John Hiatt is one of the few artists whose songs so vividly open up my memory floodgates. When I hear Drive South I am still with the one I was with when I first heard the song and it seemed so appropriate to our situation at the time. When I hear She Loves the Jerk I revisit the relationship that made me feel the exact same feelings conveyed in the song. Am I saying his songs are universal and timeless? I don't know if I'd go that far, but I will say his songwriting for me is nearly without peer. He can be clever, sarcastic, funny, poignant, spirit moving and a thousand other feelings all at the same time.
Hiatt was the concluding act in the Cities 97 Sampler Concert following the Honeydogs, Duncan Sheik and the Cowboy Junkies on to the stage of the stately State Theater. (My favorite of the three preceding acts was Duncan Sheik who sang a moving Alibi and demonstrated a most impressive speaking voice of all things (not so much mellow as thoughtful). The Cowboy Junkies were OK, but after their opening version of Sweet Jane (a fine performance of a most fabulous song) it was more of the same and the lack of variety made their set a little monotonous.
Between acts (as we listened to our all time favorite weather gal, Belinda tell us why we were there), my friend helped me take my pulse. Could she blame me that it was a little fast for just sitting there (seeing who was next to me and who was soon going to be in front of us?)
Hiatt opened with the aforementioned Drive South. This song always gets to me: "I didn't say we wouldn't hurt anymore. That's how you learn, you just get burned. But we don't have to feel like dirt anymore. Though love's not earned, baby, it's our turn..." He was clearly in a playful mood hamming it up with his bandmates. He acknowledged his setting with some kind words for our former wrestling governor elect. The second song was a surprise, a bluesy, metallic Riding With The King where John played the part of guitar king with some really fine playing and posing. The song has always been somewhat of a mystery to me but I loved the way he sang the verse, "Well I stepped out of a mirror at ten years old with a suit cut sharp as a razor and a heart of gold. I had a guitar hanging just about waist high. I'm gonna play that thing until the day I die..." And with his guitar performance he backed up his words most effectively.
On the drive in I had given my sauntering Quien Mas Sabe (who later stylishly modeled her headband and hat look) a copy of Bring The Family which we listened to as we stressfully maneuvered our way through the Holidazzle traffic. She, not being a country music fan, didn't especially like the opening cut, Memphis in the Meantime, but the version performed live was much different. The style changes within the song were most impressive: from country to blues, from punk to heavy metal, Hiatt was at his witty best (he updated the lyrics from "I don't think Ronnie Milsap is ever going to record this song..." to "I don't think Tim McGraw is ever going to record this song."). For the first time I appreciated the song for what it cleverly is- a tribute to country music that rips up the now standard format.
The next two songs were cuts from the recently released Best Of CD, and are two songs I admit I haven't much gotten in to (yet). Love In Flames was much better than the recorded version. It is a song that clearly means a lot to John and it was his most passionate performance of the evening. "Tonight I lay me down to sleep on your side of the bed. I pray so hard for somebody to keep you out of my head. But it's no use the sheets take your form into the dawn the ashes still warm..." The following Take Off Your Uniform from Slug Line nearly brought things to a screeching halt as Hiatt tried to find the core to the song that he said he hadn't performed live since 1978.
Things definitely got back on track with crowd pleasing versions of Perfectly Good Guitar, Tennessee Plates, and Cry Love. It was fun to see that the person having the most fun in the entire place was none other than Mr. Hiatt himself.
The first encore was Have a Little Faith in Me with Hiatt alone on stage on the keyboard. Halfway through the first verse his microphone exploded forcing him to stop as a techie tried to fix the problem. Hiatt recovered nicely by saying, "As I was just saying..." and proceeded to give a nice reading of one of his most moving (and famous) songs. (Dear John- it is interesting to see how you can move people with your solo reading of this song as opposed to the gospel choired enhanced version you included on the Best Of CD...) The night concluded with a definitive version of Thing Called Love which proved (to paraphrase an old saying) that nobody sings Hiatt like Hiatt.
Before the show I had told my friend that if he did The Way We Make a Broken Heart I might have an accident of sorts. It's one of those songs that touched me before I realized who wrote it (I love Rosanne Cash's version) and it tears me up every time I hear it. Even though he didn't perform the song I wasn't disappointed because just being able to share the moment with my friend and enjoying the evening of music gave me a special new memory and corresponding soundtrack that will stay with me stronger than all the others. It's quite the feeling to have music, memories and friendships close to your heart and not even be able to discern the separation between them all. It's a feeling captured often in John Hiatt's songs.