Monday, July 14, 1997

Riding with the King

John Hiatt opened his show at the Basilica Block Party by announcing it had been 37 years since his last confession. That's not exactly a true statement since many of his songs are rather confessional in nature. None of the crowd seemed to mind however, since for the next two hours Hiatt and his band, the Nashville Queens, ripped through a sixteen song sampling of one of our best songwriter's recent catalog.

For me it was a enjoyable show made more so since the album from which the most songs (4) came from was 1988's Slow Turning which was the soundtrack on the road trip that was the inspiration behind my feeble attempt at writing a novel almost ten years ago. It was as if Hiatt was helping me nostalgically celebrate the many leftover memories from that trip and by the end of the evening my traveling partner's presence was as close to me as the church building itself.

The band opened with two songs from that CD, the title track and Paper Thin, sticking close to the original arrangements with tight playing and Hiatt's familiar if unconventional vocal style. The third song, Real Fine Love was an early highlight since it is one of my all time favorite songs. "I've seen an angel or two before but I never asked one to be my wife..." The song featured some particularly inspired lead guitar from David Immergluck. Hiatt next turned to two songs from last year's Walk On, Ethylene and Native Son. It was a strange sight hearing him sing the lyrics, "Oh Ethylene, my love for you is so obscene..." in front of the pious majesty of the Basilica of St. Mary's but Hiatt seemed well aware of where he was at the moment.

He next played two songs from his recently released CD, Little Head, Sure Pinocchio, and the title track. Both songs held up very well with their live treatments. Hiatt showed that the inner demons that drive so many of his songs are conquered by the joyous expression of playing in front of people, using the crowd's energy to give the songs an even more redemptive quality than their studio versions. The solitary act of writing to express is realized by sharing the expression with a group of others.

Hiatt's vocals were in fine form for most of the evening particularly on the moving ballad, Icy Blue Heart, where his voice effectively cracked upon hitting the falsetto of the refrain. Of course the song just served to slow things down for those in the audience who wanted to dance, so Hiatt and the band next broke into jaunty versions of Memphis in the Meantime, Graduated, and Tennessee Plates- the latter a great on the road tale of a love gone wrong. "Across the Mississippi like a oil slick fire..."

The audience really got in the mood with the next two songs, probably Hiatt's most recognizable to most in the crowd, Perfectly Good Guitar, and Cry Love. The contrast between the two songs featured two of his biggest strengths, humor and insight. Perfectly Good Guitar, is a bit of a novelty song about a man who is upset with the big rock stars who can afford to smash up their guitars all in the name of putting on a show. Cry Love is a song about the redemption of love. Immergluck's mandolin playing gave the song its familiar riff and as the band kicked it in for the coda of the song, it was truly a delightful moment.

As were all three encore songs, the first featuring Hiatt alone on the piano, a moving rendition of Have a Little Faith in Me. Thing Called Love was next smashing Bonnie Raitt's version in the teeth with it's loopy Hiatt vocals. He closed the show with one of his finest songs, Buffalo River Home, dedicating it to all the flood victims of the northwest. By this time the man clearly was having a great time, decked in his smart looking business suit. It is obvious he loves singing his songs to both the fans and the unfamiliar, wanting to share his message to all that will listen. In the middle of the song one of his guitar strings broke and as a stagehand brought him a new guitar, he leaned into the vocals even more. "Mixing up drinks with mixed feelings. All along the paint is peeling, down to an Indian blanket on a pony with no rider in the flesh and bone. Lookin' for his buffalo river home." The sweltering humidity of the evening gave way to a cool summer's breeze and the moment was one of the stolen one's Hiatt once wrote about in another song. For the uninitiated it was a fine opportunity to hear some of the man's finest and for the devoted it capped a special evening.

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