Considering the grungy, typically lament-laden themes that form the textual bedrock of blues music, it may sound somewhat contradictory to posit that Dov Hammer is coming clean. The 48-year-old Chicago-born longtime Tel Aviv resident has just released a new album by The Blues Rebels quartet, called The Open Road, in which he serves as vocalist and harmonica-playing frontman.
Hammer is also the chief lyricist for the band, exclusively producing the words for the 13 vocal tracks – the last, title cut, is purely instrumental – with guitarist Andy Watts, Hammer’s chief collaborator on the project, composing the score for all but one of the numbers.
Ronnie Katz wrote the music to “Secret Smile,” while bass guitarist Amos Springer and drummer-percussionist Avi Barak complete the instrumental lineup.
Not only does Hammer hail from the Windy City, which some call the Blues Capital of the North – others go a notch or two further on the kudos scale and simply state that Chicago is the Blues Capital of the World – he clearly also has some baggage to get out there. Part of that feeds off his religious backdrop, and the lyrics on the new album contain quite a few references to feeling his own way through life on the secular side of the ethos tracks. Consider, if you will, the opening stanza to “Before the Jubilee:” “Feel like a stranger, traveling in my land. Feeling in danger, fighting God and man. Times are hard, people fear to speak their minds.
Grab what they can, leave the rest behind.” Stirring stuff indeed, and there is more emotive content with pretty obvious religious connections in “Devil by my Side:” “I was born on the eve of the seventh day. The first song they taught me to sing was a prayer. Tried to keep me in line but I wouldn’t stay. Well, you know how the road to hell is paved. Running with the devil by my side.” Not for Hammer the classic blues lyrics, which generally go something along the lines of: “My baby left me this morning, ain’t got nothing left but this bottle,” and such like.
Hammer is hardly one to – pardon the cross-instrumental pun – blow his own trumpet. “Some songwriters are big storytellers,” he observes. “Bruce Springsteen writes songs about other people, about other people’s lives. I’m not good at that. I write about what I know, which is what goes on in my own head.” Much of that is rooted in Hammer’s orthodox past. “I grew up in a religious home so all this stuff is part of me. I know it and it shaped what I do,” he says, adding that his gravitation towards music was fueled by his rebellion, and helped him to break out of the mold. “Playing rock & roll and playing the blues is, for me, a bit of a kick against that, a bit of an escape.”
Hammer reached his crossroads at the age of 15.
“One time a relative of mine came over to visit us on a Friday night – we lived in Jerusalem – and he came to my room and saw all the rock & roll posters, with the Rolling Stones, and he said: ‘Sometime you’re going to have to decide between that [religion] and that [music].’ I already knew I was going to make the break, but I guess that was a final stage for me.”
The youngster soon came across like-minded budding musicians, even though the music-religion conundrum still tended to get in the way. “I used to play with an American blues guy and, once, he took me over to the Diaspora Yeshiva on Mount Zion – in the Eighties there were all these hippies who had come out of the Sixties and didn’t know what to do next, and became religious Jews,” Hammer recalls. “They still played music and we had some great jam sessions together.” However, it seems that the Stones were a step too far. “We’d play all kinds of stuff but they wouldn’t play the Stones,” Hammer continues. “Every time I suggested the Rolling Stones, they’d say ‘no’ because it was all about sex and drugs, and that was against the Torah. And I told them that all rock and roll was about that. For me, music was freedom.”
Hammer duly moved on with his life philosophy and musical development, and took some incremental steps down the road to the blues. He decided to take up the guitar, but realizing he was up against stiff competition he moved on to bass guitar and got himself a serious private teacher who also taught at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The IDF was indirectly responsible for his final instrumental shift. “When I was in the army I took up the harmonica,” he explains. “I couldn’t carry around a bass and an amplifier and I was very frustrated that I couldn’t play music.” A solution to the logistical problem was prompted by a local hero. “There was this Canadian blues musician in Jerusalem called Ted Cooper,” Hammer continues. “He was great. He played guitar and sang, but also had a harmonica on a rack, and I thought ‘I can do that’. That’s how I started playing harmonica. Playing with Ted was a real school for me.”
And Hammer has been doing that, and singing, to great effect ever since. As with his harmonica playing exploits, Hammer says he sort of just fell in to singing.
“I found out that no one just wants a harmonica player in their band, so I started singing. [Veteran bluesman] Ronnie Peterson told me I didn’t have to be a virtuoso, or a great singer, for the blues and that it was about the feeling. I was shy about it, but when I started singing I discovered that was what I’d really wanted to do all along.”
The Open Road is the Blues Rebels’ third release, and comes on the back of a burgeoning track record, with gigs all over Israel and the States in Hammer’s and the band’s CV. The new album is also a highly personal effort, and tugs on the heartstrings. Hammer’s lyrics are about his experiences, but he believes we can all take something from it. “The blues is about singing about your own problems, but I think if you do it right – you’re talking about yourself, but people aren’t hearing that, they’re hearing about them. If you’re doing it right.”
Blues fans will be able to judge for themselves if Hammer, Watts et al are “doing it right” at the band’s forthcoming gig at the Shablul Jazz Club, Tel Aviv Port (April 11, 9:30 p.m.).