October 2001

John Hammond - Wicked Grin
Pointblank 7243 8 50764 2 8
Released: 2001

by John Crossett

Musical Performance *****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment *****

[Reviewed on CD]I’m not a fan of Tom Waits' music. So what’s that got to do with John Hammond’s latest CD, Wicked Grin? Oh, nothing much, except that Waits produced it, and wrote all but one of the songs (including one brand new one, "Fannin Street"), that’s all.

Wicked Grin is a unique album. It’s the blues, real honest-to-goodness blues. And it’s a testament to the genre to which John Hammond has dedicated his musical career. But it’s also a tribute to the music of Tom Waits. Most importantly though, it’s an album you must hear. Other than that, it’s nothing special.

Hammond, the son of legendary Columbia producer John Hammond Sr. (who discovered and/or developed Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin, among others), has been interested in and playing the blues since the early 1960s. No songwriter himself (as he’ll be the first to tell you), Hammond has spent his musical life returning early blues songs to the places of prominence they deserve. Here, on Wicked Grin, he puts all those experiences to use on tunes that one would never have thought could stand in that particular genre. These performances sound nothing like the ones on Waits' own albums. Listen to "2:19," or "Get Behind The Mule," or "Big Black Mariah," or "Heartattack and Vine" to hear how much the blues can infect Waits' songwriting.

These are blues songs, ones that could have been written and recorded by any of the old time blues men. They seem like simple songs, yet they are complex, dark and deep, just the way true blues songs should be. Hammond, with help from Waits (who appears on ten of the 13 cuts), Charlie Musslewhite on harmonica, Stephen Hodges on drums, Larry Taylor on bass, and Augie Meyers on keyboards, strips these songs down to their bare essence and records them in just as simple a manner. There is nothing that should be added -- or subtracted. Hammond plays the lead guitar and blows the harmonica (well, with the exception of the three tracks Musslewhite blows on) throughout, and it may surprise some how good a blues guitarist he really is. Waits' musical contributions shouldn’t be overlooked either. His rhythm guitar and piano (on the only acoustic song, "Fannin Street") neatly complement Hammond -- as well they should, these are his songs, after all. Hammond’s treatment of the music here is, to me, reminiscent of Maria Muldaur’s latest, Richland Woman Blues. Both are basic blues with no additions -- stark reminders of just how this music began.

And the songs are just a part of the equation. There’s also the sound. It’s as stripped-down as the music. You can hear each instrument, and since there are so few, it’s easy to nail the sonic signature of each. Hammond’s rough, whiskey'n'leather vocals are clearly the focal point here, and again, Wicked Grin nails the sound. I won’t say that this disc sounds like the real thing, 'cause nothing ever does (except, of course, the real thing), but it won’t embarrass anyone. (And, for your information, Chris Bellman did the mastering at Bernie Grundman’s studio.)

There’s them what says white boys can’t play no blues. All I can say is, they've never heard John Hammond. He can play the blues. And Wicked Grin shows that Tom Waits can write the blues too. Put them together and you’ve got a killer album, one that deserves a place in any collection. I sure hope there will be a follow-up album, as it would be killer, too. This is a disc I’ll be listening to at home on the big rig, on the bedroom system, and in the car, over and over. I can’t give a higher recommendation than that.