CONCERT REVIEW- John Hiatt at Arvada Center, August 29, 2012
” I thought we were gonna make that bridge; what do I know? Me and my expectations was always high” — John Hiatt, ” My Old Friend”
When I caught up with my old school chum Harry Gebippe at the reunion in ’03, I reminded him of his music guru status and asked who he’d been listening to. Although I knew of John Hiatt, and loved his ” Perfectly Good Guitar” CD, Harry’s ringing endorsement of Hiatt as “The Man” inspired me to check out his catalog, and begin trying to see him live. Aided by Gebippe’s assemblage of a Hiatt mix CD loaded with gems- as the surfers used to say, “all killer, no filler” – I began to not only wildly enjoy, but humbly admire Hiatt as an artist of great integrity and dedication to his craft.
Soon after, I was able to catch Hiatt at the Florida Theater in Jacksonville, backed by the Goners ( great name!), including arguably the best slide guitar player of our day, Sonny Landreth. Hiatt’s energy, animated expressions, and compelling songs lifted the show beyond a mere concert, and I was hooked. In a typically humble moment, Hiatt thanked a “little redheaded girl (Bonnie Raitt)” who ” recorded this song and put my daughters through college”, before tearing into a jumpin’ version of ” Thing Called Love”. Later, Gebippe and I caught The Man in a memorable show at the Ogden in Denver, backed by his old friend and producer Jim Dickinson’s boys Luther and Cody’s North Mississippi Allstars. Hiatt’s daughter, a recent graduate from Denver U., was in the house, and her Pop proudly told of how she had prodded him, a Grammy-winning songwriter, to finally get his G.E.D. that year so they could “graduate together”. By this time, Hiatt had become an old friend that I hadn’t quite met, but somehow knew, and could be called upon for advice, inspiration, or insight as needed. So much so, that at this point, I must withdraw from writing this review because I cannot possibly be objective about an artist that I admire so much.
Right! As if you came here for objectivity!
I later caught the great “Songwriters” tour with John, Lyle Lovett, Joe Ely, and Guy Clark, where the four masters sat on stools and traded songs on the fly, with no set list and improvised pairings, and shows at the Zoo in Minneapolis with Shawn Colvin and in Jacksonville again with his new band, The Combo. So it was with the great expectation noted above that I gleefully scored great seats at the lovely Arvada Center to catch The Man on his latest tour.
The new band, the Combo, is dimmed only by comparison with his former backing. Hiatt has had the gravitas to attract a stream of excellent musicians, most notably a series of sixstring slingers that include the esteemed aforementioned Mr. Landreth, the Hill Country wizard Luther Dickinson, and the little-known Michael Ward, who tore up the landscape on the ” Perfectly Good” CD and the fabulous Austin City Limits DVD during the same era. These guys provided a sonic alternative to Hiatt’s rhythmic strumming and singing, and set off the lyrics with soaring fills and runs. The new band played all of the old stuff very well, but several of the arrangements either seemed to lack fire, or were played at a tempo that was, shall we say, more restrained than the original versions. The breathtaking pace of the live CD version of ” Tennesse Plates”, with its getaway-car careening down Pikes Peak with no brakes feel, was replaced by a loping version that had little edge, and felt more like a Sunday drive than a desperate flight to avoid prison. The arrangement of the joyful ” Memphis in the Meantime” was similarly tepid, leaving me to fear that John was tired, or worse yet, feeling old, and that maybe those days of inspired shows had come to an end. Surely, his voice was not as strong as I recalled, and the ventures into his high register less frequent. I’d never seen him wear a hat throughout a show; was this the Old Man Hiatt finally showing up?
But the Man came through, rousting us with fine versions of ” Drive South”, ” Cry Love”, “Slow Turnin'”, and ” Riding With the King” , as well as a great uptempo re-working of his usual show closer, ” Have A Little Faith In Me”. And during his intro to ” Thing Called Love”, Hiatt revealed that he was honored to have been chosen to present that ” little redheaded girl” with a Lifetime Achievement award at the upcoming Americana Festival in Nashville on September 14. ( This event to be covered by Mr. Gebippe himself! – Editors). I hope he’ll mention putting the girls through college! And what a neat closing of the circle between the two great artists, with Bonnie “getting (Hiatt) started” by recording John’s song, and John presenting Bonnie with a career honor. Sweet!
So my dear friend John, I’ll promise to not expect you to act like you’re a young man anymore, and as you’ve implored in song, I’ll have a little faith in you. Thanks for a great show, brother!
– your humble correspondent Phledge