John Hammond & The Wicked Grin Band – Wicked Grin Live
MIG Music – 2022
18 tracks; 1:28:03
Live albums exist to capture a moment but also as a nice reminder of music that might have slipped past our radar. John Hammond & The Wicked Grin Band’s Wicked Grin Live is a live version of Hammond’s 2001 album, Wicked Grin, which was a recording of Tom Waits songs produced by Waits himself.
The live album is taken from a 2002 show in Bremen, Germany and includes all of Wicked Grin, plus five additional Waits’ songs. The studio band included musicians who had previously worked with Waits. However, by the time this show rolled around, Hammond’s band was guitarist Frank Carillo, bassist Marty Ballou, and drummer Stephen Hodges, Hodges the only holdover from the album. Luckily, they all convey the music’s soul.
The show is faithful to the studio record, so it’s hard to review the live album without also getting into the original. Hammond has said Wicked Grin is a beloved album and a one-time thing that he would never follow-up with a sequel, which time seems to have borne out. But the live collection is a great way to get the songs and music back out into the world again, not a re-release so much as a different take.
Waits is an interesting artist. His gravelly voice and raw music either turns people off or makes them fans for life. And despite his idiosyncrasies, he’s an often-covered songwriter, including within the blues world. While Waits isn’t a typical blues musician (or typical anything, really), his music is powered by the spirit of the blues, which is readily apparent to anyone open to hearing the connection.
Hammond is a dedicated Waits fan, but it’s his understanding of and appreciation for Waits’ songwriting that makes the albums, both studio and live, work so well. Hammond manages to bring out the natural blues energy within Waits’ songs, without losing Waits’ spirit. There’s plenty of blues vocals and harmonica, two markers of the style, but you still hear Waits’ storytelling. Hammond isn’t doing straight covers, nor is he trying to twist the songs into his own voice. He’s paying tribute to a beloved artist, keeping what is Waits and figuring out what is Hammond.
All of this works live. The production, as one might expect given its vintage, isn’t as pristine as it might be were it recorded today, rather than 20 years ago. The studio album has a certain intimacy that’s lost in some of the production crud of a live album; specifically Hammond’s vocal clarity. It’s a minor detail established by listening to both albums together, a way in which the average person probably won’t enjoy the live album.
Hammond’s voice is beautifully soulful and smoky, like Waits without the growl. His band is tight, but not afraid to play behind the beat, giving the tracks an authentic blues groove. Fans of the original studio album will appreciate the live setting, plus the additional songs, and those of us who missed out on the original release will be grateful for a second chance to appreciate what are now two wonderful albums.