"If a parsley farmer neglects to pay his income taxes, would they garnish his wages?"
Cue hysterical laughter. Or cue pained groans and raucous boos. Ed Hamell is prepared for either contingency.
"Pretty bad, right?" Hamell admits of his latest official onstage breaking-the-ice joke. Usually he prefers something lewder, more profane. But fatherhood has rearranged his priorities. "I have to get cleaner," he admits. "I got a kid now, about a year and a half old, so he's starting to listen to everything I say."
Hopefully audiences dig the parsley joke. If not, Hamell has a follow-up: "When they go 'Ooooooh,' I tell 'em to go fuck themselves."
A bold move indeed, and one made bolder when you consider his audience consists of thousands of rabid Ani DiFranco fans.
Ed is the sole entity behind Hamell on Trial, a fantastic one-man-with-an-acoustic-guitar whirlwind who immediately obliterates any wimpy James Taylor coffeehouse loser comparisons by flaunting his status as the Loudest Acoustic Guitar Player on Planet Earth. Armed with a nasal New Yorker accent, an avowed love for profanity, and a self-described "rock 'n' roll attitude," Hamell drops onstage like a bomb, slivers of feeble folk singers still lodged between his teeth.
"Right now when I go out in front of her audience -- anywhere from three to seven thousand people -- they've never heard anything like it, because there is nothing like it," he says. "For better or for worse, there is nothing like it."
Well, maybe. Hamell on Trial didn't reinvent the wheel so much as line it with a row of twelve-inch steel spikes. He saws furiously on his acoustic, generating an amplified distortion you never expected from the twee instrument John Belushi smashes against the staircase during the "I gave my love a chicken" scene in Animal House. Hamell half-sings, half-recites, and half-spits autobiographical tales of being told off by John Lennon, hacking through vines at a shitty government job, and forging a sordid Sid-and-Nancy-type violent relationship with his guitar.
Hamell has a natural storyteller's voice and a Russian novelist's eye for detail: His 2000 album, Choochtown, largely tracks the shifty movements of a sub-Goodfellas clan of thugs, a mindset not quite in the vein of Ed's beloved MC5 or Iggy and the Stooges, but the sentiment is still there.
"I never was in a great band -- I tried," Hamell says. "I was in some okay bands; I've seen great bands. I never was in one. But right off the bat when I started doin' stuff acoustically -- still with that rock 'n' roll attitude -- it was different. There wasn't anybody doin' it. For better or for worse, I was finding my idiosyncratic voice. That was my goal, to set myself apart but to do it in a rock 'n' roll way."
The result: standard, carefully-guarded-secret cult success, especially in Europe. British music magazines, in particular, love this guy. But plaudits from British music magazines are not currently accepted as American currency.
It's time to break this guy out.
Enter Ani DiFranco. Hamell on Trial has served as Ani's finest opening act for years now -- his live album Ed's Not Dead -- Hamell Comes Alive (start there if you're a newbie) is culled from his performances before DiFranco's devout army. Now he's on her label, Righteous Babe, with his new record Tough Love (featuring guest spots from Ani herself), poised for his mainstream-penetrating crossover bid.
It's a curious association, and one bound to polarize music fans who tend to either despise or adore DiFranco, the self-made, indie-acoustic troubadour legend. You'd assume her audiences -- second to none in their obsessive adoration -- would be a tough crowd for any opener, particularly a straight bald guy with little love for the politically correct. But Hamell on Trial makes it work.
"Her crowd is incredibly embracing to me," Hamell says. "You start at a real advantage. Her audience is really aware of the fact that she handpicks her openers, and their attitude is very much, 'Hey, any friend of Ani's is a friend of ours.' I get 'em goin' really well. It's as good a show as I ever do."
As to whether Tough Love will still resonate once Ani's faithful file out of the Greek Theater, the record -- which adds live drums, backing vocals, and other flowery production flourishes to the mix -- certainly flaunts Hamell on Trial's range. "Don't Kill" kicks it off with a blaring post-9/11 rant for peace delivered from the perspective of God. "Downs" is a touching tribute to the drugs on which doctors had Ed hopped up -- or down -- for months after a near-fatal car accident. And "Halfway" skewers corny music magazines, Creed fans, and Britney-style celeb sexual exploitation: "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?"
Of course, that aggression gets balanced by love songs, a lullaby for Ed's impressionable young son, and "Hail," an actually quite moving ballad about how happy Matthew Shepard is in heaven. "I'm a Libra," Hamell explains. "I'm extreme. I think I'm an extreme Libra. I gravitate heavily between yin and yang. I do a little both -- it makes the heavier songs seem heavier when they're juxtaposed to the light stuff, and it makes the light stuff seem more poignant when it's juxtaposed to the heavy stuff. Fuckin' 40 percent of Led Zeppelin's output was acoustic. People never talk about it. It's so weird."
So can Ani make this extreme Libra deservedly famous? Deservedness aside, the odds don't favor Hamell on Trial. He'll live with the results regardless, though he admits "it's gonna look fuckin' ugly if I'm eighty in front of twelve people in a fuckin' pizza parlor in Elmira.
"Unfortunately," he adds, "you can't do this without some kind of positive feedback. You gotta have it. It's really tough to work in the fuckin' void. It's frustrating sometimes, but you know somethin'? I make really, really good money. I don't mean to be an asshole, but I really do. So I'm lookin' at it now goin', 'Wow, no shit. I make more money than my dad did, and I'm a musician, and he always told me it wasn't gonna pan out.'"
Dad never counted on those killer parsley jokes. And hey, don't like it? You know what to do with yourself.
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