The only time I've seen Trina Hamlin perform live was last summer in Glen Arbor, near Traverse City. It was an outdoor concert on a hot, humid, muggy night, and she walked onstage barefoot. Given the unpredictable nature of spring in Michigan, it may be too cold for her to do that when she returns to the Ark this month. But then maybe she's always that informal and relaxed. One of the photos on her most recent CD, Living on Love, features a shot of her bare left foot stepping on a guitar effects pedal.
The picture might also be an expression of one of the central elements of Hamlin's live shows, her sense of humor. (The cover of the CD shows her, head thrown back, laughing uproariously.) Though her songs are for the most part not humorous, Hamlin's comic timing on her between-songs patter is as solid as her musical sense of rhythm. The night I saw her, she regaled us with, among other droll yarns, a long running gag about her summer touring in a van with a tomato plant that didn't set fruit, because of a lack of cross-pollination.
There is, however, no lack of cross-pollination in Hamlin's music. Though she hails from Minnesota — which she insisted, tongue in cheek, was a hotbed, if not the birthplace, of the blues — her voice, singing style and songwriting are colorful hybrids that sprout from blues, rock, jazz, and a number of other contemporary idioms but are uniquely Hamlin. She can go from gutsy blues belting to long, jazzy, vibratoless horn tones, and then roll in a warm vibrato at will.
She sings mostly her own well-crafted, beautifully arranged love songs, but her covers of classics like Linda Ronstadt's "You're No Good" or Paul McCartney's "Oh! Darling" can stand proudly next to the originals.
You can't talk about Hamlin for long before you have to say something about her harmonica playing. One of the T-shirts she sells at her concerts has a simple question printed on it, "Got harp?" Onstage Hamlin answers that unequivocally. The lady's got harp. She can play country blues style in a rack, adding another soulful voice to her own while accompanying both on her guitar, and she can squeeze a hand-held harp right up against a microphone and get that just-distorted-enough raw Chicago blues sound.
Another of Hamlin's T-shirts features a picture of a nightstand and the words "one night stand." Though she'll be at the Ark for only one night this month — Friday, May 2 — it's unlikely this will be a one-night stand between her and her first-time or longtime fans. More likely, it will be another rendezvous in an ongoing love affair.
[Review published May 2008]