Tom Hamilton Talks Jam Bands, Brothers Past and Living like Water
From playing with members of the Grateful Dead to touring the country, the local guitar legend has had an exhilarating career.
Tom Hamilton at Rittenhouse Soundwork, his studio of choice in Philadelphia. Photo by Tessa Marie Images.
One balmy evening not so long ago, the members of Electron hopped on stage at the Ardmore Music Hall, preparing to unfurl their brand of jam-fueled funk rock. As they tuned and fussed with their instruments, keyboard player Aron Magner ribbed the guitarist about his gleaming white sneakers. “Can everybody see Tommy’s shoes?” he announced with a devious grin.
In the far corner of the stage, Tom Hamilton looked up from his guitar with a broad smile and wide eyes, seemingly surprised that Magner would launch such an assault on his footwear. The moment passed quickly, and seconds later, he was laying into a version of the Disco Biscuits song “M.E.M.P.H.I.S.”
American Babies, circa 2014.
It was Hamilton’s second set of the night. A half-hour earlier, he’d been fronting American Babies, another of the five or so bands to which he contributes these days. It’s no wonder he needs new kicks. Coming up strong on 40, Hamilton is on the road an average of 200 days a year. He’s played with members of the Grateful Dead, proving himself well versed in the legendary band’s sizable canon.
No matter. Bassist Marc Brownstein continued the fun at Hamilton’s expense early in Electron’s set. “Tommy has on his new trainers,” he said, affecting a British accent and using the U.K. vernacular for sneakers.
Hamilton again shrugged off the abuse and engaged in a raucous two-hour give-and-take with Magner, propped up by the steady groove of Brownstein and drummer Mike Greenfield. Electron is billed as a “supergroup,” due to Brownstein and Magner’s affiliation with beloved Philly jam band the Disco Biscuits, Greenfield’s spot in electronic quintet Lotus, and Hamilton’s myriad allegiances. It also represents something of a musically induced crisis of personality for Hamilton, who yearns for the days when groups formed and stuck together, rather than playing in a half-dozen side projects. “I hate the whole ‘free agent’ thing,” he says. “We don’t produce bands anymore. We produce individuals.”
Yet, there was Hamilton, a 1996 Archbishop Carroll graduate, playing in two bands in one night and getting ready just over a week later to head out West with Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (JRAD), a punk-style Grateful Dead tribute outfit. “Tom is a fantastic guitarist,” says Russo. “He plays with a ton of energy, and he can work with anybody however he’s needed.”
You could say that Hamilton is the ultimate free agent. “Do you see the problem [with that]?” he asks, laughing. “It’s an existential thing.”
But that’s the nature of the jam-band life. If a musician is too rigid within the format, nothing works. Unpredictability is sort of the whole idea, and Hamilton understands that well. When asked to describe his playing, he demurs. Instead, he expresses a desire to be like water—no matter the container, water takes on that shape. “He’s ‘water’ enough to understand that, while he’s the lead guitar player, he isn’t [always] the lead personality—and that’s rare,” says Magner. “Tom always understands what kind of musical conversation is going on.”
Comfortable in a variety of musical settings, Hamilton can improvise with the best of them—and he has. “I adopted the water philosophy at an early age,” Hamilton says. “It’s OK not knowing exactly what’s going on at the moment. The best improvisers are people who know when to shut up.”
Hamilton’s water analogy generally applies to his personal life, as well. He isn’t married, though he does have a girlfriend. So far, kids haven’t entered the equation, either. At 38, he can pretty much do what he was doing at 21. “I’m still water,” he says.
The first recorded music Tom Hamilton ever owned was a bootleg tape of a 1988 Grateful Dead show at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado. He was 4. His father, Tom Sr., was 24 when Hamilton was born in 1978 and a mere 19 when Tom’s older brother, Jim, arrived. “My parents were very young, and they didn’t have anything,” Hamilton says of his upbringing in Overbrook Park.
Those humble beginnings meant Hamilton was something of a target at Lamberton School—and music was an escape. When he was 6, his dad introduced him to the drums. When his older brother switched to the guitar, so did Hamilton. Throughout elementary school at Lamberton, he continued to play music and receive training there, something that helped him find a place in a tough environment. “Music saved me,” says Hamilton.
By the time he got to Carroll, Hamilton had decided to reinvent himself. He became all about his music, continuing to play in a band with his brother until he graduated in 1996. Jim moved on to do two tours in Afghanistan as special ops, later becoming a police officer before finding a career in the intelligence community.
Hamilton, meanwhile, formed the group Brothers Past and hit the road soon after leaving Carroll, playing in every kind of club as he surfed the jam-band second wave that had sprung up early in the ’90s through events like the H.O.R.D.E. Tour. Brothers Past played more than 800 shows from 2000 to 2014. Hamilton still includes some of those songs in his American Babies and Electron performances. “Once, he said before a show that we were going to play some songs from Brothers Past,” Magner recalls. “I asked if he could send me a list. He says, ‘Don’t worry about it. You’ll be fine.’ We get on stage, and I realize he was deliberately preventing me from listening to the songs beforehand. He wanted me to get up there with a blank slate and see what would happen.”
Keeping track of Hamilton’s band alliances isn’t easy. In 2000, he and Brownstein—on hiatus from the Disco Biscuits—came together with two other musicians to form Electron. Brownstein’s return to the Biscuits came shortly after that band’s inception, and it wasn’t until a few years ago that the current incarnation began playing occasional shows.
The Babies came into existence in 2007, and Hamilton has devoted a lot of time to that project in the past seven years. The band has released four albums and tours often. During the first four months of 2017, the group played in 30 states and overseas.
No doubt Hamilton understands how fortunate he is. “If I didn’t have music, I’d be in jail or addicted to pills, would’ve [gotten someone pregnant], or some combination of the three,” he says. “I’ve seen people doing this two times as long as I have. I’m a lucky dude.”
How lucky? Consider the call he received one morning in March 2014 while on tour in Los Angeles. It was his agent asking if he could get up to San Francisco by 4 p.m. for a rehearsal with the band Phil Lesh & Friends. Lesh’s two guitarists had food poisoning, and Russo—who was playing drums in the outfit—recommended Hamilton, whom he knew could handle the job. Hamilton sped north, made the rehearsal, and played two nights with the Grateful Dead bassist. “That weekend changed my life,” he says.
Hamilton’s strong performance and his affiliation with JRAD earned him a spot in Billy & the Kids, the band of Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann—and that lead to shows with Dead guitarist Bob Weir. “It’s incredible,” he says.
It has been a rather remarkable trip for Hamilton, who continues to adapt to the vagaries of his surroundings to produce the most appropriate music for the moment. Let his bandmates tease. He’ll still be with them for the ride—and whatever comes next.