Chicago, alive and well in Tel Aviv

With the release of his latest album and the completion of several successful US tours, Dov Hammer may be a blues singer, but he ain’t singin’ the blues

CG and The Hammer 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
CG and The Hammer 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Judging by the diminutive size of the fraternity in this country, “Israeli blues musicians” almost seems like a contradiction in terms. Then again, if you’re going to push the blues boat out in clubs, bars and auditoriums up and down the country, it does help to have grown up in the right neck of the woods.
Tel Aviv resident blues singer-harmonica player Dov Hammer came on aliya as a lad but spent most of his formative years in Chicago, the so-called blues capital of the north of the US.
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“Yes, I’ve been in Israel most of my life, but I’d say that culturally I feel more American than Israeli,” he says. “I listen to American music, read American books and I love baseball, which is unheard of here. I’m a big [Chicago] Cubs fan – unfortunately.”
Forty-something Hammer certainly sounds like the real McCoy when he gets on stage or into the recording studio with long-time fellow American-born cohort Sagi “CG” Shorer, who plays lead guitar and shares vocal duties in the band. The two, along with bass guitarist Golan Zuskovitch and drummer Oren Avisar, have just released their third album in eight years, Live in Tel Aviv.
Hammer and Shorer wrote or co-wrote nine of the 12 tracks, and there is a palpable sense of seamless synergy between them. “CG and I have been together for over 10 years now, and we work together well. It’s certainly the longest time I’ve ever played music with anyone.”
Hammer may have spent much of his childhood in the Windy City, but he says he wasn’t drawn to the blues from the word go.
“When I was a kid, the two biggest influences on me musically were my father and my sister. My dad is a big classical music fan. He has thousands of records. My sister is 10 years older than me; she’s a child of the Sixties.
So there’d be two stereos going at home at the same time – my dad with his classical music and my sister with her Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and the Allman Brothers records.”
After a while, Hammer had his sibling’s collection all to himself. “She left to go to college and I’d pick out records, just to see what they were about.”
In fact, Hammer’s real introduction to the blues was more of a celluloid than a vinyl nature.
“I saw The Blues Brothers [1980] movie when I was about 12,” he recalls. “I went straight out and bought the soundtrack album, but that wasn’t enough. The bluesiest thing in the whole movie, the [iconic blues singer-guitarist] John Lee Hooker stuff isn’t on the original album.”
Once again, sibling help was at hand. “I went to my sister and said, ‘I need more of this [blues]. What else do you have?’ She gave me a record by John Lee Hooker and another with one side by Jimi Hendrix and one with [soul singer] Otis Redding. That started me off.”
Hammer’s blues appetite was well and truly whetted.
Nevertheless, as a teenager, he paid his rock ‘n’ rolls dues, playing guitar and bass guitar. Ultimately, he opted for harmonica as a matter of logistics. “When I was in the army I couldn’t carry a bass around with me, but a harmonica’s really easy – you just put it in your pocket.”
But it wasn’t just about portability.
“The harmonica is a pretty important blues instrument.”
Still, you can’t really sing and play harmonica at the same time. “I love [legendary harmonica player-vocalist] Sonny Boy Williamson. He sang and played the harmonica and did amazing things with them both. You can hardly tell where one ends and the other begins,” he marvels.
With his rock instincts primed as a youngster and his Chicago roots, it comes as no surprise to learn that Hammer is drawn more to the electric side of the blues.
“But I love acoustic too, and the blues from the Deep South – guys like Robert Johnson and Skip James – and I did an acoustic album a couple of years ago. But most of the time, I do electric style – numbers by Muddy Waters and [harmonica player-vocalist] Junior Wells, who is my big hero, and Howling Wolf, of course.”
Hammer has honed his artistic skills over the years and, naturally, his voice deepened over the years which, presumably, enriches the vocal output. “At first I didn’t sing at all, I only played harmonica,” observes Hammer, adding that, once again, practicality showed him the way to go.
“I only started singing when I couldn’t find a gig. I was a bit shy about singing, and I needed that push.
That was simply a matter of starting to sing or stop performing.”
Thankfully, Hammer went for it. A decade on, with three albums and a couple of US tours under his and CG’s collective belt, Live in Tel Aviv offers Israeli blues lovers a bit of homegrown naches.