Record Review - 1 February 17 2001
Although considerably less edgy than Tom Waits — 12 of whose songs he covers on this new release — John Hammond has maintained a similarly low-but-highly-respected profile in the blues world. One of the first white players to embrace both acoustic Delta and electrified Chicago styles, Hammond (like Waits) remains a distinguished cult figure after 25 albums and 35 years as a professional musician.
Tom Waits isn't considered a bluesman, but his idiosyncratic work resonates with the spooky, swampy, dark recesses that impact the music's most potent practitioners. His ragged whiskey and Brillo voice is as much Howlin' Wolf as Captain Beefheart when he groans, moans and yowls through tales of the seamier side of humanity. With Waits producing, playing and contributing three new tracks on Hammond's album (the two have been longtime friends), Wicked Smile crackles with taut, low-boil aggression, walking the tight wire between ominous blues, twisted folk, growling gospel and moody rock.
Hammond's mumbling, yet highly expressive, vocals — along with an unconventional band led by the rubbery, menacing stand-up bass playing of Larry Taylor and Sir Doug's Augie Meyers on keys — brings out all the sleaze and grease, rain dogs and nighthawks-at-the-diner qualities of Waits' music with shambling precision. When Hammond strips down "Get Behind the Mule" to guitar strumming and stark, clattering percussion, he drags it back to the murky Mississippi slime bubbling beneath the song's core.
Far from traditional blues, Wicked Grin is an inspired meeting of minds. Like its ominous gospel closing track, the album resides in the righteous territory that separates Waits and Hammond from their far less adventurous contemporaries. — HAL HOROWITZ
John Hammond plays Smith's Olde Bar, Thurs., Feb.15.