John Hiatt’s simple lyrics create emotional truth
01:00 AM EDT on Wednesday, June 30, 2010 By Rick MassimoJournal Pop Music Writer
NEWPORT — Like the blues and country icons who inspired him, John Hiatt has always been able to make a little mean a lot. and in live performance with his crack three-piece band the Combo, sometimes he can make a lot mean a lot, too.
Hiatt performed Saturday night at the opening concert of this year’s Nantucket Nectars Sunset Music Series at the Newport Yachting Center.
They started off relatively quietly, with Hiatt and fellow guitarist Doug Lancio playing acoustic guitars for the easy-going yet exuberant “Drive South,” Lancio then switching to mandolin for the gentle train rhythm of “Crossing Muddy Waters,” continuing a relaxed, front-porch vibe that they returned to several times in the course of the night.
Several songs, however, came in for massive deconstructions, such as the ominous shuffle of “the Tiki Bar is Open,” with long solos from Lancio and bassist Patrick O’Hearn, and the final encore “Riding With the King,” which Lancio turned into his own showcase, starting off with short, sharp themes reminiscent of B.B. King but then taking off from there. the stately “Real Fine Love” had a long, delicate opening, and O’Hearn, steady and supportive throughout, laid down a nice pattern of harmonics on the romantic “Feels Like Rain.”
While “My Baby” (from Hiatt’s latest disc, this year’s “the Open Road”) and “Tennessee Plates” were the songs most overtly taken from blues and country respectively, Hiatt’s trademark simple, epigrammatic lyrics created throughout a greater emotional truth reminiscent of blues masters such as Willie Dixon and country legends such as Hank Williams — it’s a hard balance to strike without sounding either clichéd or like a diarist, but he’s had nearly 40 years’ practice.
Hiatt, now in his late 50s, looked grandfatherly (actually, he sort of always has) but his voice, which has picked up even more grit and gruff over the years, still managed a surprising falsetto burst at the end of such songs as “perfectly good Guitar,” “on With You” and especially the first encore, the gospel-tinged “have a Little Faith in Me.”
And from the autobiographical “slow Turning,” one of the best rock songs ever about growing old and still wanting to rock, onward, it was one hit (relatively speaking) after another, including a relatively complicated sing-along during “Memphis in the meantime.”
Opening act Adam Ezra, from Somerville, Mass., only got a few songs but made an impact with his muscular voice and his sharp lyrics, particularly during “the Basement Song” — after we’ve messed up this planet, Adam sang, we’ll find another one, “call in a few religions and do it all over again.” the visual highlight came when Ezra and his percussionist, who went by the name Turtle, double-teamed Ezra’s guitar.
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