Great Dorks Afire!
Since the long-ago passing of such great country-blues pioneers as Son House, Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt, JOHN HAMMOND has been the music's most consistently brilliant guitarist —no small trick for a white guy from a wealthy New York family. His stunning technique and intensely emotional connection to the music are undeniable, yet there's always been something aback-taking about listening to this ofay shamelessly mimic black dialect and inflection in his vocals, a pervading eau de burnt cork that has made me a mite uncomfortable. I've hardly been alone in this unease; critics have been nailing the guy for minstrelsy since he first came on the scene 40 years ago. I've mostly chosen to ignore my gag reflex and accept Hammond as a primo virtuoso, but I always wondered what he might have been had he developed his own voice rather than merely wishing he were Son House.
Meanwhile, TOM WAITS has turned into an art poseur of the worst kind. In his early years, Waits was a heroically unconventional, jazz-inflected singer/ songwriter, a modern-day Mose Allison. I'm sure I was among Waits' biggest fans from the early '70s through the early '80s. Then he started with the cartoonish Satchmo-with-throat-cancer vocal affectations and hired friends to bang on chairs in the studio to prove what a unique and impudent fellow he is. It has been all the more galling watching critics fawn all over Waits in recent years: he has become one of those unlistenable artists you're supposed to favor if you're a true hipster—like Nick Cave, P. J. Harvey or John Zorn, for example—even though his rep as a modern-day cross of Burroughs and Cage is almost without justification. Almost, I say, because Waits never stopped writing great tunes and remains one of the few lyricists whose poesy actually approaches the realm of great poetry, even as his records spin around like loose stools in a blender.
Last year, the unlikely pair came together to record Hammond interpreting Waits' material with Tomcat producing and his band backing. I was thrilled at the possibility that they'd cancel out each other's self-inflicted wounds while magnifying their strengths, but also apprehensive about the possibility that they'd found a mutual admiration society of gravel-voiced Negro caricatures; something like Spike Lee's Mantan and Sleep 'n' Eat lacking any sense of humor or irony.
It pleases me greatly to report that things seem to have clicked very nicely in the John Waits Experience. On the resulting album, Wicked Grin, Hammond attacks songs like "Heartattack and Vine" and "16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six" with as much passion as you've ever heard him muster for Robert Johnson. And there's this: in interpreting the work of a contemporary rather than a long-dead black hero, Hammond mostly leaves the musical Ebonics in the dustbin. Hammond brings Waits' songs to life without the cacophonous malarkey that the author always drags into his material. Yes, the proceedings get a bit noisy at times, but it's in the spirit of the Muddy Waters Band glowing with a Thunderbird buzz rather than a pink-haired art-school dropout trying to convince himself of his own genius. John Hammond's Wicked Grin plays Saturday night at the Blue Caf, and typical of the venue, tickets are priced at a very user-friendly 13 bones. This is Hammond at the top of his game and is not to be missed.
I stirred up quite a hornets' nest among delicate readers when I wrote a column about musical dorks a couple of months ago. I neglected to mention at the time that the dorkiest band of them all must surely be THE PROCLAIMERS, but, you see, there are good dorks and pernicious dorks, and the Proclaimers are good dorks—maybe even great dorks. Of course, you remember the Proclaimers' big One Hit Wonder of 1993, "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)," and now that I've mentioned that song, it will be stuck in your head the rest of the day, those "ah-HYE wood walk fie hoondred miles, and ah-HYE wood walk fie hoondred moor" choruses clogging all relevant thought from your brain and perhaps even keeping you awake at night, with terrifying visions of the bespectacled Scottish dork brothers Craig and Charlie Reid haunting your dreams. That was one of the great pop songs of the decade, and the thing about these guys is they keep cranking out similar fare with killer hooks and gorgeous harmonies and lyrics about purty girls and the glory of Scotland, sung in amusingly impenetrable Scottish accents. If no one much outside of Scotland seems to notice the Proclaimers' dorky greatness, the Scottish certainly do, and I'm here to remind you that Sean Connery, the coolest guy in the whole world, the only James Bond that matters, certainly no dork, is Scottish and so is a friend of mine named Jack Watt, who, like all Scots, plays a lot of "fitba" and can drink you under the table. Jack loves the Proclaimers, and I do, too. So, most likely, does Connery. They're wonderful, silly pop fun in an era when melodic tunesmithing and frivolous jollity seem lost to radio. Go see the Proclaimers Tuesday night at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater (Barenaked Ladies and Sarah Harmer also perform) or Jack Watt will show up on your doorstep, lift his kilt and show you his swarthy bits.
John Hammond's Wicked Grin plays at the Blue Cafe, 210 The Promenade, Long Beach, (562) 983-7111. Sat., 10 p.m. $13; the Proclaimers, Barenaked Ladies and Sarah Harmer perform at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, 8808 Irvine Center Dr., Irvine, (949) 855-8095. Tues., 7 p.m. $14.25-$41.75.
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