At the corner of Rugby Road and Grady Avenue, the stink of cheap beer is in the air. By 10pm or so, lines will begin to form at the front doors of houses along both streets—students eager to connect with other students, to speculate on the following day’s football game against Duke, to speculate on what, for the love of God, they drank to achieve such a hangover.
The line at the 214 Community Arts Center begins earlier, a few minutes before the night’s 7:30pm showtime. Fifteen people stand and chat cordially at the door, filing in slowly to take their seats; by a few minutes before 8pm, more than 50 people fill the room. The women sport smart, short haircuts and chunky beads about their necks while the men, including opening performer Thomas Gunn, wear Oxford shirts and well-kept beards. The average age of the crowd seems to be 40-ish; nobody talks about students, football or getting hammered as Gunn takes the stage.
A true man of constant sorrow: Blues guru John Hammond culled tunes from more than 60 years of heartache and history during his set at 214 Community Arts Center.
Gunn’s last performance at 214 was an opening slot for Sally Barris, who drew a meager crowd and couldn’t deliver a suitable closing set. Tonight, Gunn offers up "Ma Jolie," opening the Acoustic Muse’s season by singing, "So, as the story goes…" and taking a lyrical stroll through his plea for the appreciation of love as it unfolds.
Gunn performs with the storyteller voice of a more nimble Randy Newman. His brow shines lightly with sweat, glistening like his ivory-colored thumbpick during uptempo numbers like the light-footed blues tune "I’ll Be There," his fingers riding a riff on the E-string of his guitar to the rhythm of his lyrical delivery. A few more tunes (less than 10 in total, peaking with the title track of his record Sleeping Giants and a pair of new songs) and Gunn caps his show with "Stubborn Lucy," a story of father-versus-daughter that features Gunn’s best bridge, a string-hammering hall of echoes that manages to evoke ’60s folk and the synthesizer riff from The Who’s "Baba O’Riley."
If Gunn’s touch on a guitar is the gently guiding hand of a lover or father, then John Hammond‘s is the weathered, stinging slap of that irrepressible history, the blues. Dressed in a black lounge shirt with dragons printed on the seams, grey hair combed back, Hammond rips into his first tune—howling for a lover to "ride with me," mashing his harmonica against his lips between verses to coarsely kiss and growl against it.
Hammond’s set plays out like a Ken Burns documentary, the blues musician narrating histories of Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson and Lightning Slim then impersonating them, frequently rolling his eyes and bending his neck back like an elbow to tear ass through roaring harmonica solos. He stops only to take a swig from a bottle of water or pick up a new harmonica, slapping the used mouthpiece against his khaki pants to empty the spit, then placing it next to a line of others as he fits a new one into his neckbrace.
The blues are selfish, self-centered and illogical—the sound of common sense yielding to emotional appeal. Winding down with Buddy Guy’s "My Time After A While" and a set-closing rendition of Tom Waits’ "Get Behind The Mule," Hammond performs the sentiment of every heartbroken student back in town tonight, yielding completely to the timeless tug of the blues.