It’s been 50 years since John Hammond, Jr. released his first album. And he can think of no better way to commemorate it than with a new live album that finds him doing what he does best — playing solo with just his guitar, harmonica and voice at one of his favorite regular venues.
“Timeless,” due out Jan. 21 on Palmetto Records, captures Hammond in performance during May of this year at Chan’s in Woonsocket, R.I., “a club where I’ve played many times, and it’s got a great sound in the room and I always have a great audience there,” he tells Billboard. And while he’s toured infrequently with a band, Hammond feels that the solo experience is his natural habitat.
“That’s how I was inspired to play in the beginning, hearing artists like Blind Boy Fuller and Robert Johnson, Willie McTell and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Getting to see artists like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Big Bill Broonzy, Josh White…it’s amazing what one person can do on stage and have all the focus come into that magic moment. There’s something to it that is very powerful, and I get off on it big time.”
The 15 tracks on “Timeless” include favorites from many of those artists, along with Skip James, Chuck Berry, Elmore James and Cliff Carlisle. Hammond plays his own “Heartache Blues,” while Bobby Blue Bland’s “Further On Up the Road” is, surprisingly, treated by Hammond for the first time. (Get a first listen of the track, above.)
“It’s something I’ve always admired,” Hammond says of the song. “I just had the inspiration that night and it came out so well I felt we had to pass it on. It was recorded before (Bland) died. I remember when I was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame he was sitting there in the audience, staring at me. I had that moment of, ‘Omigod…!’ So the tune is maybe a little more special now, a bit of a tribute.”
Also featured on “Timeless” is “No One Can Forgive Me But My Baby” from Hammond’s 1992 album “Got Love If You Want It,” which Tom Waits wrote especially for him.
“I was recording on the West Coast with J.J.Cale producing,” Hammond recalls. “Tom came to the recording date and I hadn’t seen him in awhile, and he said, ‘Oh, I got a song for you, man.’ And it was this 20-minute song about everybody in the bible coming down the river and all this stuff. I said, ‘It’s a great song, but I don’t think I can do it.’ So he goes into the control room and my wife Marla was there and watched him sit down, and in about 10 minutes he wrote this song. He said, ‘I know you know some bad ass songs; check this one out,’ and it just rocked. It was amazing.’ He had already left by the time I recorded it, so I sent him a cassette of the way I did it, and I didn’t hear back from him. So I called just to make sure he got it and it was on his answering machine, so I figured he liked it.”
Hammond says there’s enough material from the “Timeless” show for a second volume if he chooses. Meanwhile he’ll be setting sail with the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise departing Jan. 19 from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and expects to be adding more dates to his 2014 schedule soon.
“I feel as good as I’ve ever felt,” he reports. “I’ve got all my energy together and I’m becoming a little more selective about the gigs that I take as opposed to just grinding it out and going out there for months on end. That helps keep me in shape, too.”