MiG Music 2022
Paying a homage to Tom Waits, venerated singer-songwriter explores a grimy realm of shadows and takes his flock for a ride.
John Hammond Jr. isn’t averse to taking risks, yet taking his “Wicked Grin” album on the road back in 2002 seemed perilous even for this barrelhouse veteran. First of all, it was one thing to record a compendium of Tom Waits’ latter-day laments and revels, and something completely different to have purged Hammond’s performances of his own classics in favor of those glorious covers. Then, an artist can’t simply step into Tom’s tracks to appropriate them; they must be inhabited and worn like skin. That’s why, entering their contorted world where even Waits would look like a weirdo, John approaches his friend’s Weimaresque America from the inside, applying a personal filter to the demimonde he highlights here, on the Bremen stage.
Going with the original platter’s flow, the show is kicked off by “2:19” that sees the singer lay down a smile-oiled lines over a greasy acoustic groove to whet the audience’s appetite from the start, but he doesn’t linger on Waits’ template and drenches “Clap Hands” in hypnotic blues right away, only to sharpen the vocal edge and give “Heartattack And Vine” a swampy swing – a thing to thicken and roll a slider over in “Buzz Fledderjohn” later on – and wrap “‘Til The Money Runs Out” in seething sarcasm. Of course, the concert format allowed Hammond dust off a few pieces which didn’t make it onto the album, and finding such rotten-romantic, rumbunctious gems as “Gin Soaked Boy” and “Gun Street Girl” in the same context should feel precious – so John’s pipes and his band’s sparse accompaniment render the numbers arresting, albeit faithful to Tom’s template, and the public cheers hail their choices – while “Fish In The Jailhouse” rocks in a deliciously rough manner, as if to contrast the quieter “Shore Leave” or “Get Behind The Mule” whose choruses ring with detailed vitality.
However, as “Murder In The Red Barn” is stretched into an epic for its dread to be enhanced thanks to Frank Carillo’s guitar chime and Marty Ballou’s bass rumble, the rockabilly-shaped “Big Black Mariah” thrives on merry vigor, pushed forward by Stephen Hodges’ drums and Hammond’s boisterous delivery that will turn gracefully soft and tender on “Jockey Full Of Bourbon” and deservedly elicit a thunderous applause from the crowd. Crooning on “Fannin’ Street” as well, John’s pipes reveal their velvet aspect – and display iron armor on “16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought Six” before “Low Side Of The Road” roams the ether in predatory fashion. The entire ensemble’s throaty pleas reach for the sky in the spiritual sway of “I Know I’ve Been Changed” and land the strongest punch – or so the punters may think until the harmonica-spiced encore of “Cold Water” jollily rips the air.
As the result, this live document is much more than a tribute to Tom Waits; it’s also a testament to John Hammond’s boldness in handling of modern American songbook. And, surely, it’s an array of delight from start to finish.