John Hammond's latest album marks a major departure in one respect – for the first time in anyone's memory, he sings, but plays nothing on one of his records, while Little Charlie & the Nightcats, led by guitarist Charlie Baty, handle the guitars and everything else. The difference is very subtle, the playing maybe a little less flashy than Hammond's already restrained work – think of how good Muddy Waters sounded on the early-'60s records where he sang and didn't play. And that comparison is an apt one – even more than 35 years after he started, Hammond inevitably ends up sounding like its 1961 and he's working at Chess studios in Chicago, cutting songs between Muddy Waters sessions. Harpist Rick Estrin also contributes a smooth and eminently enjoyable original amid a brace of covers of blues standards. There is not a weak number here, and this band is a kick to listen to, sounding more naturally authentic than anybody in the 1990's has a right to (Baty's quiet pyrotechnics on "Lookin' for Trouble" would make this record worth owning, even if Hammond's singing and the rest of the songs weren't as good as they are).
John Hammond's career goes right back to the early '60s as part of the Greenwich Village Folk scene. On this slice of audio Blues bliss, Hammond covers songs by the likes of Lightnin' Slim, Willie Dixon, Sleepy John Estes and Blind Willie McTell.
So Many Roads is Hammond's most notable mid-'60s Vanguard album, due not so much to Hammond's own singing and playing (though he's up to the task) as the yet-to-be-famous backing musicians. Three future members of the Band – Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, and Levon Helm – are among the supporting cast, along with Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica, and Mike Bloomfield also contributes. It's one of the first fully realized blues-rock albums, although it's not in the same league as the best efforts of the era by the likes of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band or John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. In part that's because the repertoire is so heavy on familiar Chicago blues classics by the likes of Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, and Muddy Waters; in part that's because the interpretations are so reverent and close to the originals in arrangement; and in part it's also because Hammond's blues vocals were only okay.
With a career that spans over three decades, John Hammond is one of handful of white blues musicians who was on the scene at the beginning of the first blues renaissance of the mid-'60s. That revival, brought on by renewed interest in folk music around the U.S., brought about career boosts for many of the great classic blues players, including Mississippi John Hurt, Rev. Gary Davis, and Skip James.