John Hammond

Acts Playing South by Southwest

SXSW Records

John Hammond

Wicked Grin (Pointblank)

In the hands of a lesser performer, this album might have been another homage to the great songwriter Tom Waits, already the subject of at least two tribute albums and countless covers. John Hammond not only has the credentials to pull it off, he does so with aplomb. Hammond sat in with Waits during the recording of Waits' 1999 Mule Variations, so here Waits returns the favor by producing Wicked Grin's 13 tracks, including "Fannin Street," written for the record by Waits and Kathleen Brennan. Waits doing Waits is hard to beat, so it's good to hear inspired arrangements of goodies like "Jockey Full of Bourbon," featuring Augie Meyers' sweet accordion, and a tough-to-beat-the-original "Big Black Mariah" (the original had Keith Richards on guitar and you could tell). Hammond's faithful renderings of "Get Behind the Mule," "16 Shells From a Thirty Ought Six," and "Shore Leave" relive all Waits' favorite seedy images. Along with Meyers, the seasoned bluesman has Stephen Hodges of the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Waits sideman Larry Taylor providing the sparest accompaniment possible. Meanwhile, Hammond applies his Delta stylings to Waits' creaky sound with slinky, snaky results on "Til the Money Runs Out" and "Buzz Fledderjohn." At 58, the scion of A&R legend John Hammond has earned adjectives like "venerable." His voice is in its prime, smoky and modulated, and when he sings "you know there's no devil, it's just God when he's drunk" on "Heart Attack & Vine," he may well have supplied the alcohol, so wicked-smooth is his inflection. Wicked Grin is a welcome and sly effort. (Saturday, March 17, Continental Club, 9pm)

***.5

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