John Hiatt and The Goners with Sonny Landreth Celebrate Slow Turning’s 30th Birthday
In our record collections there are many albums that have become old friends. We may not meet that often, but when we do the pleasure is undiminished. For these pals we may even celebrate special anniversaries, of their release or perhaps what was going on when we bought them. One of my greatest old mates is John Hiatt’s Slow Turning, which he released 30 years ago. If I could choose how to mark that milestone I’d ask Hiatt to gather the original band, The Goners, and play the whole record. Sounds fanciful? Maybe, but that’s exactly what he did a few nights ago at London’s Under the Bridge. The Goners were all there; amazing slide guitarist Sonny Landreth, bassist Dave Ranson, and drummer Kenneth Blevins. They celebrated in style.
Under the Bridge is an intimate venue, more like a club, with a top-notch sound system. Hiatt has played here previously and this was the first of two sell-out shows. He and the band came out bang on time, appearing relaxed and looking forward to enjoying themselves as much as the audience. Hiatt looked well, sprightly even, in his summer duds of cream blazer and (almost) matching trousers. Landreth was as serene as ever with an air of academia with his long silver locks and studious glasses. That’s all very well, but how did they sound? Amazing. Hiatt still howled and shrieked, if not quite as menacingly as years gone by, and his vocal range sounded slightly compressed compared with 30 years ago but otherwise he was in great shape. Landreth’s playing was quite simply sublime.
Hiatt introduced Slow Turning, immediately thanking the audience for coming out on a Monday night. Then it was straight into “Drive South.” What a way to start. The audience whooped with delight as Hiatt and Landreth took turns at the wheel and put the pedal to the metal. “Trudy and Dave” had a bluesier feel than the album version as Landreth’s slide weaved around Hiatt’s tale of armed robbery.
The Goners sounded tighter than ever on “Tennessee Plates”’ as Hiatt opened with a snarling “how, how, how.” Landreth doesn’t move much, but his fingers did. Holding his Strat high he alternated between picking and slide. He holds the bottleneck on his little finger, allowing the others to “fret,” to give what I believe is the technique’s correct description. Whatever it’s called, the sound Landreth creates is up there with the best I’ve ever heard.
In between songs Hiatt did a good line in self-deprecating humor. He described the relentless touring The Goners had done before making the album as “character-building,” and 30 years later it still is. At one point he slightly lost the thread of his story, seeking some sympathy with a “c’mon I’m 65.” In reply he got a loud cheer.
Slow Turning was produced by Glyn Johns. Hiatt recalled his trepidation before going into the studio: “He made us rehearse! We hadn’t ever done that before, apart from learning the songs. Haven’t done that since, either.” He went on to describe how Johns was the master of the put-down. Before meeting, Hiatt had been told about a band who were in the studio with Johns and “a kid said to him, ‘I want to sound like John Bonham.’ Johns thought for a moment, then said, ‘But you don’t play like John Bonham.’ We knew not to bring that up.”
Hiatt’s introduction to “Georgia Rae,” about the birth of his daughter, was typically amusing, how he thought she had never forgiven her parents for her induced birth. The song itself just overflows with love, though: “it is love that brought you here/A love that will not disappear/Georgia, honey, you can count on that.”
That brought Side One to a close. Before flipping the record Hiatt squeezed in a couple of other songs, both collaborations with Landreth. “Tiki Bar” again allowed Landreth to solo with a sultriness taking London to Louisiana that only intensified with “Rising With the King.” Hiatt rasped, Landreth’s notes screamed as Ranson and Blevins drove them ferociously.
Then it was back to Slow Turning, where the roar as Landreth slid into the opening bars of the title track took the tempo up another notch. It’s a memorable song for several reasons, but the standout is one of music’s finest lines: “I’m yellin’ at the kids in the back seat/‘Cause they’re bangin’ like Charlie Watts.”
Hiatt is an accomplished keyboard player, which he particularly demonstrated on a very soulful “Is Anybody There.” It was a brief respite as “Paper Thin” rocked before “Feels Like Rain’” brought Slow Turning to a close. Though we are basking in a UK heatwave, Hiatt’s thermometer was off the scale with this final track.
Landreth led the encores with his “Congo Square,” his slightly softer vocals preceding a jazzier sound. Hiatt returned to the keys for a solo, “Faith,” then The Goners returned to finish with “Thing Called Love.” Hiatt expressed thanks to “a young red-headed lady who covered this song. That kept tires on the tour bus for many years!” And to endear himself even more to his audience, if that was possible, Hiatt’s parting shot was about the World Cup: “You’ve got a big game tomorrow night, I’d like to say once more unto the breach dear friends, for god, England and St George!” Wasn’t expecting Shakespeare at a Hiatt show.