Ed Hamell is bald. I mean Yul Brynner, cue-ball, Kojak bald. A regular guitar-wielding chrome dome. Yet when he mailed me a copy of his cool new disc, Tough Love, the package included an official Hamell On Trial comb. Yup, this Ed Hamell is an anti-folk smart aleck.
Hamell, who has performed solo as Hamell On Trial for the past 12 years, is a rebel within rebellion. He rages urgently and honestly about and against a multitude of things within a format he doesn't really associate himself with. Though endorsed by the likes of anti-folk superhero Ani DiFranco (his current Righteous Babe label boss), Hamell is an unlikely singer-songwriter.
"I don't mind those guys," he says over the phone from his Big Apple crib. "I just never really listened to them." This is probably why Hamell, as an outsider, sounds fresh within this sometimes overrun, overwrought genre without really trying. When someone is boisterous and forceful, it's often assumed they're rebelling.
"Honestly, I'm not rebelling against that stuff," he says. "The singer-songwriter people that do that, I wish them the best of luck. Many of them are doing far better than me."
Whatever Hamell does choose to sing about certainly isn't prototypically folk. His off-center approach comes across genuine and personal. The importance of singing with honesty recently dawned on him while spinning Loretta Lynn's controversially empowering classic "The Pill."
"I'm listening to it and I go 'Wow, this is really amazing but also very organic.' It's obviously, instinctively, intuitively, genuinely her. If she had sung about, whatever, it would have been false and would have rung false. And the same with me, I'm very skeptical of all that peace and love stuff."
Rest assured, there ain't no peace and love when Ed Hamell's on stage. He is a one-man hurricane, rhythmically shredding his acoustic guitar as he paces furiously: complaining, inciting, and drawing out his listeners.
His color and onstage profanity isn't simply a lame shot at shock value but instead comes from genuine angst and political exasperation.
"Multi-national corporation boardroom filled / apologizing for all the people they killed / to make amends, schools they'd build / and The NRA, as if on cue / killed themselves, it was the least they could do," he sings on "There Is A God."
But it isn't just The Man pissing Hamell off, it's also the vacuous pop culture minions that pay The Man's salary. Hamell attacks them head-on in the song "Halfway." "So you pucker your mouth and you show lots of thigh, coy celebrity sexy, teasing cleavage / take the movie's name, tattoo it on your labia / spread your legs for the camera / what difference would it make? / I mean fuck it, why go halfway?"
"There's a lot of people that feel the same way and they're sort of afraid to feel it," he says. "Really my feeling is to say what you feel because supposedly we have free speech in this country."
Despite his frank, controversial, contrarian stance, Hamell doesn't get into too much trouble as an underground talent. "I'm under the radar, so I don't have that much to lose if I come out and say what I truly believe."
Hamell on Trial's solo approach is "primarily economic," he says. He also points out that the drive needed to lead a full rock band has necessitated his one-man show.
"It really was more difficult to carry a whole band around, economically and spiritually, although that's all I ever listened to," he says. "As you get older it gets difficult to sorta keep that gang spirit that you had when you were a kid. It's so difficult now to get a band together, to get all the gear. The days of that Get In The Van thing, that whole Black Flag, Sonic Youth, Minutemen, early eighties Husker Du thing... that's no longer there. The bars have closed. It's a bygone era."
Hamell hopes budding musicians, frustrated with the obstacles, will take his lead.
"Maybe I can provide a possible outlet for them to go 'hey, I can be one person and be infinitely more autonomous in all that applies'."
"I remember seeing Farm-Aid with Neil Young and he was playing 'Rocking In The Free World' with his acoustic guitar," Hamell says. "He was out in the middle of the crowd and rocking infinitely more than most of the acts that day that had full bands."
Young's performance, coupled with some early Roger Manning records, made a light bulb go on in Hamell's head.
"I thought 'whoa, I could be The Clash, but this is going to be a lot easier, logistically'."
Hamell is well aware of what he's up against. People don't flock to downtown clubs like they used to. Those that do are treated to clubs crammed with inane dance drivel or lame cover bands. The city sense of adventure is waning. Even Hamell himself is a little hesitant.
"I know if you were to say to me 'hey, let's go down see this guy. He's bald, he plays the acoustic guitar, he yells and screams, he tells a lot of jokes,' I might be skeptical to come to the show too," he says. "I know it's a tough sell. I know there's a lot of visceral angst, but it really is a good time."
Hamell On Trial plays with John Lardieri on Thursday, September 11, at Milestones, 170 East Avenue, at 8 p.m. (Tix: $8-$10, 325-5880), and with Am I Lost on Sunday, September 14, at Mohawk Place, 47 East Mohawk Street, Buffalo, at 8 p.m. (Tix: $10, 716-855-3931).