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By Brian Palmer
By 1974, John Hammond had played with damn near every great bluesman who ever lived: Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Duane Allman, Charlie Musselwhite, Mike Bloomfield, John Lee Hooker, the Staples Singers. For starters. He had made records with Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm when they were still young Hawks, with Bill Wyman when the Rolling Stone was still but a pebble, and Dr. John when Mac Rebennack was just out of residency. He put together a club band in 1966 that featured a kid named Jimi Hendrix on guitar, and had to his credit the soundtrack to a Dustin Hoffman pic (Little Big Man, no small feat). By the early '70s, Hammond had appeared on some 17 records, a couple of them even best-ofs -- that's how long he'd been in the blues, in the biz. He was a veteran, and he was only 32.
By 1974, Tom Waits was just in his mid-20s and still trying to find himself somewhere out on Jack Kerouac's dirt road and in Raymond Chandler's ashtray. His voice had yet to succumb to smoke and drink; he was only starting to get weird. Waits had released but two albums, Closing Timeand The Heart of Saturday Night; he was still fumblin' with the blues, still chasing that grapefruit moon, still lonely. Soon enough, that would change.
One night in '74, Hammond and Waits met up in a Scottsdale nightclub called Balcony Hall, and 27 years would pass before either man realized just how much that night meant for both of them. Hammond, a man who's spent more time on the road than asphalt, was touring the Southwest at the time, and he was bored out of his skull. He decided on this night to show up early to the club to catch the opening performer, some guy named Tom Waits. He'd never heard of him; no one else had either.
"When Tom went on, I did that double take: 'What?Who is that?'" Hammond recalls now, sitting beside a Holiday Inn in south Austin. Hammond squints through the pool's reflection, and beneath blinding blue skies, he looks a great deal younger than his 58 years -- lean and trim beneath his black tee shirt. He puffs on an American Spirit and sounds very much like a man who was born in New York City and who still lives in New Jersey.
"This is before Tom's voice had gotten rough, and he did the most incredible songs," Hammond continues, smiling at the recollection. "I didn't want him to stop, and then when the show ended, I didn't want to go on. I wanted him to do another set. But I went on and played, and after the show he was hangin' out and told me he was a big fan of mine. I said I'd never heard anything like him before, and he moved to New York in the late '70s, so I got to see him a whole bunch and got to see his star rise, ya know what I mean?"
So, you must be wondering, is this a story about John Hammond or a piece about Tom Waits? Yes, it is.
You see, 27 years after their initial meeting, Waits may well be the man who helps Hammond transcend his status as the greatest white American bluesman no one outside the club or cult's ever heard of. And Waits may be the guy who proves to Hammond that it's been worth it -- all those years of struggling out on the road, of bouncing from label to label, of ruining a couple of marriages along the way. Hammond makes no effort to hide his enthusiasm when talking about his new record, Wicked Grin, or the man who produced it, played on it and provided 12 of its 13 songs, Tom Waits. He can't stop smiling or using such words as "special" and "magical" and "phenomenal."
But only the cynic could begrudge him such enthusiasm. Wicked Grinis the closest Hammond will ever come to breaking through that brick wall that separates bluesmen from audiences that actually buy albums. It's the best release of Hammond's 39-year career and one that answers the question: What would Waits sound like if he could actually sing?
Wicked Grinfeatures Waits songs familiar ("16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six," "Jockey Full of Bourbon," "Heartattack & Vine") and foreign ("Buzz Fledderjohn" and "2:19," import B-sides off Waits' 1999 album Mule Variations), reinterpreted by Hammond, Waits (on guitar and behind the boards) and Waits' longtime band, including bassist Larry Taylor and drummer Stephen Hodges. (Also present is Sir Douglas Quintet keyboardist-accordionist Augie Meyers.) It consists, for the most part, of songs dating from Waits' years on Island Records, but they no longer sound like echoes emanating from a junkyard. The growling rain dogs have quieted down and allowed these men to find the blues, the music, beneath the clang and clutter of Waits' own albums. The rumba of "Jockey Full of Bourbon" has given way to a waltz; the spoken-word "Shore Leave" now sings, sparkles, shines.
And to think, had it not been for Hammond's and Waits' wives, the album might not have existed at all. In 1998, Waits called Hammond and asked him to perform on Mule Variations; during a tour stop in New York the next year, Waits invited the guitarist to play with him onstage -- "which was amazing itself," Hammond says, as though that would have been enough for him. But his third wife, Marla, approached Waits' old lady and frequent collaborator, Kathleen Brennan, about having Tom produce John's next record. Brennan agreed it was an excellent idea.