Fringeworthy

Fringe Profile: The Road Warrior

Ed Hamell

Of the 20-odd solo performers on the 2010 Capital Fringe roster, several of them have white-collar back-up plans.

Ed Hamell is the other kind.

At 55, he’s been touring in one guise or another since the mid-seventies, and peddling his “conceptually Tom Waits-esque” public-service-announcement-with-guitar act — solo acoustic, but aggressive and loud — under the name Hamell on Trial for something like 15 years.

His show The Terrorism of Everyday Life won the Herald Angel Award at the 2008 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Here in DC, Capital Fringe Festival brass Julianne Brienza and Scot McKenzie honored him last year with their Director's Award, given in recognition of an artist’s tolerance for risk, personal and creative integrity, and overall excellence. His entry in this year’s festival is a lighter piece called This Is Your Brain on Rock and Roll.

Hamell scrapes together a living playing around 200 gigs per year, selling his original artwork to his hardest-core fans, and opening for bigger touring acts. A YouTube trailer for an in-progress documentary about him features admiring on-camera remarks from Henry Rollins and Ani DiFranco. (Hamell’s sizeable discography includes three albums released by DiFranco’s label, Righteous Babe.)

Hamell takes my call as he’s driving to a Saturday-night gig in Asbury Park, asking for a receipt every time he stops to pay a toll. He’d never heard of the Edinburgh Fringe until a few years ago, when he told his manager he wanted to take his act into theaters, maybe off-Broadway. His manager had once worked with the pioneering satirist Bill Hicks — whom Hamell considers a kindred spirit — and who’d broken out in the U.K. after playing Edinburgh in 1990.

Hoping his career could blow up the same way, Hamell spent “six months or a year” getting his 60-minute show in shape for the Scottish festival. All that practice got him the prize, but he says it may actually have hurt him closer to home — he lives in Ossining, New York, 20 miles north of Manhattan — where repeat customers who had come to expect a more extemporaneous style of performance now found him sticking to a script.

“My kid, who’s eight years old, was like, ‘You’re not going to do that show again’,” Hamell says.

So, once again, just to make sure we all understand: This is a different show from the one he played here last year.

And DC is the only fringe he’s playing in 2010, mostly because it fits his schedule and because he had a happy experience dealing with Brienza and McKenzie, and with audiences, last summer. He’ll spend half of August taking his son on tour with him, 16 days on the road, playing every night. But he admits he's nearing a point where if he could earn a steady paycheck teaching performance or songwriting, he’d take it. "I write a new song every day," he says. "My creative muscles are pretty tuned."

Meanwhile, he’s still trying to figure out how to make that move up to theaters from clubs, where it's sometimes painfully evident to him that not every audience is interested in the subtler, more satirical elements of his act.

“I have definitely done enough punk clubs in my life,” he says. “It’s romantic. But on my best days, it’s Crazy Heart. On my worst days, it’s The Wrestler.”

He swears it’s an extemporaneous line.

Ed Hamell performs This Is Your Brain on Rock and Roll at the Baldacchino Gypsy tent this afternoon at 5:30 and tomorrow at 3:15 p.m. Look here for a complete schedule of his CapFringe dates.

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