Tuesday, August 24, 2010

John Hiatt concert review

A version of my review originally appeared in the OC Register and can be viewed at:

Photo by Paul Moore, courtesy of New West Records

John Hiatt
Where: Coach House, San Juan Capistrano, Calif.
When: Aug. 19

It’s all about the songs.

Good ones can survive being adapted to fit any arrangement in any genre. John Hiatt should know – since starting a music career in the mid-1970s, more than a hundred artists have covered his compositions.

The list is eclectic, including Keith Urban, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and B.B. King, Jewel, Buddy Guy, Don Henley, the Neville Brothers, Iggy Pop, Linda Ronstadt, Roseanne Cash, Willie Nelson and Paul Abdul, among others.

Part of the appeal lies in Hiatt’s knack for penning tunes with nuanced melodies, keen details and sardonic humor. Bonnie Raitt - who famously remade “Thing Called Love” on her Grammy-winning, multi-platinum “Nick of Time” in 1989 - has said Hiatt’s allure stems from a “real skewed view of human emotions, love and the world,” not to mention exceptional guitar playing.

Indeed. Quite a few inventive axes lingers have appeared on Hiatt albums and tours (David Lindley, Ry Cooder, Sonny Landreth), but the man himself can definitely hold his own on the old electric too.

While the Indiana-bred roots rocker’s album sales haven’t matched those famous clients above, a stellar, critically acclaimed late ‘80s/early ‘90s trilogy (“Bring the Family,” “Slow Turning,” “Stolen Moments”) and alt-rock leaning “Perfectly Good Guitar” (the biggest seller at nearly half a million copies) raised his public profile.

Hiatt snagged a Grammy nod for the stark, acoustic 2000 release “Crossing Muddy Waters” and continues to put out solid efforts touching upon blues, folk and rock ‘n’ roll music. Burned out by a quarter century of steady touring, the musician took a break and recently unveiled “The Open Road,” featuring timeless songs that revolve around compelling characters on the go.

During a rousing sold out Coach House show on Thursday night, the veteran singer/guitarist appeared invigorated and happy to be back on the concert trail. He was backed by a top notch trio (longtime drummer Kenneth Blevins, bassist Patrick O’Hearn and lead guitarist Doug Lancio). The latter, known for work with Patty Griffin and Jack Ingram, was a wonder to behold on acoustic and slide guitar, plus mandolin. Hiatt held off touring until Lancio could finish obligations with Griffin.

Smart move.

Many of the best known songs on Hiatt’s albums are bolstered by prominent backing vocals. In San Juan Capistrano, his gruff and soulful singing was mainly laid bare, save for a couple tunes at the evening’s end, when Blevins chimed in. The band kicked off the 17-song, 105-minute set with a relaxed, acoustic based “Drive South.”

“It’s nice to be back this-a-way; God knows I’ve been here enough,” said Hiatt - referring to previous Coach House gigs - before “The Open Road.” All picturesque words (“midnight fallin’ like a bag of bones/weighted down now the rest with stones/bouncin’ off a river the moon made steel/cracking off the chrome of a steering wheel”) and searing electric licks, it was an early highlight. A revamped and extended “The Tiki Bar is Open” was pure rollicking fun as Hiatt kicked his legs in the air, did some ad libbed vocals and each member took a solo turn.

Next came some trademark Hiatt humor. The tempered take on “Perfectly Good Guitar” – about bands needlessly smashing up their instruments - benefited from Lancio’s raw, Crazy Horse-type delivery.

Prior to a pair of bluesy numbers from the new album, Hiatt noted the band spent a few days at a nearby beach hotel. “It’s gorgeous out here,” he said, then pondered the wisdom of a 58-year-old trying to surf. The slow, lurching “Like a Freight Train” and feisty, sexual-themed “My Baby” got enthusiastic audiences responses.

Hiatt handled the soaring vocal of the mandolin-led “Cry Love” well alone as the band picked up speed and Lancio engaged in fine intricate picking. Recalling the ‘90s, when the song got AAA radio airplay, the singer remembered a time “when I had more of everything – hair, brain cells.”

Later, “Your Dad Did,” retained its sense of melodic sway, Blevins pounded the rhythm with authority and Hiatt sang and played with an amusing bug eyed grimace. The romantic “Feels Like Rain” found him displaying full-on soulful inflections, a little falsetto and even simulating the weather with Lancio’s quiet guitar effects. Truly amazing. “We’re really just kids at heart,” Hiatt quipped.

Fans yelling requests all night finally got their wishes granted when the band completed the main set with a boisterous “Slow Turning” and slinky “Thing Called Love.”

For the encores, the musicians excelled on the rockabilly styled “Tennessee Plates” (punctuated by John Lee Hooker growls), emotional ballad “Have a Little Faith in Me” (where Hiatt channeled Otis Redding; piano in the original wasn’t missed) and “Riding with the King” (as Hiatt impressively held a sustained vocal note).

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