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Perfectly good attire: John Hiatt at the Egg. Photo by: Joe Putrock

Too Much Fun
By John Rodat

John Hiatt
The 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’ bend.

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? Pretty funny.

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.

On the Edge

Erin McKeown
Club 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 pedals.

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.

—David Greenberger

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