"It's one guy, and one guitar
So it's gotta be folk? oh man, wrong they are..."
—Hamell, "The Meeting", copyright 1997
My first encounter with Ed Hamell, better known as Hamell On Trial, was when he opened for Ani DiFranco at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles, 18 April 2000. I hadn't been too impressed by the opening bands at the two Ani shows I'd been to previously, so I was less than enthusiastic when a heavyset bald guy who looked well on the far side of 40 took the stage, dressed all in black and carrying only a battered acoustic guitar.
Suffice it to say I was pleasantly surprised when he launched into a one-man punk rock show. That's right, a one-man punk rock show on the acoustic guitar. Suddenly those bare patches around his guitar strings made perfect sense: those are skid marks, where Hamell's worn through the veneer because he plays that hard.
I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it for myself.
Singer/songwriter Ed Hamell is Hamell On Trial. He performs a mix of spoken word and what can only be termed acoustic punk (anti-folk?) His influences include Iggy and the Stooges, Lou Reed, Johnny Cash, and comedian Bill Hicks. Originally from Syracuse, New York, Hamell's musical career began in that city, where he fronted for a band for some time before going solo (a move he discusses in glowing terms on his live album Ed's Not Dead: "...now, at rehearsals, we all show up on time, we all agree on material, we're all sober...." ) Eventually, he moved to Austin, TX, a city with a thriving music scene where audiences were less likely to personally know the characters in his semi-demi-quasi-autobiographical songs and could respond to his work on its own merits. In 1994, Hamell on Trial signed on to Austin’s premier indie label, Doolittle Records and recorded his first album, Big as Life, which was later rereleased by Mercury Records in 1995 when Hamell signed his first major record deal with them. Hamell's full discography (to date) is as follows:
- Big As Life (1995, Mercury)
- Testimony (1995 promotional "words and music" EP, PolyGram/Mercury)
- The Chord is Mightier than the Sword (1997, Mercury)
- Mr. Fear (1997 promotional EP, Mercury)
- Choochtown (2000, Such-A-Punch Media)
- Mercuroyale: The Best of the Mercury Years (2002, Evangeline Records)
- Ed's Not Dead --- Hamell Comes Alive, (2002, Righteous Babe Records)
- Yap (May 2003, Such-A-Punch Media)
- Tough Love (August 2003, Righteous Babe)
After leaving Mercury, Hamell moved to Brooklyn, NY and later Middletown, NY, started his own record company, Such-A-Punch Media, and released his third album, Choochtown, which is one of my favorite CDs of all time, period. In 2000 he toured with Ani DiFranco and almost died in a car accident, although he has since recovered and edited recordings from that tour into his first live album, Ed's Not Dead --- Hamell Comes Alive, released on DiFranco's label, Righteous Babe Records. Hamell's latest album, entitled Tough Love, also on Righteous Babe, is scheduled for a late August 2003 release, and it rocks me.
Since leaving Mercury, Hamell and his record company, Such-A-Punch Media, have been trying to buy back the rights to his first two albums, but the process could take years. I found Big As Life and The Chord is Mightier than the Sword on eBay, so if you're dying to hear early Hamell, that's what I recommend (and many thanks to the people at www.hamellontrial.com who suggested it to me). Fortunately, Mercury only owns those albums, not the songs (more on that below). Another possibility (and one that Hamell can still make money on) is to check out the album Mercuroyale: The Best of the Mercury Years. I don't own this one, but that's only because I don't know (yet) if it's just straight selections from Big as Life and The Chord is Mightier than the Sword (in which case it would be a little redundant for me to own it) or entirely new versions of songs from those albums (in which case it's essential that I get my hands on it). Many thanks are also due to SharQ for first helping me get my hands (and ears) on Ed's Not Dead, the live album from Hamell's performances on tour with DiFranco which comes as close as any recording can to conveying the the humor, spontaneity, and passion of a live Hamell performance. I'm almost positive some of those tracks were taken from the show I saw, but the album liner notes are too vague for me to be certain.
On 20 August 2003, I used a web form at www.hamellontrial.com to ask about making my Hamell writeups copyright-compliant. The text of my message was as follows:
To Whom It May Concern:
I've been a fan of Hamell's for about three years now, and I write for an online community called Everything2.com, an online database of professional and amateur fiction and nonfiction about, well, everything. One of my very first submissions to the site was an article about Hamell, and since then I've written reviews of Choochtown, Big as Life, The Chord Is Mightier Than The Sword, and a few of Ed's songs from those albums. Which brings me to my question:
How can I get permission to reproduce Hamell's lyrics on E2? I realize that most of the songs are short enough that they fall within fair use, but I'd feel better writing about them if I had official permission from the copyright holder. In the case of Choochtown, it's pretty clear that I need to contact Ed/Such-A-Punch (in which case, is this the right place to do it?) What about Big as Life and The Chord is Mightier Than the Sword? Do I have to contact Mercury, or is permission from Hamell enough? Likewise, do I need to contact Righteous Babe for permission to use material from Ed's Not Dead?
Right now the songs I'm most interested in are "Big as Life", "The Meeting", "John Lennon", "Blood of the Wolf", "Piccolo Joe", "I'm Gonna Watch You Sleep", "Choochtown", "Open Up the Gates", and "Bill Hicks". I've also written a bit about Ed's cover of "Folsom Prison Blues", but I'm not sure whose permission I need for that, either.
I really appreciate whatever help you can give me on this.
Not the best letter of its kind, but well, it was a little intimidating writing to an artist I respect and admire so much. I would've been willing to abridge my Hamell lyrics writeups if necessary, but only a few hours after I submitted my request, I got good news:
Date: Thu, 21 Aug 2003 00:21:54 -0400
From: HamellonTrial <email address excised>
To: <me: email address excised>
Subject: Re: Response from www.hamellontrial.com
[my real name excised],
No problem printing any of my lyrics, I own all my publishing. The record companies only own those specific recordings, not the songs. I'm flattered that you would ask and appreciate your courtesy. Good luck with all your writing.
Best, Ed Hamell
Hot damn! I am so thrilled and elated it's hard to describe. I mean, it's a relief I get to use Hamell's stuff and share it with E2, and I wasn't really expecting to get shot down, but personally hearing back from the man himself after just one email, in less than a day, and getting such a positive, encouraging response --- even after I forgot to mention that I wouldn't be making any money off his stuff and wrote what I didn't think was a very good query letter --- is way better than I was hoping for. Hurray! Of course, this episode only goes to further show that Hamell totally rocks.
- Hamell on Trial performance, Universal Amphitheater, 18 April 2000
- Big as Life
- The Chord is Mightier than the Sword
- Mr. Fear
- Ed's Not Dead: Hamell Comes Alive
- Personal email correspondence with the artist himself! Dude!