good attire: John Hiatt at the Egg. Photo by: Joe Putrock
Egg, May 27
John Hiatt has come to terms with the toilet-paper mystery,
which is good—you’d hate for him to drive himself nuts over
something like that. Not that he’s solved it, he’s just come
to terms with it. He is, seemingly, a man at peace.
As an introduction to his song “What Do We Do Now”—a winningly
direct song laying bare the question at the heart of every
relationship—Hiatt related a personal story about the little
things that can chip away at even a solid romantic bond. Hiatt,
who’s been married for 18 years, told the audience (who were
in clear agreement) that it’s not the big stuff, the heavy
existential stuff. That’s all been dealt with in the past.
It’s the questions like, “Does the toilet paper feed out from
over the top of the roll, or from the bottom?” that really
have the potential to drive a mate right around the freakin’
But, in the name of love and history and understanding, you
let it go. So, in the Hiatt household, the toilet paper goes
every which way—and it’s fine.
This coming to terms is not only the subject of a number of
Hiatt’s individual compositions, but provided a kind of thematic
unity to last Thursday’s show as a whole, one that the audience
would have eaten out of a spoon held out by the 52-year-old
songwriter. These were his people.
The crowd laughed uproariously—in recognition, I must assume—at
Hiatt’s tale of comic marital strain; and during the lengthy
Prairie Home Companion-style reminiscence offered as
an interlude to the request “Your Dad Did,” audience members
were rapt. Understandably. The material was warm and heartfelt,
and his Indianian drawl and sure timing gave the narrative
riff a kind of Tom Waits-by-way-of-Jean Shepard feel. That
is, it was comic but gently nostalgic—nothing too biting or
misanthropic. It was both good and feel-good.
The audience got a hoot, too, out of Hiatt’s description of
his eclectic attire: He easily explained away his checked
sportcoat, his dark slacks (to hide the inevitable “pee-pee
stains” of an older man, he said), his untucked button-down
over exposed T-shirt, and his bright white shoes, by saying,
essentially, hey, I’m an old guy—what the fuck do I care?
But I don’t think this show was really meant for me.
Don’t get me wrong: I like John Hiatt as a songwriter and,
I’m guessing, I’d like him as a guy. But as a musical
performer, on this occasion, Hiatt lost me. Part of that was
situational: I thought his guitars were consistently mixed
too high, sounding brash and jarring even on songs that would
have benefited from subtler presentation; and—by design or
accident, I’m not sure—Hiatt’s foot stomping was miked, which
was distracting and intrusive throughout. This was, Hiatt
revealed, the last show on the tour; maybe his mind was elsewhere.
Maybe the same end-of-road informality that allowed him such
easy personal charisma took its toll in other ways.
Hiatt also mentioned that he had been “winging” the set list
on this tour. Now, it’s not like Hiatt’s got a lot of just-plain
bad songs (although for the life of me I couldn’t tell you
the point of the newer song “My Thunderbird”), but the cumulative
feel was somehow slight. Upbeat, heartening, even—but slight.
A lot of Hiatt’s songs can be played for comedy, which can
be a strength, but a tune like “Trudy and Dave,” a song about
a couple robbing Laundromats with their infant in tow, should
have maybe just a hint of sadness—don’t you think? A more
intimate approach, one more in keeping with the “solo acoustic”
billing—like that of the Appalachian-style balladry of opener
Kieran Kane, for example—might have helped.
And to follow the observation that with “so much geopolitical,
religio-, horse manure goin’ on, it almost scares a fella
offa God,” with the response, “Yes, there is a God and, no,
it isn’t you,” right before launching into the gospel-inflected
and completely rhetorical “Is Anybody There” . . . Well, the
crowd dug it, responding with cheers of, I don’t know, agreement?
Relief? Optimistic wish-fulfillment? I guess there’s only
so much feel-good I can take.
I myself would have traded a half-dozen of the night’s fun
songs for quiet version of “Icy Blue Heart,” as fine a song
about emotional devastation as ever written. But that one
didn’t make the cut. And maybe that’s good news for both Hiatt
and his audience.
But then, in my house the toilet paper comes over the top.
Only. Always. And I’ll fight you about it. So, maybe I’ve
got some growing up to do.
Helsinki, Great Barrington, Mass., May 30
Electric guitars have had set roles since the beginning of
the rock & roll era: lead guitar, rhythm guitar. This
wasn’t anything new, being adapted from the ensemble interplay
of swing bands, jump-blues outfits, and front-porch pickers.
However, as the guitar was pushed to the fore as a solo instrument,
it also sidestepped the importance of compositional integrity.
It became possible for a soloist to brand identify a piece
of music. Rock music hasn’t been as hard hit by the undermining
of songwriting as some genres. Chicago blues may be the home
of the most moribund evolution in the past half-century, as
the idiosyncratic character that empowered Delta blues performers
was ironed out into clearly delineated formats, with soloists
now ruling the roost.
Though less common than the two- guitar division of labor,
there have been important featured guitarists who are not
traditional soloists, two of the most prominent being Pete
Townshend and the Edge. Both also being composers, their playing
underscores the drama and flow of the music. They’ve turned
their inclinations as writers and arrangers into guitar styles
that are more readily identifiable than a hundred 12-bar riffmeisters.
In one of the more surprising developments in her short career,
Erin McKeown has found a powerful live identity for herself.
Only in her mid-20s and with two albums of carefully rendered
songs, she has fronted a trio and performed solo. But for
the past half year of stateside and European touring, she’s
had just a drummer with her. While finances figure into such
a decision, the aesthetic benefits are priceless. Dispensing
with the glue of a bass player, the results are risky, edgy
and powerfully present. The diminutive McKeown plays a hollow-body
Gibson electric and fearlessly cranks the volume, its sound
subtly fattened by a battery of judiciously employed effects
Songs from her debut (Distillation, 2000) and last
year’s Grand took on new and resilient life last Sunday
at Club Helsinki, as she and drummer Ed Toth (his first performance
with her too) courted the naked danger that is particular
to the interplay of a duo. “Blackbirds” became a swampy groove,
and “Civilians,” shorn of its background vocals and other
arrangement flourishes, was formidable in its simple directness.
“Lullaby,” which has thus far appeared only on a promotional
EP four years ago, has always been a remarkable number. It
possesses an emotional wallop rare in a songwriter then barely
20 years old, and the two played it with a potency that brought
to mind Fairport Convention’s “Meet on the Ledge.” Far from
being forced reconsiderations, these were the natural responses
to finely wrought songs. The only reason this all worked is
because there are the songs to support it. Erin McKeown already
warranted our attention because of her writing. She’s now
upping the ante by exploring her identity as a performer and
arranger in bold and bracing ways.