Their respective careers were set in motion decades ago, so it’s understandable that a double-bill performance by John Hiatt and Robert Cray would carry equal levels of expectation and nostalgia. But last night at the Taft Theatre in Cincinnati, both artists scored creative high points with either recent material or hearty reworkings of chestnut favorites.
The former attribute shouldn’t come as a huge surprise given how prolific both have been of late. Bluesman Cray has released seven albums of new music (excluding several fine concert recordings) since 1999. Veteran songsmith Hiatt has issued nine. He even seemed bemused last night by the fact. “Somehow,” he remarked, “they still let us makes records.”
Hiatt and his longrunning band The Combo – fortified by Louisiana drummer Kenneth Blevins, who has been playing with Hiatt on and off since his late ‘80s days with The Goners, and longtime Patty Griffin guitarist Doug Lancio – opened an 80 minute set by leaping head first into the deep pocket groove of My Business. Pulled from 2012’s Mystic Pinball album, the tune’s slyly lyrical sensibility, swampy rhythmic stride and plentiful, efficient guitar hooks defined the electric state of Hiatt’s current music. Such a fact was underscored by the coarse stride of Wind Don’t Have to Hurry (with Lancio adding brittle accents of banjo) from the forthcoming Terms of My Surrender. But the new record’s title tune veered off into the sort of light, antique jazz/minstrel plain Bob Dylan began exploring on Love & Theft.
There were oldies galore, too. The standout there was a retooled Cry Love that was set to an acoustic jamboree setting with Lancio taking the wheel on mandolin.
Similarly, Cray’s performance was by no means anchored to the past. His new In My Soul bends generously to the ‘60s style pop, soul and R&B inspirations that have always been as prevalent in Cray’ music – especially in the spotless tone of his singing – as the obvious blues callings. As such, the guitarist devoted six songs during his 70 minute opening set to the album.
Some were coolly paced ballads fashioned as vehicles for the expert phrasing of Cray’s vocals. Into that column fell Fine Yesterday, a slice of summery but bittersweet Philly-style soul. What Would You Say later emphasized his ultra clean but never antiseptic guitarwork while the Richard Cousins instrumental Hip Tight Onions shot the spotlight over to keyboardist Dover Weinberg for a finger-popping, Booker T-flavored groove. Topping all of the new material, though, was Deep in My Soul, a desperate, anthemic affirmation where Cray sailed effortlessly back into the blues during a gorgeous coda solo.
The latter also held true for one of Cray’s breakthrough hits, Because of Me, which indulged in a leisurely but solemn slow fade solo that brought the quiet intensity of blues giant Otis Rush to mind.
Sadly, there were several inebriates in the Cincy crowd that used such a moment of chilled beauty to whoop, holler and needlessly call attention to themselves. Booze and social decorum – never shall they meet.