John Hiatt & the Goners Bring “Slow Turning” Anniversary Tour to A Close
It’s been a privilege to watch the arc of John Hiatt’s career. I say arc because I first saw John in concert in 1979, by then he had 3 albums out, so it was by no means the beginning of his career. At the time New Wave was in and he had just released Slug Line to critic’s acclaim and the buzz was Hiatt could be the American Elvis Costello.
I next saw him live in the mid 80’s and to me it looked like the new wave angry schtick had stuck when he flipped me and my friends off in the front row of the balcony when we didn’t stand up at the end of his warm up set at the Orpheum.
It was apparent that Hiatt was an immensely talented songwriter yet he seemed frustrated as a performer and impatient for the success that his abilities deserved. Then in 1987 he captured songwriter’s lightning in a bottle with “Bring the Family”. In what has become an almost mythic tale, Hiatt along with an all-star roster of Nick Lowe, Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner walked into the studio and as legend has it recorded one of the great American albums practically live.
When something is that good you don’t change the formula, but trying to assemble that same group of players, who all were very busy with their own careers, proved to be just too difficult. Hiatt had been on the road with the Goners touring for about a year so they decided to use them as his studio band. There must have been trepidation as they entered the studio to try and top Hiatt’s last effort but it turned out to be a wise choice. The success of “Bring the Family” did come with its rewards in the form of signing up one of the biggest names in the music business, Glyn Johns, to produce the follow-up. Which brings me to why I and a sold-out house at the Pantages Theater in Minneapolis were gathered on September 1, 2018, almost 30 years to the day, to see the same band recreate “Slow Turning” for the finale of the 30th Anniversary tour.
The night started with a solo acoustic set allowing him to preview a couple of the songs off his soon to be released Eclipse Sessions cd. I arrived a little late and was seated as Hiatt played “Master of Disaster”. (I was informed later that the solo set opened with “Perfectly Good Guitar”, “Crossing Muddy Waters and “Lift Up Every Stone”.) Hiatt dedicated the next song to the man who had requested it the night before in Bayfield, Wisconsin but didn’t play it because he couldn’t remember the lyrics. As the audience laughed, he quipped”…Sure we play requests, the following night” adding “…give me a break I’m 66 years old” before launching into “Seven Little Indians”. I felt bad for the gentlemen up in Bayfield because Hiatt mesmerized the audience with his story telling on “Indians”, a rich tale full of detail in the tradition of his fellow Midwesterners John Prine and Dylan.
Next up were a couple from the soon to be released Eclipse Sessions, “Cry to Me” and “Aces Up Your Sleeve” which proved Hiatt has not lost his touch for crafting first class songs. “Cry to Me” is an instant classic that is destined to be covered like so many of Hiatt’s great songs but Hiatt’s performance on the Eclipse Sessions would be hard to top. Highly recommended.
The solo set closed with a powerful version of “Cry Love”. Hiatt’s songwriting skills are so immense one overlooks what a fine guitar player he is. A thoroughly satisfying appetizer for the main course that was yet to come.
After a brief intermission Hiatt retook the stage with the Goners. Despite the passage of 30 years and a reluctance to practice (something “Slow Turning” producer Glyn Johns insisted the band do and they have not done since) they were in fine form. For the most part the arrangements were true to the album. Hearing “Drive South” and “Trudy and Dave” was like getting reacquainted with old friends. Things got raucous with Tennessee Plates as Landreth and Hiatt dueled on guitars. Sonny Landreth improvised with some interesting sonic sculpting on Icy Blue Heart demonstrating that his already prodigious guitar abilities have grown as has his guitar collection. (I counted at least 4 different guitars used by Landreth which kept his guitar tech hopping all night).
The only criticism I could come up with occurred during the next number, “Sometime Other Than Now” when the sound seemed to get away from the sound crew becoming very muddy. Thankfully whatever was causing the problem was corrected in time for Georgia Rae which was proceeded by the proud father mentioning not only the song’s namesake, who is a social worker in Nashville, but his other 2 children, Lilly who is also a musician and his son Robert all of whom are doing well in life.
“Ride Along” featured more blistering guitar work by Landreth which brought us to the title track, a crowd favorite. I noticed drummer Kevin Blevins had picked up on Jim Keltner’s trick of holding maracas in the same hand as his drumstick to produce that extra layer of percussive sound.
Following “It’ll Come to You” Hiatt traded in his guitar for a keyboard and told a story about how he listened to WLAC a 50K watt clear channel station out of Nashville and DJ Bill “Hossman” Allen. Haitt remembered how on Sundays Allen would go to the local Baptist church and record the gospel music and play it over the airways later Sunday night. H said that the next number always reminded him of Hossman and then performed an exquisite version of “Is Anybody There?”. Things got revved up again for a spirited rendition of “Paper Thin” before performing the album’s closing track, the beautiful “It Feels Like Rain”.
This was not the end of the show however as the band returned for an encore of 3 songs. The all Louisianan Goners were showcased in the first encore as Kevin Blevins set the second line rhythm for Sonny’s “Congo Square” which allowed the band to stretch and show their chops. It was great to see the sheer joy on Hiatt’s face as he cheered the band on while relegated to a side man’s role. You could tell these guys truly enjoyed playing with one another and you could sense that they were cherishing the moment as in life things never last.
No John Hiatt show would be complete without one of his most beautiful compositions, “Have a Little Faith in Me” which had Hiatt alone, back on keyboards before bringing out the band one more time for “Memphis in the Meantime”.