What a difference a year makes A in 1965 Hammond cut So Many Roads, with a little help from his friends. And when you've got friends such as Chicago harpster Charlie Musselwhite and Butterfield Blues Band's Michael Bloomfield (massaging the ivories instead of swinging his mighty ax), who wouldn't rise to the occasion? While you're at it, add future members of the Band Robbie Robertson (with some tasty blues-guitar licks), Levon Helm (smashing the skins), and Garth Hudson (with some superfluous but you've-gotta-have-a-B-3-on-a-Sixties-blues-album organ grinding). Hammond's ability to work with full band would prove again in 1992's Got Love If You Want It (check the tracks with Little Charlie and the Nightcats).
The Roads selections are what you'd expect from a blues scholar. You got your tunes by Robert Johnson A one of Hammond's most recognizable influences A with "Judgment Day" and a supreme "Rambling Blues." You got your Muddy Waters -- "Long Distance Call." You got your Bo Diddley -- "Who Do You Love" (hang your head in shame, Mr. Thorogood, you'll never be this thoroughly good) and "O Yea!" -- remarkable package.
Now jet ahead eleven years to a live mid-Seventies set and, once again, a revealing glimpse at the growth of an artist who just keeps stretching his talent. All by himself except for the small audience at Vanguard's 23rd Street studio, Hammond is in his element -- guitar, harp, boot. More Muddy, this time with Hammond's buzzing acoustic throwing off sparks -- you know, those great shoot-from-the-hip stingers Mr. Morganfield was famous for A on "I Can't Be Satisfied." Then it's on to Charles Brown's transcendent "Drifting Blues" (interesting to compare to the update on Got Love), dressed down from the original. Charles put it in a tux at a swanky L.A. nightclub while John puts it in overalls on a Louisiana levee.
Nothing here is less than excellent, but we'll just tell you about the trenchant Jimmy Reed classic "Honest I Do," a romping stomper by Blind Boy Fuller called "Trucking Little Baby," and a haunted (is there any other kind?) Robert Johnson number, "Hellhound Blues."
The Best of John Hammond, first issued in 1970, really isn't the best of, although it may have been back then. There's enough here to recommend a listen (any Hammond is worth a listen), including a few cuts from his first record, a handful from Roads, the usual mix of obscure Delta blues and rootsy rockers. However, Hammond's style was still evolving at this point, and his voice often sounds like Blind Al Wilson, the Kermit-voiced singer for Canned Heat. The passion and energy are evident, particularly on Chuck Berry's "No Money Down" (although for the definitive version, track down Blues Explosion, a live Montreux Blues Fest album from 1982).
Other reasons to pick up Best of: an ethereal take of Robert Johnson's "Stones in My Passway" and a raveup of his "Traveling Riverside Blues," plus a growling bravado performance of Willie Dixon's "Backdoor Man" (curiously credited to Chuck Berry). A nice overview of Hammond's early career, with 22 tracks clocking in at more than 70 minutes. Be advised that much has happened in the past 23 years, not the least of which is a maturing of Hammond's style that sacrifices none of his verve but sure adds some chops.