In any city, on any given night, you can find someone laying down a passable version of the blues in some corner bar. The form has become a part of the American music vernacular, and learning how to at least fake one's way through it is considered a right of passage, particularly for guitar players.
You might hear a smoking pentatonic blues guitar solo as background music for a beer commercial these days, but at one time, the idiom was as pure and true and visceral as the pain it sought to chase away. John Hammond Jr. plays blues this way; his is a voice and a guitar tone that you trust implicitly to tell you the truth. And the truth is, the blues isn't slick; it's raw, rusty and dusty, it's got the sound of the back door slamming for the last time, and the bank manager arriving at your doorstep to foreclose and the whiskey jug hitting the porch with a pregnant thud.
Hammond has been touring for 40 years, playing archaic blues of the Mississippi Delta variety, though he's got the Chicago electric prodigal son's version right there under his fingers as well. Hammond is the real deal; he's got, as a dear friend of mine is wont to say, "the right smell in his shoes," a goofy but apt metaphor for earned credibility. Whether he's tackling Tom Waits or Son House, Hammond can make you connect to that prelanguage part of your brain that demands no literal explanation but is instead content to bask in the warm familiar feeling.
That's what you'll get if you go see Hammond at 8 tonight at the Tralf, 622 Main St. Tickets are $27.50 (box office, Ticketmaster). Call 852-5000.
-- Jeff Miers