getting to know john hiatt

john hiatt

The first time I saw John Hiatt perform was in 1983. All these years later, that evening still stands out – a good trick considering I had no clue who he was at the time.

It was a late winter night at Louisville Gardens. The lure was my first opportunity at witnessing Eric Clapton in concert. But the thrill was magnified because opening the show was the great Ry Cooder, then in the beginnings of a career renaissance as a star film score composer.

Clapton was okay. Cooder was out of this world, largely because of his ridiculously potent band. Among the ranks were pianist, producer and roots music pioneer Jim Dickinson, renowned drummer Jim Keltner and the killer vocal combo of Willie Green and Bobby Charles. Completing the band at stage right was a lanky framed figure adding rhythm guitar to the party – a solemn, almost distant presence.

This, I was told, was John Hiatt.

The name had already made the rounds among my musical pals. Even then he was receiving acclaim as the sort of songwriter one was introduced to more through cover versions of his works rather than through his own recordings. I also remember a friend sitting me down and practically forcing me to listen to Slug Line, his 1980 album of modestly brutish pop.

So the seeds were planted. Hiatt remained on my radar after that 1983 show. The songsmith did a little plotting of his own, too. Later that year, he released an album called Riding with the King. Ironically, Clapton would re-cut the title song some 20-odd years later as the namesake tune for a collaborative hit album with B.B. King.

Like many, though, the wake up call in late 1987 when Hiatt released the breakthrough Bring the Family album. With a lifetime of serious substance abuse behind him and bolstered by the support of a new marriage, Hiatt served up a collection of world class love songs.

Some were astounding in their vulnerability (Have a Little Faith in Me). Others were deliciously seedy (Memphis in the Meantime). The remainder shifted from vivid family snapshots (Your Dad Did) to gorgeously bittersweet ballads (Lipstick Sunset). And it didn’t hurt that Bring the Family’s most carefree work, Thing Called Love, would re-emerge two years later as the first single from a commercially reborn Bonnie Raitt. Again, the world heard Hiatt’s music without, in many cases, knowing who Hiatt was.

Things snowballed from there. The exquisite Slow Turning followed in 1988. The more streamlined Stolen Moments came in the summer of 1990 and with it, Hiatt’s first Lexington shows – a pair of sold out performances at the long-since-demolished Breeding’s on Main. On Memorial Day of 1994, he returned to headline a day-long bill at the Red Mile. Hiatt wound up including a few recordings from the show on a live album later that year cheekily titled Hiatt Comes Alive at Budokan. His last headlining concerts were a pair of Kentucky Theatre dates in 1997.

The years have hardly slowed Hiatt, who turns 60 on Monday. He will release his third album in as many years next month (Mystic Pinball) and is currently following a string of summer concert dates in Europe with a fall tour that includes six double-header shows with Steve Earle, including a Wednesday performance at the Opera House and a Thursday follow-up at Cincinnati’s Taft Theatre.

While Hiatt has never released anything resembling a weak album in the last 25 years, the newer New West albums are strong enough to rival the late ‘80s/early ‘90s succession of Bring the Family,  Slow Turning and Stolen Moments.

The same kind exuberance that fueled the earlier records is still in abundance on the New West albums. Sure, some pretty dark roads are traveled on 2011’s Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns through such deliciously desolate songs as Damn This Town and Down Around My Place. But a listen to We’re Alright Now, the leadoff tune to Mystic Pinball, reveals the same kind of lean, electric redemption that distinguished Slow Turning. The personal and creative rebirth that fortified Hiatt’s songs over two decades ago still thrives.

“Sun comes up every morning, even when it’s too cloudy to see,” Hiatt sings over a steady, swampy groove. “I was willing to lose that years ago. I don’t know what was the matter with me.”

“You know, I kind of signed up with the idea that writers are supposed to write about what they know,” Hiatt told me in an interview prior to a 2009 duo concert with Lyle Lovett at Danville’s Norton Center for the Arts. “Not that I know any damn thing about love. But I came from a place of such despair back when I was an addict and alcoholic. I was freakin’ out of my mind. To come from that into putting a family together with a woman who cared for me and who I cared for… it is a continual source of inspiration. And so that just seems to be what I’ve decided to write about.”

John Hiatt and the Combo with Steve Earle and the Dukes performs at 7:30 tonight at the Lexington Opera House, 401 West Vine. Tickets are $55.50-$95.50. Call (800) 745-3000 or (859) 233-3535 or go to www.ticketmaster.com.



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