When a musician decides to make a CD in tribute to somebody else, performing covers of that artist’s music, there’s always the risk that the interpretation won’t measure up to the original version, especially if the original is a classic. And anyone who knows Tom Waits knows he’s a classic, and that the dare of doing a CD of Tom Waits covers is tripling that risk.
Enter John Hammond Jr., a guitarist, harmonica player and singer, whose gigantic 30-plus year career has been based on interpreting and performing blues masters of the Delta, among other roots music sources, with a conviction of style, knowledge and purpose.
Tom Waits produced Wicked Grin and also plays guitar and piano on it, along with a stellar cast of musicians including Charlie Musselwhite on harp, Augie Meyers on organ, piano and accordion, Larry Taylor on bass and Stephan Hodges on drums and percussion. Hammond takes the vocal and guitar duties. This cast and production achieves the kind of telepathic, soul-splintering, gut-bucket, tell-all, sawed-off rhapsody that makes the songs Waits writes and sings so extraordinary. The chances seem pretty damn good that you’ll get what T-Bone Burnett calls in the liner notes, “the dark stuff.” And you do.
With a production quality that conjures up Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, Hammond snakes his perfected, smooth, Delta-rich vocals and phrasing in, around and out of Waits’ tricky narrative knots and loops with a timing and accentuation that comes from a long-road voodoo practice.
Wicked Grin’s magnificence is not that it is a well-done tribute or covers CD by one legend to/of another, but rather, it shuffles, shouts, cranks, bemoans and beguiles as a collaboration between two master storytellers, or, perhaps, even like “God when he’s drunk.”
E-mail Gregory Kiewiet at [email protected].