hamell's show this weekend is significant because this show will be one of the most engaging, intimidating, best things you see all year.
One guy and an acoustic guitar? Engaging? Intimidating?
Like a friend once said before a Hamell On Trial concert a couple years ago in Pittsburgh: "It's gonna get fuckin' nuts."
Not much has changed.
In a telephone interview the other day, Hamell delivered typical Hamellspeak. After talking about his new home in Middletown, New York (and they don't call it Middle-town for nothing; it's in the middle of nowhere), and how he had just set off the fire alarm trying to remove wallpaper from his kitchen, which delayed his call for an hour and a half, he said how different it is out of Brooklyn ("all this woods and shit is just freakin' me out!"), even though he grew up in upstate New York, which was also where he worked as a bartender at a Mafia-run place that would be empty every night HBO ran Scarface but also where Hamell ran into the tragically heroic degenerates who now populate his acoustic-punk rants/songs.
The record is the result of Hamell's picking himself up for Round Three after being dropped by Mercury Records. Indirectly. Directly, it's a concept record, but not in the 2112 sense. Choochtown is simply a mélange of more than a dozen stories/ songs in which some of the same characters appear over and over again. After realizing the operatic possibilities, Hamell says, he added small parts here and there to make the whole thing work as one collective piece. The last line of the record is, contrary to the first line, "peace."
"You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll kiss 15 bucks good-bye," Hamell said. "I'm the sound-bite king."
Levity also makes up a good chunk of Hamell's stage show.
"I use levity 'cause maybe I'm afraid of exposing my full emotions," he said in nasally New Yawkese. "I mean, I'm skeptical of a guy sitting on a stool with an acoustic guitar saying we need more peace in the world." (Which, by the way, is not Hamell.) "I know that already. I'm not enraptured.
"Like in 'Long Drive,' " he said, referring to a song on Choochtown. "I'm talking about aging. I'm talking about getting older. What your options are. That's pretty intense. I talk about serious, traumatic, vicious stuff. I tell jokes and funny stories 'cause that makes it easier to take. It's a roller coaster ride. Like a Little Richard concert."
"Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Hank Williams. Those guys were rock and roll.Most of these guys today, I couldn't find rock and roll [in their music] with a Geiger counter."
Which begs the question: What is rock and roll?
"This postmodern ambiguity," in songwriting today, said Hamell, "you can somehow know which guys are sincere and which guys, when you hear it, you say, 'Uh-uh. That's bullshit.'
"I'm not good at that. I'm good at telling stories. It comes easy to me."
Bobby's an asshole. Nancy's got a new boyfriend. Again. Danny McClusky's trying to score. These are some of the characters in Hamell's tunes. These folk are pretty vivid on disc but are livelier in person. Unlike his stage show -- which is just Hamell, bald-headed and dressed in black, pacing the stage like a chained pit bull, beating open chords on his six-string fast as hell -- Choochtown is deliberate. Less visceral. Electric guitars, drums and backup singers are some of the un-Hamell sonic accents in the mix. The record, as awfully great as it is, just doesn't compare to Hamell in person. On stage, he's rock and roll personified. Hamell On Trial plays at Rudyard's, 2010 Waugh, on Sunday, September 26, at 9:30 p.m.
Trailer Park Tunes
MARY JANE'S -- Three guys, all middle-aged, stood on stage here about six months ago and played the most sincere un-country country. The marquee outside said "Trailer Park Playboys," and they were there on this night opening for local stalwarts Horseshoe. Maybe four people showed up early enough to hear the warmer-uppers. And that was too bad. The Playboys sounded impressive then, and they've probably only gotten better since.
This weekend, the 'Boys open up for The Clay Farmer Band, probably the best new country act in Houston, with supreme musicianship and young Clay's poignant, insightful Lyle Lovett-esque lyrics and bucking voice. Together with th\e Playboys, this show at the Sidecar Pub should be more than worth the $5 ticket price. Catch them Friday, September 24, at 9 p.m.
Since that gig at Mary Jane's, the Playboys have added a harp player to become a quartet. The foursome's first CD is set to be released by the end of the year on the Rhythm Method record label. Its title: Tornado Warning. Bring the propane inside, Vern!
The 'Boys themselves are Houston music scene pillars. Bassist/singer Mike Manning, guitarist/singer Mike Bowen, drummer John Hessel and harp player Cliff Benoit have played in lots of bands over the past 20 or so years. Mudville, Pierre and The Night Cats, Lips and the Trips, Romeo Dogs and Lefty and the Rights are just a few. After getting together by chance in October '98, the 'Boys have been gigging at a Corvair's pace, hitting spots such as Rudyard's and the County Line. That show at Mary Jane's was, according to Manning, probably their second gig ever.
"It was a natural fit," says bassist Manning."It's comfortable. We're all big fans of Texas singer-songwriters. We all wanted to be in a good-song band. And we're also guys who like to play live and have fun. It's guys my age, who've heard it all, with a wealth of Texas influences. That makes it enjoyable."
"Me and Eddie," written and sung by Bowen, is a love song about a guy and his good bud. Pretty brave, considering the macho posturing that fills the pop music world.
"Yeah, [Bowen is] the ballad guy with a little bit of British invasion," says Manning matter-of-factly. "I'm more like the country guy," who writes songs about cheatin' women, cheatin' women and cheatin' women. "Together, I'd like to say we're an alternative country band that can rock with a blues harp player."
"Three chords and a cloud of dust," Manning says with a laugh. "That's what I like to call us."
Local MP3 Hit
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Local ska band and multi-time Houston Press Music Awards winners The Suspects are No. 5 on Rolling Stone's Top 10 MP3 downloads this week. The space is dedicated to unsigned bands and their digital music. Go to www.thesuspects.com and hit the R.S. link to see for yourself.
Another perennial HP Music Awards winner, Jack Saunders, is having his album-release party at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, on Friday, September 24, at 9 p.m. Cover charge is $8.
E-mail Anthony Mariani at firstname.lastname@example.org.