In concert: John Hiatt at Rams Head Tavern
By Dave McKenna
John Hiatt is more than merely a songwriters' songwriter and critics' darling after all these years. Either that, or the Rams Head Tavern was packed with songwriters and critics for his Thursday show.
Hiatt lost some perfectly good guitars and suffered some other damage in the floods back home in Nashville. But there was no playing the victim during his joy-saturated two-hour-plus set, which at several points sent the elation level inside the club into the danger zone.
Long before the disaster, Hiatt, 57, was writing about rising rivers. Touring with a trio he's dubbed the Combo ("the Band" was already taken), Hiatt rendered 1988's "Icy Blue Heart" and 2000's "Crossing Muddy Waters" as bluesy acknowledgements of recent events; "Buffalo River Home" was, like the best Hiatt tunes, both somber and funny, with belly-laugh lines (among them: "There's only two things in life, but I forget what they are") amid the pathos.
Hiatt had everybody smiling while blurring the lines between hero and outlaw on the rockabilly gem "Tennessee Plates." He turned the Combo loose on "The Tiki Bar Is Open," a Tom Waits-like homage to the pleasure and pain of boozing. Guitarist Doug Lancio played spacey, echo-drenched and downright Buddy Milleresque licks throughout "Cry Love." "The Open Road," the rocking title track to Hiatt's new CD, is only the latest of many great songs in his catalogue about the itinerant lifestyle. Hiatt introduced his most lucrative contribution to the pop charts, the Bonnie Raitt smash "Thing Called Love," as the song "that educated my children."
During "Memphis In the Meantime," Hiatt attempted to lead a ridiculously complicated audience participation routine. He blamed the club's layout for its failure. The crowd roared its approval nonetheless. To the songwriters or critics or just plain fans in the house on this night, Hiatt could do no wrong.
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