After 35 years into a career that spans 35 albums recorded for seven labels, you'd think John Hammond might get a little complacent. Thankfully the opposite is true, as 2001's Wicked Grin is the artist's most daring musical departure and arguably greatest achievement to date. Mining the rich Tom Waits catalog for 12 of its 13 tracks (the closing is a traditional gospel tune) and bringing Waits himself along as producer has resulted in a stunning collection that stands as one of the best in Hammond's bulging catalog. Never a songwriter, the singer/guitarist/harmonica bluesman has maintained a knack for picking top-notch material from the rich blues tradition without resorting to the hoary, over-covered classics of the genre. It's that quality that transforms these tunes into Hammond songs, regardless of their origin. His history of working with exceptional session musicians is also legendary, and this album's band, which features Doug Sahm sideman Augie Meyers on keyboards, harmonica wiz Charlie Musselwhite, longtime Waits associate Larry Taylor on bass, and Waits himself poking around on various songs, is perfect for the spooky, swampy feel he effortlessly conjures here. Choosing from a wide variety of Waits' material, Hammond infuses these unusual tracks with a bluesman's spirit and a crackling energy that practically reinvents the songs, instilling them with an ominous, rhythmic swampy feel. The producer contributes two new tracks ("2:19" and "Fannin' Street," the latter is the album's only acoustic cut) that maintain the creepy but upbeat voodoo spirit that trickles and twists throughout. Hammond sings with a renewed spirit, adding a smoother but no less intense edge than Waits' typical rusty razor blade soaked whisky growl. With his dusky croon and idiosyncratic delivery, Hammond tears into this material with relish, spitting out the often offbeat, stream of consciousness lyrics as if he wrote them himself. Only the slow, ambling blues of "Murder in the Red Barn" would comfortably slot into Hammond's existing oeuvre; the remainder push the bluesman into previously uncharted territory with results that reveal fascinating layers of his own interpretive abilities. An experiment whose success will hopefully yield another volume, this partnership of John Hammond and Tom Waits brings out the best in both artists' substantial talents.
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AllMusic Review by Hal Horowitz