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John Hiatt live in Troy, NY, May 30, 2003

I found out yesterday afternoon that John Hiatt was playing an 8:00 solo acoustic show at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. Bought two tickets at 4:45 p.m. and we were off.

You've certainly heard John Hiatt songs, but you probably (and unfortunately) didn't know they were his. Bonnie Raitt doing "Thing Called Love"; B.B. King and Eric Clapton doing "Riding with the King"; the Jeff Healey Band doing "Angel Eyes"; Three Dog Night doing "Sure As I'm Sitting Here"; just about everybody doing "Have a Little Faith in Me" . . . you get the idea. As I recall, Raitt's cover of "Thing Called Love" is pretty straightforward, though she leaves out the last verse, which is my favorite ("Before the laws of God and laws of man I take you for my wife / To love honor cherish and obey / I didn't have no plans to live this kind of life, naw / It just worked out that way"). To the extent there's a prototypical Hiatt song, "Thing Called Love" is as good as any: medium-to-fast guitar-heavy rock/folk/blues with quirky lyrics ("We can choose / you know we ain't no amoebas"). The topics can be generally separated into two categories: first-person songs about love, family, and relationships (e.g., "Thing Called Love"), and songs addressed to someone else that the narrator is observing, usually someone in a relationship with a third person (e.g., "Cry Love," "Buffalo River Home").

[ You can get a sampling of his music by trying the MP3s at Hiatt's official web site. Of the songs there as of this date, I personally like all of them but "Little Head" (in case the selection changes, the others are: "All the Lilacs in Ohio," "Crossing Muddy Waters," "Angel Eyes" (though it's weaker than the others), "Riding with the King," "Drive South," "Perfectly Good Guitar," "Tennessee Plates," "Memphis in the Meantime," "Feels Like Rain," and "Cry Love." I haven't had a chance to listen to these live versions, though. ]

I've been listening to a lot of Hiatt recently, as I've been constructing a personal-best CD for the car. Detailed comments about many of the songs will have to wait for the write-up of that CD when I finish it. I should note that with Hiatt, either I love the song or I can sit through it live but don't really want to listen to it otherwise. Also, we didn't have a copy of his latest album, Beneath this Gruff Exterior, before the show, so almost all of those were new to me.

Here's a set list with some comments.

  1. "Perfectly Good Guitar," from the album of the same title. Not my favorite Hiatt song, and really needs electric guitar: but I'd pay to own a copy of this version, because after the lines, "Now he just sits in his room all day / Whistling every note he used to play", Hiatt, yes, whistled what sounded like the entire chorus. It was very impressive.
  2. "Take It Down," from Crossing Muddy Waters. Since this was an acoustic album, the songs from it are well-suited to the format. Not a song I want to listen to every day, but it's more powerful live.
  3. "It'll Come to You," from Slow Turning. Not a song I was familiar with before.
  4. "How Bad's the Coffee," from Beneath this Gruff Exterior. Introduced by a long, amusing though unoriginal discourse on Starbucks. I thought it was too gimmicky to work for me, but the audience seemed to appreciate it.
  5. "Missing Pieces," from Beneath this Gruff Exterior. Chad tells me that someone in the audience yelled out a request for this and Hiatt re-tuned to play it (I don't recall this myself).
  6. "My Baby Blue," from Beneath this Gruff Exterior. This is the first single of this album, catchy and fun.
  7. "Crossing Muddy Waters," from the album of the same name. I was really hoping he would play this, as it's one of my favorite Hiatt songs. Heartbreakingly beautiful, simple ballad.
  8. "The Tiki Bar Is Open," from the album of the same name. High-energy, but I don't really have an emotional connection to Dale Earnhardt, which this is a tribute to.
  9. "Georgia Rae," from Slow Turning. Hiatt apparently wrote this song for his daughter, who had her birthday the day of the concert, so he played it with updates to the lyrics. Much to everyone's amusement, he couldn't remember how it started; someone in the audience yelled it out. (Happens to me all the time: I can remember the middle, but not the start.) A fun song.
  10. "Your Dad Did," from Bring the Family. Included a ten-minute digression in the middle about waiting for the Beatles to come on the Ed Sullivan show. For some reason we don't own Bring the Family and don't have a copy of this song elsewhere; I think we need to.
  11. "Is Anybody There," from Slow Turning. A ballad.
  12. "Friend of Mine," from Walk On. On the keyboard (the last one might also have been, too). I always feel kind of bad disliking songs about dead people, but this just doesn't do anything for me.
  13. "My Dog and Me," from Beneath this Gruff Exterior. A song about walking his dog. See "How Bad's the Coffee."
  14. "The River Knows Your Name," from Walk On. One of the two good songs on the album. "From the Brazos to the Wabash to the Seine / No two journeys are ever quite the same . . . "
  15. "Almost Fed Up with the Blues," from Beneath this Gruff Exterior. I really liked this song, which is summed up quite nicely by the title.
  16. I can't read my notes, but it might be "Warming Up to the Ice Age," from the album of the same name.
  17. "Cry Love," from Walk On. The other good song on the album.
  18. "Across the Borderline," which Hiatt said was maybe the first time he played it live. Co-written with Ry Cooder and Jim Dickinson for a soundtrack.
  19. A song that is brand-new and unrecorded, which could be titled "Meet Me in the Morning." Paint and love and time; I really liked it.
  20. "Tennessee Plates," from Slow Turning. A fabulous song, but unfortunately the narrative of the lyrics suffers when you skip from the first verse to the fourth, even if you do go back for the second when you realize what you've done . . . Apparently a friend gave him the punchline to this when he got stuck, which is good because it's really the only appropriate ending to that story.

Encore set:

  1. "Have a Little Faith In Me," from Bring the Family. A voice and a keyboard, that's all. There's a gospel-backed version out there, but I prefer the simple power of the original.
  2. "Buffalo River Home," from Perfectly Good Guitar. Another fabulous song, even if it also needs electric guitar.
  3. "Riding with the King," from the album of the same name. Hiatt is no B.B. King, but he did quite a creditable job with the vocals nevertheless.

The amazing thing about this concert is how it showcased the depth of Hiatt's work. We own a two-disc best-of collection (Anthology) and every album from Stolen Moments on, and there were still six songs I didn't know at all (not counting the new ones). When you've written that many songs, you're allowed to forget the words to a few, I think.

No, there wasn't as heavy a concentration of my favorite songs as I would have liked. Thanks to Hiatt's energy, enthusiasm, and talent, though, I still had a great time. He mentioned coming back to the area with a band in the summer; I'll be checking the tour schedule regularly.

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