Live at Alma Mater: Hamell on Trial

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There are some performers who exist as such whirling dervishes of energy that it's impossible not to get swept up along with them. Anti-folk artist Ed Hamell (AKA Hamell on Trial) is such a performer: equipped with an acoustic guitar and reams upon reams of biting lyrics, Hamell sometimes feels more like a runaway train than a singer-songwriter. To see him onstage, furiously strumming his guitar and spitting line after line of beautifully barbed words, you wonder if the power of his manic music is enough to burn the place down.

 

Hamell's been at it for about 30 years, a prolific songwriter who was eventually taken on as Ani Difranco's go-to touring opener. Their partnership would result in Ed's Not Dead, Hamell Comes Alive – a collection of live performances from Hamell's tours with Difranco, which was assembled into an album to help cover the wages Hamell lost after getting into a terrible car accident. That album, perhaps, paints the clearest picture of how Hamell is able to whip an audience up through sheer force of will and the blisters on his fingers.

 

While we mention that Hamell's always been prolific, that productivity hit a new gear around 2008, when he committed to writing and recording a song a day for his YouTube channel, eventually amassing over 400.

 

“I say it as a joke, but it's sorta true, that deadlines are very inspiring to me,” says Hamell. “I collaborated with a theater in Columbus, Ohio, where I wrote 15 songs for this play, F#(k Cancer. Those were really strict parameters, where I had to utilize the characters and write the songs to advance the plot, and I liked that. It was cool. You know, Faulkner, one day they asked him, 'What were you thinking when you wrote this?' And he said, 'Money.' But he had to pay the rent! So, that could be inspiring. … When I did those 400 songs in a row, it was when my marriage was breaking up, and it was just to stay sober. And that was really great, really strict parameters. And most of those were really just first drafts, but some of them did ultimately find their way to being completed songs. But it's very drug-like, writing.”

 

Hamell's been known to describe himself as having a big mouth, and this is never more clear than his frequent forays into political songwriting. True to his punk ethos, Hamell's a man of the people, reserving his most venomous words for politicians who cruelly use their influence to inflict harm on the marginalized. He name-drops Bill Hicks and Pussy Riot as heroes who spoke truth to power. In the age of Trump, he's finding that his music is serving a unique purpose.

 

“With this administration – at the risk of sounding pretentious – I think it's a little therapeutic to the audience, particularly when I'm down south,” says Hamell. “You tend to turn to comedy, or shows, like John Oliver or Stephen Colbert, and you don't feel so damn alone. Because sometimes, it's really tough. I have a new song that seems to resonate with people, called 'Trail Mix,' about what you need to get over the humps. I mention some people like Thelonious Monk, for me, that you can throw on to help you get through. I think, emotionally, everyone's freaking out. There are certain things that people in my audience can't say at work, perhaps, or around the dinner table. Or, maybe, socially, they feel like they can't say the things that I say, so it's cathartic for them.”

 

Hamell on Trial takes the stage at Honey on September 18th. Expect a blistering set full of humor, anger, and some pummeled guitar strings.