Ed Hamell sounds tired. He’s just driven 20 straight hours from New Orleans, where he recorded his new album Tackle Box (“because it’s got so many hooks”) with Righteous Babe label head/producer/friend Ani DiFranco, which was physically draining. And he’s coping with the never-popular domestic problems that have occupied his attention and informed his songwriting recently, which has been emotionally draining.
Some people use work to escape the challenges of their daily grind, but Hamell doesn’t have that option. His job as an itinerant guerilla Folksinger entails encapsulating the planet’s social, cultural, political and personal ills into bitter musical pills which he jams into his listeners’ ears with a black Gibson acoustic, a jackhammer picking arm and a razor sharp sense of black humor.
“It’s weird what I do,” Hamell says. “Were you to say to me, ‘Well, it’s this guy, he’s bald and he screams at the audience with an acoustic guitar,’ I’d be like, ‘I don’t know if I want to catch this.’ There’s spoken word and jokes and aggressive Rock songs on an acoustic guitar. It’s a tough sell.”
Hamell’s latest production is an interesting blend of his standard set-listed show — which draws on his six studio albums — and his tendency toward storytelling which has always bordered on stand-up comedy. By honing the former and expanding the latter, Hamell created “The Terrorism of Everyday Life,” the show he’ll be bringing to Cincinnati for this year’s Fringe Festival.
Hamell conceived the show a couple of years ago around the time that he switched management. He wanted to move into theaters with a one-man show and his new managers, who had handled late comedian Bill Hicks, supported the concept.
“It wasn’t as opposed to the bar thing but in addition to,” Hamell says. “And immediately my managers said, ‘Why don’t we get a director?’ and we hired Kate Valentine. Then I did a residency at a comedy place called Comix, pretty much doing those bits, running them up the pole to see if they worked.”
Hamell began shaping the show into Terrorism with the express goal of entering Scotland’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe. In fairly short order, Hamell secured producer James Seabright, the show was honed to its final form and accepted into the fest.
The piece’s appeal for Hamell is its modular nature, freeing him to insert new songs and write new monologues to keep the show fresh.
“Currently, it starts with a six-minute spoken word piece about television,” Hamell says. “Some of the most fun I have on stage is the spontaneous, ad-libbing stuff, but sticking to the script, I’ve learned that on any given night, it changes — depending on my mood, depending on the crowd, depending on my interpretation. The director said, ‘Open up and let them know where you stand and here’s ten minutes of free space. Do whatever the hell you want. Talk about the topics of the day, Obama, the economic crisis, global warming, your personal whatever and then get back to the show.’”
In true Hamell fashion, Terrorism is by turns hilarious and harrowing, moving seamlessly from his ode to the joys of oral sex to a devastating story about his parents (“It’s a left hand turn from the ‘Pussy’ song, that’s for damn sure”). He briefly questioned whether he was exploiting his parents’ tragedy for dramatic tension but he ultimately realized it was an essential component to the show’s arc.
“The spirit lives on and I think it’s good to talk about it for that reason,” Hamell says. “People come up to me afterwards who, to a large extent, are in the same boat. How do we handle death? It’s an inevitability and yet everyone, with the exception of teenage goth kids, wants to avoid it at all costs. How can we make it joyous or funny or celebratory or acceptable or transcendent?”
Perhaps the biggest difference between Hamell’s club show and the Terrorism presentation is the audience. People coming to see Hamell on Trial typically know what they’re in for — colorfully graphic songs from Hamell’s life inspired by drug dealers, low rent hoods and bad situations, like Elmore Leonard novels made into songs by Joe Strummer. Theatergoers may be less informed about the more scatological aspects of Hamell’s work.
“I have walkouts but I always have walkouts,” Hamell says. “I pride myself. With the Rock thing, people don’t have any problem with yelling out requests or arguing with me. There’s more spontaneous audience participation in the Rock thing. With the theater, I see the woman with her arms crossed and her husband’s kind of digging it and when I get to ‘Pussy,’ she says, ‘I‘ve had enough.’ Which is a drag, because the meat of it is just about to hit. I hate when they split at that point because we were about to go from the profane to the profound, and in five minutes more you might have seen what the whole thing was for.”
ED HAMELL performs at Know Theatre for the Cincy Fringe Festival Wednesday-Saturday. Check out CityBeat's extensive Fringe coverage here.