Wicked Grin is a collection of songs written by Tom Waits, and selected by John Hammond as his personal favorites. All things considered, this thirteen-song collection could easily become favorites of John Hammond's fans as well. Waits may not move in traditional blues circles, but there isn't a blues musician living or dead that would not appreciate his ability to capture the essence of blues tradition. An exceptionally gifted songwriter Waits has continued to grow his audience beyond a well-respected cult following to an ever-expanding public and commercial acceptance. It's fair to say that Waits has been one of those people that are, and somehow remain ahead of their time, postponing wider recognition to a time later in life. In a bold publication move Blues Review Magazine featured Waits on the cover of the July/August 2000 issue along with a featured article, but the highest form of recognition any songsmith can receive is when peers request permission to record your songs. The list of performers to have recorded Waits' songs is long, my personal favorite is The Holmes Brothers version of "The Train Song" in which Popsy Dixon finds, and delivers the heart of a Tom Waits classic. On Wicked Grin Hammond is able to find that "heart" in Wait's songs, and with careful augmentation delivers very deliberate, but smooth renditions of songs like, Fannin Street, and Murder in the Red Barn. There are superb performances throughout this disc with the help of some rather accomplished musicians, Larry Taylor (bass), Stephen Hodges (drums), Augie Meyers (keyboards), Charlie Musselwhite (harp), and Hammonds' longtime friend Tom Waits (guitar), on twelve of the thirteen tracks. In following Waits taste for urban blues, Hammond offers what is probably one of the best songs of the CD, with "Heartattack and Vine." Highly recommended, "16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought Six", "Get Behind The Mule", and "Buzz Fledderjohn". Not to be missed, "Shore Leave", a mix of highs and lows while overseas on a two-day pass, sure to be appreciated by anyone having served at sea. "I Know I've Been Changed", a real hand clappin' gospel number with Waits on vocals, completes a very solid recording by Hammond and band. A final thought on Tom Waits, "For years Bob Dylan traveled this country, in part to follow in the footsteps of "Woody Guthrie", as well as cutting his own path into American music history. Tom Waits on the other hand, by accident or by fate has actually become the closest thing to an "American Folk Hero" since Woody Guthrie.
Bayfront Blues Festival The Wicked Grin tour has been on a rather heavy schedule since the early part of this year, beginning with a critically acclaimed performance at The Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, which included a brief appearance by Tom Waits. The tour stopped by the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis this spring while on it's way to dates all over the country. Just recently, after returning from the European leg of their tour, Hammond made a return visit to the state, stopping at The 13th Annual Bay front Blues Festival in Duluth. This early Friday evening performance included, keyboardist Augie Meyers (Sir Douglas Quintet), guitarist/session man Frank Carillo, bassist Larry Taylor (Canned Heat), and percussionist Stephen Hodges. "This is a great group of guys and we're having a lot of fun," Hammond told me before the show. John is moving very slow taking great care not to aggravate an arthritic hip that was obviously causing severe pain. " I have no cartilage left in there" Hammond grimaced, as he points to his hip, "I'm getting old," he added, looking at Augie as they share a smile. I asked John, what prompted him to record an album of Tom Waits songs? "Tom and I have been friends for years, and I really like all these songs. It just seemed like the thing to do."
At 57, Hammond's music career has spanned almost forty years. He is a Grammy Award winner, the recipient of three W.C. Handy Awards as well as countless other awards and nominations. Yet the consummate performer plays on, as the band takes the stage at the Bayfront Blues Festival and the crowd settles back for full serving of Wicked Grin. This fine performance by Hammond and the band was the perfect set up for the next, and final show of the evening by Taj Mahal.
This review is copyright © 2001 by Michael Evan, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.