Hamell on Trial

I realize that the few people who actually read my blog probably lose interest fast, because it’s not about any one thing, but they’re wrong. It is about one thing: me. It’s about me and I’m a random guy, my interests and pursuits shifting between art and science, cooking and comic books. Allow me to change the subject once again and talk a little about music. I love music and it makes up a big part of my life, a constant stream of music echoing through head by an internal radio station that plays 24/7. I’ve mentioned my susceptibility to the dreaded ear worm and how I constantly make up little songs about everyday things that make up the bulk of my existence. Now I’d like to talk about one of my most profound musical experiences.

This was roughly 30 years ago and I was finishing up my undergraduate studies at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. On this particular evening, I was in Portsmouth, NH, at The Portsmouth Brewery, because my favorite local band, Groove Child, was playing. I got there early, mainly because I like to grab a good seat and order my beer before the masses arrived, and partly because I always get to where I’m going early. The basement room where the shows went on was not big. I doubt it could hold 100 people, 60-70 being a more realistic estimate. Of course, this was several decades ago and memory is a fickle thing, so take much of what I say with a grain of salt. This is more about how I perceived this experience that a factual account, so get the hell off my back. Suffice it to say that I had a front row seat at a rather intimate music venue when the show began.

I’m eagerly awaiting Groove Child, the main attraction, when the opening act comes out. He’s a bald, white guy, a bit stocky, a bit Uncle Festerish, in a faded, black tee shirt and well-worn jeans, with an acoustic guitar that looks like it’s seen better days. Walking out and assessing the crowd, he opens with a joke. It’s a dumb joke, a dad joke. He delivers the predictable punchline and pauses for the inevitable chuckle that such a bad joke brings, and then, so abruptly i nearly gives me whiplash, launches one of the most powerful live performances I’ve ever seen. It started with a thundering, staccato guitar strum with enough bass (I later found out he tuned his strings down an octave to make his sound bassier) to push me back in my seat and lyrics delivered with the speed of a rap star freestyling on the mic. Following this explosive opening was a roughly 45 minute set that simply blew me away. His material shifted between hard punk rap and slow, heartful ballads, from more dumb jokes to poems about drug dealers getting stabbed to death. No joke, I was so affected by his set that, after he was done, I simply paid my tab and walked out. No one could have followed that act and not looked dull by comparison.

Ed Hamill, also known as Hamill on Trial, was born in Syracuse, NY, but got his big break on the Austin music scene. I still don’t know all the specifics of his life, but both his stories and his songs speak of a history of drug use, hard times and heartbreak. I recall him relating a bad car accident that nearly killed him and left him with chronic pain. After his marriage of 22 years ended, he wrote a song a day for a year. They’re on his YouTube channel if you’re curious enough to take a look. He is brash, honest and outspoken, with several songs commenting on political and societal issues. He put a few albums out on Ani Defranco’s record label. I’ve seen him a handful of times and own several of his albums. His music is easy to find online, but, trust me, none of his recordings can match the sheer intensity of his live performance. I always appreciate a live performance, particularly because of the bravery it takes to get and share a part of yourself with an audience, but Ed Hamill shines on stage. He has a stage presence that is large and commanding and if you, at all, like what you hear on this blog post, I encourage you to see him.

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