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Two Giants, Sitting

by David Greenberger on February 9, 2011

Lyle Lovett

With a simple announcement of “Ladies and gentlemen, John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett,” the two men strode out to center stage, taking their seats beside one another. Hiatt commenced the music with his “My Old Friend,” and then Lovett followed with “Private Conversation,” putting in place the back-and-forth that was the format for the 20-song set. One man played and sang while the other listened along with the audience. There were clearly unexpected turns in the choice of material, as each man would respond to what had just transpired.

The character of the evening was further informed by their between-song conversation. While aware of the audience, and in a broader presentation mode, they were speaking to each other, much like what transpires on a talk show. The talk-show comparison is given further weight since Lovett was seated to Hiatt’s right, thereby giving the former the traditional “couch” position and the latter “the desk.” Hiatt also had the Carson/Letterman/Kimmel/etc. role of keeping the conversational momentum going or filling in a silence. However, that’s not to say Lovett was lacking in that realm; it’s more that the two men are a study in contrasts in every regard. Hiatt was quick to speak, sometimes offering up words he’d have reeled at least partway back in. Lovett used silences to pull the audience in, to surprise with what finally did come out.

Musically they are a study in contrasts as well. Hiatt’s bluesy gruffness uses volume for emphasis, as does his guitar strumming. A couple of his songs were so wedded to their original band settings that they felt like they were referencing those records rather than fully recasting them in solo acoustic mode. But hearing him solo is also a reminder of how complete a narrative he can weave into a few verses, as he does with “Drive South” and “Tennessee Plates.”

Lovett uses less volume and fewer words. “L.A. County” floats by, its murder balladry slipping into your house and going to sleep on your couch, while “If I Had a Boat” uses just a handful of Dr. Seuss-approved words. Lovett’s vocals, sung over fingerpicked guitar, are so smoothly inviting that the lyrics he’s singing often hit with unexpected surprise and occasional sly dashes of obliquely juxtaposed phrases and ideas.

It may also be worth noting (meaning, it is to me) that Lovett and Hiatt may well be the only touring duo who both have last names ending with double Ts.