Tom Waits’ blues inauguration occurred back in 1978 when he got up from the piano, picked up the guitar and recorded the tunes that became “Blue Valentine,” a love letter of sorts to a ruddy amalgamation of Howlin’ Wolf, Jack Kerouac and Sly Stone. John Hammond, who has created his own vernacular with songs from the likes of Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker and Wolf as well, has placed a steady hand and a less gritty voice on the Waits songbook to produce “Wicked Grin” (Pointblank/Virgin), a disc that should reinvigorate his slowing career by attracting a legion of Tom fans. For his monthlong tour of the U.S., he is playing an all-Waits program, venturing into tunes such as the bluesy rumba “Downtown Train,” that don’t appear on the album.
“Wicked Grin” boasts the production and guitar playing of Waits, a mixture of gasoline and mud that assists Hammond in retaining the danger and thick goo of Waits’ records from the last two decades. As a performing unit, even with Waits’ fine standup bassist Larry Taylor in tow, Hammond renders a much more studied version of this music; Hammond croons rather growls, reducing the penetration of these stories culled from dark alleys full destitute sailors, heavy drinkers and spent bullets.
The band is professional and polished, probably the best unit Hammond has assembled in his 40 years of touring. They all have the Waits thing down pat — rough-hewn guitar lines, big idiosyncratic drum beats and subtle touches from the organ and accordion. By the end of the night, though, it feels like a leader-less Waits show, a celebration of this fine songwriter’s work with little to remind us of the originality of the performer.
It’s up to Hammond, 58, to bring more of his personality to recent Waits tunes such as “Big Black Mariah,” “Get Behind the Mule” and “16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six,” songs given great instrumental starts that dissipate once Hammond’s unruffled voice enters. Even in the two new songs — “Buzz Fledderjohn” and “Fannin Street” — the echoes of Waits are so great that even they carry a familiarity that’s more Tom than John.