When I first heard about John Paul Hammond doing an album of Tom Waits songs, I figured this could provide a good kick in the rear for the brilliant bluesman, whose recent studio work has been pedestrian.
Next, I wondered just how exactly the guy could pull off such a thing. New York-born Hammond—son of the late John Henry Hammond, the Columbia Records executive who discovered Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen—is a straightforward, accomplished practitioner of the Mississippi Delta blues who has made a living interpreting songs by great, black bluesmen like Son House; Willie McTell; John Lee Hooker; and his hero, the enigmatic Robert Johnson.
By contrast, Pomona-native Waits is a raspy-voiced, eccentric singer/songwriter/ beat poet/actor who brings an experimental, theatrical sense to his art. His music is expansive, and while the unpredictable Waits can be oddly charming, he more often than not—at least publicly—is an elusive, cynical character who mirrors the frayed protagonists in his songs.
Despite their differences, they share a fascination—maybe even empathy—for society's outcasts. Hammond and Waits take their audiences on dark, turbulent journeys through landscapes littered with the heartbroken, the betrayed and the murdered. They bring to life desperate characters teetering on the thin edge of sanity, holding onto whatever hope they can muster up before they snap.
In fact, these fictional misfits all have a really bad case of the blues.
Even the song titles on Hammond's new album, Wicked Grin, suggest the Hammond/Waits alliance makes perfect sense: "Heartattack and Vine," "'Til the Money Runs Out," "16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six" and "Murder in the Red Barn."
Still, wasn't it challenging, if not downright intimidating, trying to put your own spin on "2:19," one of the most idiosyncratic warbles known to man?
"Sure, I was scared because it was something I didn't know I could do," says Hammond. "To be honest with you, I had never heard the majority of these songs before. So I asked Tom [who also produced the collection] if there was a tune of his we could start with, and he suggested '2:19.' We just jelled—it was done in one take, and then we just went deeper and deeper into his stuff."
Hammond enlisted keyboardist Augie Meyers, bassist Larry Taylor, drummer Stephen Hodges and veteran harpist Charlie Musselwhite to create an appealing, multilayered sound. In addition to Hammond's familiar, blues-oriented harmonica and acoustic and National steel guitars, strains of gospel, Tex-Mex, country and roots rock infiltrate the mix.
Just as important, Hammond truly connects with the material. Similar to his approach with Robert Johnson's harrowing "Come On In My Kitchen"—one of his concert staples—Hammond gets inside these conflicted characters. Sometimes, like during the slide guitar/ harp-powered "Buzz Fledderjohn," you can tell these songs are scaring the crap out of him.
"The tunes have these images and story lines that are so bizarre and wonderful and hideous, all at the same time," Hammond says. "I asked Tom, 'Who is this Buzz Fledderjohn?' And he told me that he was this creepy neighbor who his parents wouldn't let Tom go anywherenear. I heard that, and man, it became real to me."
Or what about "Jockey Full of Bourbon," Hammond's favorite track on the album? "Just listening to Augie on that accordion, getting into that rumba beat . . . Man, it was a flip-out," he recalls with glee. "And the imagery the words conjure up: 'I'm in the corner in the pouring rain/With a $2 pistol, but the gun won't shoot.' I thought, 'Man, that guy's fucked-up!'"
To understand the seeds of this project, go back 25 years, when Waits opened an Arizona gig for Hammond. The two developed an instant rapport and have occasionally crossed paths since. Waits contributed a song to Hammond's Got Love If You Want It in 1992, and Hammond appears on Waits' Mule Variations, his 1999 Grammy-winning return to form.
The idea of Waits producing Hammond surfaced during the Mule Variations sessions. Hammond's wife, Marla, and Waits' wife, playwright Kathleen Brennan, were hanging out in the studio one day when Marla offhandedly asked Kathleen what she thought about Tom producing an album of John's. When Kathleen reportedly replied, "Oooh, that'd be great," the wheels were set in motion.
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"I don't think I would have ever had the nerve to ask Tom anything like that," explained Hammond. "But sometimes, women are much stronger and more direct. . . . And that's how it all got started. I wasn't planning on doing an entire album of his songs. . . . It just kind of organically evolved that way after we liked the first one so much."
Hammond, whose creative batteries have been recharged, can hardly wait to kick off his U.S. tour Saturday at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas. Then he and his four-piece band—dubbed Wicked Grin after the album title, and featuring Meyers, Hodges, Taylor and guitarist Frank Carillo—will head immediately to San Juan Capistrano for a Sunday gig at the Coach House.
"I just can't wait to play this stuff in front of a live audience," he enthuses. "Tom has this magnetic quality that just brings out the best in you, and I think I was able to channel the voice of John Hammond into his marvelous songs. I was never trying to be Tom Waits. Gosh no—I hope no one thinks that. But I don't know if I can find the words to adequately express how truly connected we are."
John Hammond's Wicked Grin performs with the Roman West Band at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 496-8930. Sun., 7 p.m. $15.