If Ed Hamell was disappointed in the turnout at his first show of a four-night residency downstairs at Valentine’s on Wednesday night, he didn’t let it show in his performance.
Oh sure, he mentioned it — how could you not? Excluding the bartenders, the sound engineer and Hamell’s young son Detroit hanging out onstage with his father (and this reporter), there was exactly one paying customer watching Hamell when he began playing, promptly at 7:30.
The songwriter and one-time Albany resident in the ’90s, better known by his stage name Hamell on Trial, commented on the situation early on in the show, improvising a tune explaining how he took his son out of school to come to the show in Albany, only for no one to show up.
“We’re still having fun though, right?” he said, grinning at his son, who obligingly pumped his fists in the air.
Hamell takes pride in the fact that he never gives less than 100 percent effort at his shows — he explained a few times that the show would have been exactly the same, performance-wise, if more people had shown up (and by the second half of the set a small crowd had come in).
But he didn’t need to explain that — the performance, all sweat and grit and rock ’n’ roll abandon on a single, loud acoustic guitar, was proof enough. He barreled out of the gate with “Global Tattoo,” spitting forth plenty of venom on the song’s socially conscious verses. He stayed in this mode for “A Little Concerned, That’s All,” delivering the song with eyes closed, in a passionate grimace.
The residency, which continues the next three Wednesday nights this month, was meant to help him rehearse for his next one-man play, “Eddie’s Bar,” which he’ll be debuting in earnest at the Capital Fringe Festival in Washington, in November.
According to Hamell, this play will be different from his previous efforts, including 2008’s “The Terrorism of Everyday Life,” with more narration and stories — including one such story he told this evening, with guitar accompaniment, about a friend who died playing a practical joke on his girlfriend in a U-Haul truck.
He debuted the play’s title song, performing it twice — the first time, on microphone, was shaky, as it was the first time he had ever attempted it. Later on in the evening, when the small crowd had hit the bar, he tried it again, no microphone this time, and got through it much more smoothly.
The song itself showed that he is still up to his usual scathing commentary, with the lyrics chock full of references to artists, musicians and writers — everyone from John Bonham to Jackson Pollock to Ernest Hemingway got some kind of inside reference or joke in the song’s lyrics.
Hamell also has a new album coming out in the near future, “The Happiest Man in the World” (he wouldn’t give any further details, due to a record label gag order). He performed the song’s title track, a slower, bluesy affair, and another new song, originally recorded as a duet with The Moldy Peaches’ Kimya Dawson.
But most of the evening was given over to classics spanning Hamell’s entire back catalog. Highlights included “Blood of the Wolf,” which built off beat-poetry lyrics into an explosive finale, and “Inquiring Minds,” from his meditation on parenthood, 2006’s “Songs For Parents Who Enjoy Drugs” (which he turned quite appropriately into a great call-and-response routine with his son).
As the set wound to a close, he sounded as if he was just getting started — “Jennifer’s Stripping Again” stung with punk rock fury and anger, while “I’m an Artist in America” turned into an anthem, audience or no audience. He closed with “The Meeting,” a fine description of his modus operandi that seemed to catch the small crowd’s attention.
Afterward, he urged the few people in the bar to bring friends next week. Here’s hoping they do — Hamell is too good an artist to be ignored like this in his once-hometown.
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