Tom Waits climbed onstage at San Francisco’s intimate Great American Music Hall on Wednesday night to lend a big hand to old friend John Hammond — not that the veteran Delta blues player needed any help. It was just in the name of celebratin’ Wicked Grin, the collection of Waits songs recorded by Hammond and produced by Waits released last week on Pointblank Records.
“This recording session was some kind of catharsis/epiphany . . . working with these guys,” said Hammond as he introduced the assembled players: session man Larry Taylor, who regularly plays with Waits, on big old stand-up bass; Frank Carillo on guitar; Stephen Hodges on drums; and Texan Augie Meyers on keyboards. He then called another cat to the stage, legendary blues harp player, Charlie Musselwhite, explaining that he and Musselwhite met at the ’64 recording session for Hammond’s So Many Roads album while the band kicked into “Clap Hands.”
After opening with “2:19” and the aforementioned “Clap Hands,” the group of pros slid easily from Waits’ clankety-clank classics like “Gun Street Girl” (whereon Meyers stepped up on accordion) and the crunching “Heartattack and Vine” to a new number, “Fannin Street,” which Waits and wife Kathleen Brennen penned specifically for the Hammond project. The song is a typical Waitsian story about a guy who takes a wrong turn and can never seem to find his way back home, but Hammond gave it a Western flair that recalled some of the old California flavor of Waits’ earliest songs from his Asylum Records catalog. But “Fannin” was an anomaly: Throughout Wicked Grin and the night’s show, Hammond was partial to Rain Dogs, its companion Swordfishtrombones and Mule Variations, and pulled songs accordingly. The pair of musicians had been following each other on the club circuit for years but it wasn’t until 1992 that Waits penned “No One Can Forgive Me But My Baby” for Hammond’s Got Love If You Want It album; in 1999, Waits invited Hammond to sit in on Mule Variations.
“This is one of the most surreal songs I’ve ever sung . . . I’m having trouble with all the words,” said Hammond as he glanced at lyrics on a nearby music stand for “16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six.” He continued the gracious rap in earnest throughout the night: “This is definitely an out-of-body experience for me tonight. Glad you could all be here to share all the good feelings goin’ on,” he said in introduction to the surreal nighttime story without much of a tune, “Shore Leave.” He explained he found the song particularly difficult to record, “but I was inspired by the incredible genius of Tom Waits.” All right already!
It was time for the man himself to appear: Climbing onboard in a rumpled suit, his mane uncharacteristically uncovered by a hat, Waits did his hunched-chimpanzee-strumming-the-guitar thing (for which he’s become almost famous) during an eerie rendition of “Murder in the Red Barn” (from Bone Machine).
He reappeared at the end of the set for the traditional gospel hummer “I Know I’ve Been Changed,” taking a bellowing turn on the second verse. In the standing-room-only house, the crowd went nuts and clapped hands throughout the final testimony, “Cold Water,” the whole band and guest musicians raving on. As Hammond reeled off the band’s names and thanked Waits one more time, Waits only had two words to add on mike: “John Hammond.”