John Hammond has been releasing records for over 40 years. He's stayed stubbornly true to his vision of the blues for the entire run. Some of those recordings have, understandably, been better than others, but as a live performer -- whether playing in a roadhouse or on a festival stage -- he's burned the house down. Unfortunately for him, that fiery wandering spirit has not always been captured on tape. That said, Hammond rings in 2007 with Push Comes to Shove, an album of originals and covers done his own way, recorded with his traveling band that includes bassist Marty Ballou, pianist/organist Bruce Katz, and drummer Stephen Hodges. There is a new twist in the offing, however. His producer this time out is someone who gets it. In Garrett Dutton (aka G. Love), Hammond has found the flame anew. Love and Hammond met years ago in a bar in Philly. Love was there to see the bluesman perform, but didn't know him by sight. He was old enough to drive to the gig and get in the door, but not old enough to drink legally. He approached Hammond and his wife, Marla, without knowing who they were, to buy drinks for him and his girlfriend. More recently, Hammond and Love happened upon one another in a train station in Yokohama. Marla made the suggestion and this collaboration was born. Love gets Hammond in a way that most producers can't. He feels and hears him as an itinerant bluesman who has to shout for his supper from the stage. That's the way Push Comes to Shove sounds: raw, mean, dirty, bellowing, and soulful. Love places Hammond's distorted, filthy guitar -- electric or acoustic -- just above the throng created by the band, mixing his voice just above them, roaring and growling like a lion.
Above all, he captures the groove the band creates live in the recording studio. One listen to the title cut that opens the set is proof enough as it snarls, pounces, and struts. Hammond's harp and acoustic drive Junior Wells' "Come on in This House." The raw Chicago soulside blues come roiling out of the speakers with Hammond's spitfire, gravel, and grit electric harp popping its way through the mix. It's this track and Little Walter's "Everything Gonna Be Alright" -- the high points on this disc -- that signify Hammond's true worth. Not because the tunes are blues classics -- though that doesn't hurt -- but because Hammond takes these dusty old nuggets and polishes them off while leaving the scuffs intact. He makes the old blues new without succumbing to any of the "modern blues" clichés so prevalent in the music -- indeed that are threatening to destroy it. The years roll back, and one can feel the sweat, blood, and beer running across the floor. Hammond pays back the honor by recording Love's "Butter" on the set; Love plays guitar on the track (and on Sonny Thompson's "I'm Tore Down" as well). And Hammond takes the opportunity to really let it rip. The cover of Tom Waits' "Cold Water" that closes the album is a hip selection. Hammond's feel for the tune is genuine. He copies Waits' phrasing, but the rest -- the band's attack -- is all his. It slips, slides, staggers, and all but collapses, but never loses the groove. This match, first made in a barroom, may have been just the kick Hammond needs to grab the attention of another generation without losing his hard-won constituency.