Back in the mid- to late ’70s, one of my favorite singer-songwriters was Indiana-born and Northern California–raised Dirk Hamilton. He had assimilated bits of Dylan and Van Morrison and various other cool artists into a style that was at once unique and compelling, poetic and prosaic, mystical and heartfelt. He put out four superb albums between 1976 and 1980—You Can Sing on the Left or Bark on the Right, Alias I, Meet Me at the Crux and Thug of Love—and received lots of encouraging press (from me and many others), but for whatever reason, never broke through to the masses and more or less dropped out of music (as a vocation, anyway) during the 1980s. Though he started making albums again in the early ’90s, I didn’t catch up with him again until three or four years ago, when I stumbled across a new CD of his in a used record store. That led me to the Web, where I learned of his exploits during the past decade-plus, which included a move to Texas, of all places, and developing a following in Italy (where he is touring as I write this in early July). I picked up some of the albums I’d missed, and enjoyed parts of all of them, but it’s his latest disc, More Songs from My Cool Life, that’s really knocked me out and reminded what an amazing artist he is. Recently I also saw him perform live for the first time since 1980—solo and with a great three-piece band—and that was mesmerizing, as well.
The new album, too, combines solo (and duo) acoustic numbers with songs featuring a superb small group: Don Evans—who has been his lead guitar foil on and off forever, it seems—and long-time associates Eric Westphal on bass and Tim Siefert on drums (and a few other friends). All are skilled and sympathetic players, perfect for Hamilton’s oeuvre, which ranges from sensitive folk tunes to driving rock, and encompasses autobiographical sketches (“Dean, Don, Dan,” about Dirk’s early days playing music), songs about the mysteries of relationships (“Feather,” “Broken”), meditations that probe the human condition (“Searching for the Heart of Soul,” “Coming to Light”), social/political commentary (“When Good Men Do Nothing,” “Rich Man Blues,” “Hardball in the Holyland)… hell, this album even has a first-rate gunfighter ballad that does Marty Robbins proud: “I Should’ve Never Left Texas.” As a Northern Californian myself, I also really like the song “Windmill Hills,” about the area east of San Francisco where the Altamont festival took place and which is now a striking wind farm.
There’s lot of stylistic variety on the disc, but Hamilton’s pleasing rasp and solid guitar work pull the songs together into a distinctive whole. Hamilton is every bit the poetic everyman he was three decades ago, still trying to figure out his way through this crazy world, raging against dishonesty and injustice, reveling in the transcendence of great little moments, looking for love in friends and family. It’s a deep and beautiful album, filled with vivid imagery and lovely and at times clever turns of phrases.
You probably won’t find More Songs from My Cool Life at Wal-Mart. But you can definitely find it at www.dirkhamilton.com.
Must Play: “Searchin’ for the Heart of Soul,” “Coming to Light”
Producer: Craig Eastman. Engineers: Eastman, Sheldon Gomberg. Mixed by John Edman and John Spiker. Studios: John Eastman’s studio (Sherman Oaks, CA), The Coach House (L.A.), The Dell (L.A.; mixing). Mastering: Richard Baron.