Dirk Hamilton Live at the Palms

By David Watts Barton, No Depression, March 1, 2001

The hard rain that fell on the rusting roof of the old Palms Playhouse set an appropriate tone for the often dark, tough songs of veteran singer-songwriter Dirk Hamilton, who has been making records full of detailed, rustic songs since 1976. His performance gave extra poignancy to two lines sung early on: “When a man falls in the city/You know it doesn’t make a sound.” Indeed, Hamilton’s time in the spotlight has come and gone.

But his 23-song set on acoustic guitar with occasional harmonica embellishments, plus accompaniment from acoustic bassist David Hayes of Van Morrison’s band, demonstrated that being widely heard isn’t a patch on being deeply felt, or profoundly appreciated.

Cheered on by 50 or so die-hard fans (including his mother), who seemed to know the details of every song of this native son, Hamilton gave a performance full of heart and soul. He and Hayes drove through stripped-down versions of his songs from his major-label heyday in the ’70s, but focused on songs from the string of independently released albums he recorded since moving to Austin a decade ago.

Hamilton’s songs benefited from the minimal settings. Shorn of the albums’ embellishments, which have too often made him sound like an imitation of Springsteen, Dylan and Morrison, a few numbers came across as the work of one of those greats’ peers. This was particularly true on recent ballads such as “New Earth Suit”, a song for his son, and “Heroes (Maybe)”, its distinctive lyricism revealing Hamilton’s voice as a writer as well as a singer. Tough yet gentle, he comes across as a man whose pleasures have been as hard-won as they are modest.

At other times, he was sheer exuberance personified, joking with Hayes and the crowd, charging through songs such as “Jesus, The Devil And You” and the punning “My Dead Body”, in which he describes finding a corpse floating in a canal near his house. Through it all, he radiated a cheer that warmed the chilly barn and finally sent the small but emotionally fortified crowd into the chilly night.