John Hammond jr's So Many Roads is another fine document in the history of the blues revival of the 1960's. John Hammond jr was the son of famed record producer John Hammond who had produced the likes of Billie Holiday and Count Basie. Hammond jr had developed an interest in blues whilst in his teens and signed with the Vanguard label in 1962.
Like The Paul Butterfield Blues band Hammond jr mined the bountiful catalogue of Chicago rhythm and blues. It's an album that has it's detractors with most criticism aimed at Hammond's vocals, although I think he gives a great barrelhouse interpretation. What lifts this album is the calibre of musicians, Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson who at that point were known as the Hawks had jammed with Hammond during a stint working the Peppermint lounge in 1964. Also featured on the album is the great harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite, Mike Bloomfield who ironically contributes piano and Chicago session bassist Jimmy Lewis.
The Hawks by this point were building a strong live reputation as one of the best R&B bands going around, Hammond was blown away by their playing and was eager to have them back him in the studio, his label Vanguard were less than enthusiastic but Hammond manage to convince them of the merits of the musicians. It was a great call because the Hawks help shape an album of raw, powerful blues with that characteristic tight sound that the Hawks had developed. The album starts off with the Willie Dixon penned Down in the Bottom and the first thing you really hear is Robbie's wailing guitar, that familiar bending of string and the sonic assault that was captivating young guitar players through the clubs in Canada and the south. Charlie Musselwhite plays a brilliant foil to Robertson, with sharp blasts of the harp. The Muddy Waters classic Long Distance Call allows Hammond and the band to get down and dirty with a funky slow blues, Musselwhite floats in and out of the song, playing alongside Robertson one minute and then coming in behind Hammonds vocals. They then do a raucous take of Who Do You Love which Robbie had lifted to exalted heights the year before when backing Ronnie Hawkins on his famous Roulette records 45. Hammond jr keeps it in the low down vein with another Waters cover I Want You To Love Me, the sound is so tight but it's got some real fire to it.
The apocalyptic Judgement Day is given a workout with some firey organ work from Garth Hudson who just blankets this song with some amazing chords, even in the early 60's his genius was on show. Levon for his part really lays that jungle beat down in the pocket, whilst Charlie Musselwhite just pours more fat on to the fire. So Many Roads, So Many Trains lifts the tempo a notch after a slow burning intro from Robbie. Rambling Blues was a song I was first introduced to on a Band documentary and I was blown away by the opening guitar cadence, Robbie was as good a blues player as there was going around at that time, he may have even been better than Mike Bloomfield. Hammond jr dips into the Bo Diddley canon again for O Yea which is done with lascivious glee, the solo from Garth is once again incredible, jazzy and soulful all in one. You Can't Judge a Book By It's Cover has a real urgency to it and a more rock and roll feel to it. Gambling Blues is one of the best tracks on the album, a slow pounding blues with Musselwhite stretching each harp note adding to the gambler's sense of desperation and isolation. Another classic Water's song Baby Please Don't Go has a more lo fi feel to it with some swirling organ work from Hudson.
Hammond jr went on to cut some great records for Vanguard and he also recorded some fine sessions at Muscle Shoals in the late 60's. He still records and tours and is highly respected as a great purveyor of the blues.