Hammond's raw, blurry solos could lead you into a life of sin.
Tom Waits, John Hammond: Bluesmen at the crossroads. Photographs by Michael Goldberg

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Monday Mar. 26, 2001

The Waitsian Blues Of John Hammond

Reinterpreting the songs of Tom Waits

By Michael Goldberg

Bluesman John Hammond Jr. sat on the bed in a cheap San Francisco hotel room in the vicinity of Chinatown. With his legs stretched out, you could see that the soles of his boots were beginning to wear. It was 1976, and Hammond was fighting the curse of being born the son of a music-business legend.

His father had discovered many blues and jazz greats, but it would have been enough if he had only brought the world Bob Dylan (initially known as "Hammond's Folly") and, decades later, Bruce Springsteen.

John Hammond Jr. had, for reasons only he really knows, chosen the life of a blues musician, which is hard enough if your skin is black. But a white man singing the blues? That's a tough one.

At the time, Hammond Jr. was an accomplished guitarist and powerful singer with a whole bunch of albums on the very credible folk label, Vanguard, He was also the victim of a kind of reverse racism. The kind of music critics who, in the late '60s, tried to write off the great blues guitarist Michael Bloomfield (who played on at least one Hammond Jr. album) because of his similarly pale skin color, didn't want to take Hammond Jr. seriously. How could this young man know hard times? What could he have experienced that would allow him to really know the blues?

I'd like to think we're beyond that kind of nonsense now. There are all kinds of hellhounds; some still run wild in the Mississippi Delta while others can be found on the upper West Side of Manhattan. Living in the shadow of one's father's fame and fortune is its own kind of nightmare. You could ask Jeff Buckley, if he were still alive.

The Right Groove

The proof is in the grooves, and there is no better proof that John Hammond has what it takes than his superb new album, Wicked Grin.

Wicked Grin is a collection of 12 songs written by Tom Waits (who produced the album) plus one old gospel number ("I Know I've Been Changed"), all interpreted as blues by Hammond.

Hold it. Let me try that again. Think of a dump of a Greyhound bus station in a dusty town where jobs and luck have run out. That's what the album opener, "2:19," sounds like to me. Or then again, it's a juke joint, bad side of town, mid-afternoon, hazy sun coming through the dirty windows, a few drunks nursing their drinks, a band playing the blues just for the hell of it, 'cause there's nothing else to do.

Remember "The Last Picture Show"? Wicked Grin would make a great soundtrack for it.

Hammond has developed a distinctive but natural blues voice. It's a voice that's both sly and wise, and it's just perfect for the melodies and words of Tom Waits. "Was that a raindrop or a tear in your eye/ Were you drying your nails or waving goodbye," sings Hammond, with the barest touch of sarcasm.

Closer To Home

Where Tom Waits is often operating in a zone so far out that you worry he'll just take one more left turn and disappear, Hammond, as produced by Waits, is a known quantity. The strangeness we love about Waits' own recordings is on vacation; here Hammond treats the material the way he's treated the work of, say, Robert Johnson, in the past. These are songs. Great songs. And Hammond doesn't want you to forget that.

Where Waits, on his own albums, creates audio pieces that are as much about the way his voice delivers the words, or the sound of whatever someone's bangin' on for rhythm, as they are about the song itself, Hammond uses tried-and-true blues settings to frame each song. Both approaches yield fantastic results. But it would have been silly for Hammond and Waits to try to make a Tom Waits album with Hammond as the vocalist. Smartly, they didn't.

Tom Waits has written a lot of songs — albums and albums of songs over the past 30 or so years — and in making Wicked Grin, Hammond was able to pick and choose a dozen that are just right for him. We get such gems as "Heartattack and Vine" and "Shore Leave," "Jockey Full of Bourbon" and "Get Behind the Mule," "16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought Six" and "Clap Hands."

Hammond provides tough blues-guitar work, harmonica and vocals. Waits plays guitar on many tracks, as well as piano on one and "plucked piano" on another; he gives up a classic vocal on "I Know I've Been Changed." There's superb accompaniment from Waits' percussionist Stephen Hodges, keyboardist Augie Meyers and bassist Larry Taylor. And Charlie Musselwhite adds his distinctive harp playing to "Clap Hands," "Get Behind the Mule" and "Big Black Mariah."

"You Know There Ain't No Devil"

Like Hammond, Tom Waits knows the blues. He's listened to the real thing, recordings by Howlin' Wolf and Sonny Boy and Muddy and plenty more for decades. You can imagine his delight at getting the opportunity to produce his own version of a blues album, with a singer and guitarist at the very top of his game.

From all the years of recording album and after album, Waits has learned how to produce something real. Here there's a live sound to some of these tracks; you can feel the musicians in the room. The players are groovin' with each other, their parts interlocking. Waits has got the right amount of reverb on Hammond's voice — just check out "Heartattack and Vine" — the drummer is bangin' out a 4/4 rhythm across the room and Hammond's raw, blurry solos could lead you into a life of sin. "You know there ain't no devil," Hammond sings. "It's just God when he's drunk."

Michael Goldberg is the president of insiderone.net. He founded Addicted To Noise in 1994.

© 2001 Michael Goldberg. All rights reserved.