in performance: john hiatt

John Hiatt. Photo by David McClister.

John Hiatt’s finest music always seems to center around family – his adoration of it, his curiosity towards it and, in some cases, his unabashed escape from it.

On Tuesday night before a modest sized turnout at the Taft Theatre in Cincinnati, Hiatt recounted how his first visit to his hosting city came as a teen fleeing his Indianapolis homestead to sleep in an abandoned downtown building that was “cold as (expletive).” That single-evening truancy sent him back to the family and, presumably, planted at least some of the seeds for his songs.

Though this solo acoustic performance was among Hiatt’s final tour dates promoting his 23rd studio album “The Eclipse Sessions,” the family theme resurfaced in the revival of an astonishing 1990 composition, “Seven Little Indians.” A largely autobiographical tale that outlined Hiatt’s childhood as the second youngest of seven children entertained by their storytelling father through an incantatory tale draped in Native American imagery. Spoken and recited and much as it was sung, Hiatt served the tune up as a childhood remembrance told from a decidedly adult (and subsequently parental) perspective.

The newer tunes from “The Eclipse Sessions” were perhaps less familial but no less fascinating, from the disenchanting Nashville portrait “All the Way to the River” to the plain speaking (and almost apologetic) spiritual confessional “Poor Imitation of God.” In both cases, the darker turns of the lyrics were matched by the low, often whispery tones of Hiatt’s singing.

At 66, there are mild signs of age in Hiatt’s performance profile. Aside from the more sobering nature of his songs, his voice is slightly thinner and his general persona less animated than in years past. None of that was distracting, however. In fact, age brought a sage-like demeanor to tunes like “Crossing Muddy Waters” as well as vintage fare that included “Is Anybody There?” and “Feels Like Rain.” Even the formerly whimsical rocker “Perfectly Good Guitar” took upon an air of scholarly sadness in this unaccompanied setting.

That’s not to say Hiatt didn’t get into party mode when he chose to. The evening’s most ribald entry had to be “Memphis in the Meantime,” a saga of down home decadence that has, over its three decade-plus history, always referenced a currently en vogue country artist and their unwillingness to “ever record this song.” When the song first appeared in 1987, the artist in question was Ronnie Milsap. On Tuesday, it was Blake Shelton.

The tune didn’t stray far from home, ether. It was first featured on the album that essentially broke Hiatt as a solo artist. Its title? “Bring the Family.”



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