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The Pleasant Dilemma of Hamell on Trial

A post-Obama protest singer deals with victory

For the seething, cynical, sarcastic, permanently embittered, militantly radicalized leftist folk singers, comedians, and folk-singer/comedians out there, these are jubilant but deeply confusing times, the exhilaration of We Did It now undercut by the bewilderment of What Do We Do Now? For starters, with even the New York Post cheerfully hawking Obama pin-up posters, there is way, way less to bitch about. Our man is now The Man. For those who bitch about The Man professionally and/or artistically, this is a fabulous quandary, but a quandary nonetheless.

One option, of course, is to stop bitching. But in the case of Ed Hamell, the one-man folk-punk bulldozer known professionally/artistically as Hamell on Trial, this is as unappealing as it is unlikely. Here's a guy for whom righteous indignation and fantastically ribald profanity are weapons as vital and irreplaceable as his blunt, nasal voice and beat-to-shit acoustic guitar, which he strums so violently that he's worn giant holes in the wood, a sort of sonic erosion—the guitar's the mountain; he's the lava. Hamell is a one-man Tarantino flick: loud, vicious, luridly hilarious, gleefully and deeply offensive. The can of Red Bull perched on his amp is laughably superfluous.

Saturday night at the Bowery Poetry Club, made cheerful but not complacent by recent political news, Ed does not play "Coulter's Snatch," the obscene (and self-explanatory) ode to his favorite conservative pundit's plumbing, as unveiled on his also-self-explanatory 2006 album, Songs for Parents Who Enjoy Drugs. (Hamell, born in Syracuse and now shacked up in Westchester, has a twentysomething wife, a young son named Detroit, and a song about the day when a teenaged Detroit will inquire as to whether his dad messed with drugs, premarital sex, and other seedy improprieties in his own youth, and what Hamell will do when that day comes: lie.) And though he begins tonight with a spoken-word diatribe about the anesthetizing, demoralizing, stupefying inanity of modern television, slinging quite a few vituperative arrows at Fox News in particular, soon he is on to less political topics, namely the various drug-related misadventures cataloged during the manic oompah strut of "When You Are Young": smoking kitty litter, snorting interred ashes, etc. "I know what you're thinking," he tells us. "Saturday night in Manhattan. Celebratory week. Where could I go tonight to pay for a fuckin' polka?"

Regime-change aside, the songs, blessedly, remain the same. Hamell's shows lately have been subtitled "The Terrorism of Modern Life," an Off-Broadway-ish mix of songs, rants, fond remembrances, miscellaneous banter, and, best of all, jokes, jokes, actual jokes. Rare is the musician who can actually tell a good joke (the one about the pedophile and the six-year-old that ends with the latter saying, "Sir, I think you're confused—I'm not actually a welder," for example) and tell it repeatedly, with a nonchalant comic mastery that makes you laugh even if you've heard him tell it many times before. Saturday night, after he unleashes a bartending joke about the improper use of ice tongs already canonized on his recent live CD/DVD release Rant & Roll, a dude behind me roars with laughter and tells his buddy, "Every time. It's fuckin' funny every time."

Chatting by phone the day before the show, Hamell insists he's not a terribly political guy and is driven to fury and lyrical specificity only by the indignities of the Bush administration. Obama, now, will hopefully free him up to explore more agreeable topics: "If he turns all this around and I don't have to sing about it anymore, then good. I got plenty of other problems." He admits that his job, like The Daily Show's job, is harder now, what with this utterly foreign new atmosphere of excitement and optimism. "Melted cynics" is how he describes folks like, yes, himself: "What I do want to believe, just as the entire world changed on 9/11, so that the next day everyone's going, 'Eh, it's gonna be real different,' and I'm like, 'It's not gonna be that fuckin' different'—well, how wrong I was. It is different. And so now people are saying, 'It's gonna be different,' and I'm thinking, 'Eh, it's not gonna be that different.' I'm hoping I'm gonna be wrong."

For now, at least, the mere fact of President-elect Obama has very little effect on Hamell's act, other than inspiring some jocular banter about Parliament Funkadelic and anal sex, the latter topic I will not elucidate further on the off-chance that discussing the Obamas in this way is now somehow illegal. "I think there's gonna be a much larger manifestation later on down the road of how positive I feel," Ed tells me, which is even more terrifying. But maybe the true benefit of this momentous event for all the seething/cynical/etc. artists out there is how it allows everyone to fixate on other things, instead of raging against the machine all the goddamn time. With the political much improved, we are free now to spend more time on the personal. Which Hamell, in particular, is somewhat shockingly good at. Just as his voice is a dizzying panoply of snarls, sneers, and adenoidal squeaks, his songs flaunt a staggering emotional range, from childish crudity to devastating honesty. This is best exemplified by two songs he played back-to-back Saturday night, with no jokes in between: "Pussy" and "Father's Advice."

Yes. The former concerns Ed's tremendous oral-sex acumen, with a chorus that consists mostly of him bleating the song's title repeatedly. It's tiresome on record but, should the crowd be into it, oddly delightful in concert, and the Bowery Poetry Club gang, not surprisingly, is really, really into it. But the second that the song ends, he starts talking about his father's suicide note. His father, you see, was married for 50 years, and when his wife, Ed's mother, got Alzheimer's and no longer recognized him (or anyone, really), Ed's dad killed her, and then himself. The note he left Ed remarks that if Jesus, up in heaven, should take issue with this, Ed's father will respond, "What did you do to my Ruth?" And then Hamell launches into "Father's Advice," written from Ed's perspective to his own son, explaining what happened to Grandma and Grandpa, and distilling Grandpa's advice: "You better laugh till you die." In a show completely saturated with blue humor, this is the one truly shocking moment. A talent this vast is wasted just bitching about the Republicans. Thank God he no longer has to.

Hamell on Trial plays the Bowery Poetry Club November 15–16

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