Guilty!... Of Having a Career

Hamell on Trial Verdict in

For every bang, there is an equal and opposite whimper. If that's true, considering the whopper of a show Ed Hamell aka Hamell on Trial put on last Friday at the Electric Lounge, his actual drive back to the wilds of New York should be a quiet one indeed. The flyers for the performance screamed of urgency; splashed over a photo of bald, grinning Ed, the words "Last Show Ever!" called out like a carnival barker. And people came. The packed house saw Hamell, the man who threw a wrench into the definition of singer-songwriter, completely in his environment, belting out songs, cracking jokes, and bidding a feverishly paced farewell to friends and fans as his Austin residency wound to a close. Hamell was in fine form, bubbling with confidence (in one new song, he boasts, "I'm bad as Nine Inch Nails/But I don't need the machinery!") and good humor (he says that to "fuck with the press" a laPrince, he's going to change his name to a physical gesture - two quick shakes of the head. Okay, so you had to be there.) A bang of an ending to two years in Austin? Well, when's the last time you saw an acoustic solo act manage to blow the club's fuse?

Hamell and his wife moved to Austin in 1993 as part of a plan. Ed was tired of playing in New York clubs for the same "15 drunk friends" and having people ask him when he was going to get a real job. He figured he needed to go somewhere with a healthier attitude toward musicians if he ever intended to make performing his "real job." In 1992, Hamell came to Austin, to open for Alejandro Escovedo, ended up playing a NAIRD convention, and found the music scene here to be beyond his wildest dreams. Later, he purchased Escovedo's Gravity album and decided that he had found a guru, a Teacher of Musical Wisdom - and one that lived in fabled Austin, no less! "I didn't have access to Dylan or Lou Reed," says Hamell, "so I figured, `let's go with Al!'" It was that same Al that opened his door one day and found Hamell there, wife in tow, explaining that they had sold all their stuff and moved from New York so he could study at Escovedo's feet. "Come on in," Hamell recalls Escovedo saying, while Al's wife Dana stood there with a "who the fuck is this?" look on her face.

Although playing the part of the Old Man on the Mountain just wasn't Escovedo's style, the two kindred spirits found themselves becoming fast friends, and Hamell got to work on honing his craft. His plan: to earn a "steady gig at a cool place, get an indie deal, and promote it into media attention," while delivering pizzas to pay the rent. He was up to a weekly regimen of six open mikes in four days before his big break came at the Electric Lounge. There, his unorthodox approach to the one-man, one-guitar method found a dedicated audience - Hamell plays blistering loud rock music on his beat-up old acoustic and would rather make a point than coin a new cliché. Eventually, he got a regular Thursday, then Friday, slot at the Lounge, with resultant press attention, followed by a deal with local Doolittle Records. His popularity continued to rise (yes, he has been asked for autographs by pizza recipients), and during SXSW in March 1995, he began negotiating a major label record deal with Mercury Records. Everything had gone just right, mirroring the two-year plan he had set up without a hitch. It was time to head back to New York.

Of course, nothing evergoes off completely without a hitch. In Hamell's case, he's found that "the goin' is cool. It's the leavin' behind that blows." He had planned his stay here well, and dedicated himself to his goals, but "what I didn't anticipate was making the best friends of my life and falling in love with the town." He had never left a place before that he wasn't glad to get away from. Still, the time had come to return to New York. For one thing, his wife's career depends on contacts that are easier to make in the Big Apple (she's taken a teacher's assistantship at Brooklyn College), and now his does as well. Since he's not a huge, overbearing metal band like most of Mercury's well-known acts, Hamell wants to be able to show up on the N.Y.-based label's doorstep on a regular basis ("with cookies!" he adds).

Ironically, though, the one thing he thought he couldn't learn about music in Austin was the business end. Instead, though, he says he's learned a great deal of it from Escovedo, Doolittle owner Jeff Cole, and Electric Lounge co-owner Mark Shuman, so he's more ready than ever to deal with the guys in the suits. And as far as his next set of goals, those would be to work with the record company to get him a good agent, get out on the road, and as a result - despite what any flyers might say - get himself back to Austin to perform and visit friends as often as every three or four months. But the next time you see Ed Hamell, don't expect him to be bringing a pizza. n

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