in performance: john hiatt/steve earle

john hiatt. photo by jack spencer.

The defining moment of last night’s doubleheader concert by John Hiatt and Steve Earle was also the most outwardly unrefined one.

Sharing a single centerstage microphone at the end of the evening, the two veteran songsmiths took a stab at Woody Guthrie’s I Ain’t Got No Home. It was ragged from the word go with both artists swapping verses they read off of a lyric sheet. Even then, Hiatt got lost. Twice. But the tune was deliciously unpretentious and, ultimately, joyous. It wound up encapsulating a folk spirit that drove the entire show – even the segments that turned soulfully electric.

steve earle. photo by ted barron.

Earle’s entire set (each artist was given just over an hour of stage time) had folk at its very core. Shifting between banjo, mandolin, bouzouki and acoustic guitar, he summoned a wonderfully antique atmosphere, especially when playing off the violin colors of multi-instrumentalist Eleanor Whitmore. A loose limbed version of Harlan Man was indicative of such folky construction, although Earle also allowed himself a moment at the political pulpit by offering a grim postscript to the Bush era with Little Emperor (“no more pomp and circumstance, no more shock and awe; he’s just a little emperor, that’s all”).

Trademark tunes like Guitar Town and Copperhead Road were dispensed with little fanfare during the middle of set. Far edgier was Meet Me in the Alleyway, sung with dirty, bluesy distortion and a hearty, punctuated groove powered by drummer Will Rigby, and The Revolution Starts Now, a rally cry underscored by guitar colors from George Masterson that stressed feel over flash.

Hiatt’s closing set was positively nostalgic in comparison. It also opened with a sense of folk design with predominantly acoustic readings of Drive South, Crossing Muddy Waters and Cry Love. But with the slide guitar colors of Tennessee Plates, supplied by longtime Patty Griffin sidekick Doug Lancio, the evening took a turn for rock ‘n roll that never looked back.

What was surprising, though, was how little Hiatt relied on new material. Aside from Blues Can’t Even Find Me, a rootsy affirmation from his upcoming Mystic Pinball album and the aforementioned Crossing Muddy Waters, Hiatt junked his entire catalogue from 1995 on. That meant plenty of favorites from his two late ‘80s breakthrough albums, Bring the Family and Slow Turning, including a jubilant Real Fine Love that roared to life from a prelude of chiming guitar ambience by Lancio.

Riding with the King brought the whole immensely fun evening home with a lean slab of funk, rock and soul that had Hiatt grinning and grooving not like a pop elder, but like a mischievous youth in throes of some great pop discovery. 

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