On March 12th, 1996 I went to Barrymore’s to see John Hammond in concert. This certainly fell under the category of seeing one of those musicians I knew was a legend but who’s career I was pretty (or wholly) unfamiliar with. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like going to see musicians I am ignorant of is merely an opportunity to check famous names off of a checklist or anything like that…Rather, it’s been my experience that if someone is iconic then there’s a pretty fair chance that they put on a good (or at least interesting) show and that going to see them play may just open my ears to something awesome that somehow passed me by.
Now, was this the case with John Hammond? Well, probably not because I remain pretty (or wholly) unfamiliar with his music, but at least now I know that Hammond is one of those thumbpick/fingerstyle blues masters that excels at rocking the bottom strings of his guitar with a constant boom-boom-boom in accompaniment to an endless stream of perfect blues melodies, and I know that I really enjoyed this show.
I’m pretty sure it was just him onstage, sitting alone on a stool with his acoustic guitar in his lap, a big bright yellow light shining down on him and casting a blanket of blackness over the rest of the stage. I may be completely off base on most of that – it could have been that he had a band with him or maybe he was standing up after all, or if he was indeed sitting down perhaps he was actually basking in an orange light, but if there is one thing I’m sure of it’s that he was definitely playing an acoustic guitar.
The reason I know this is because I saw John Hammond do something at this show that I’ve never seen anyone do onstage before or since. Which is a little strange I suppose, given that it’s something I’ve seen happen a thousand times – heck, I’ve done it myself a few hundred times at least.
Yes friends, halfway through one of his virtuosic string-pullin’ compositions John Hammond stopped abruptly and looked down at his instrument. The guitar master then leaned into his microphone and mumbled in a truly bashful, quiet voice:
“This is so embarrassing.”
For a second nobody knew what he was talking about, and then a moment later – as he held his acoustic guitar upside-down and started shaking it up and down and from side to side – it quickly became clear to everyone in the room that the great John Hammond had dropped his thumbpick into his guitar.
I can still hear the sound of the pick bouncing around the inside of the guitar, amplified and reverberating loudly off of the walls of the once-grand theatre, EQed perfectly and with just the right amount of chorus. Clunk-clunk-clunk. Clunk-clunk-clunk. Clunk-clunk-and finally the pick bounced out of the guitar and onto the floor. Hammond bent over to retrieve it and with a bit of a red face he re-affixed the plectrum to his wildly opposable thumb and started off the song a second time.
Funny that it’s the only thing from the show that I can actually visualize. It’s similar to when I’ve seen artists stop a song and restart it again due to some onstage musical trainwreck (I’m looking at you Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, and Mick Jagger) – those moments just naturally stand out.