John Hiatt, his voice like a howling wolf, his mobile face with it’s mad elf grin, his lean frame shaped at angles strutting, self-effacing humor alternating with sincere thanks, appeared Thursday night, August 30, 2018 with The Goners at The Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Illinois. Hiatt, a musical legend, an American rock guitarist, pianist and singer/songwriter, performed a wealth of acoustic guitar solos for the first hour +. After the intermission, Hiatt was joined by the band, including virtuoso slide guitarist/vocalist Sonny Landreth, bass guitarist Dave Ransom and drummer Kenneth Blevins, for another hour + of great rock/blues on the 30thanniversary tour of their 1988 release “Slow Turning”.
Among the tracks presented from that album, (all written by Hiatt, with the exception of “Tennessee Plates” composed by Hiatt and Mike Porter) were the title track, a significant radio hit; “Drive South”; “Trudy and Dave”; “Tennessee Plates”; “Georgia Rae”; “Paper Thin”; “Feels Like Rain”; “Icy Blue Heart”; and “Something Other than Now”.
Other favorites heard this night included “Cry Love”; “Real Fine Love”; “Master of Disaster”; “Aces Up Your Sleeve”; “Crossing Muddy Waters”; “Perfectly Good Guitar”; “Cry to Me”; “Memphis In the Meantime”; and “Have a Little Faith in Me”. All together, this was a thorough demonstration of Hiatt’s talents, and a celebration of his and the band’s prowess.
Hiatt, sometimes called “one of rock’s best kept secrets”, has never been a secret to his musical colleagues or to true rock and roll aficionados, over the past 4 decades. This enormously accomplished songwriter, whose works have long been covered by the likes of Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt and Roseanne Cash, produces songs with deep emotional range, over a myriad of genres, including ballads, both blues and country, through what some would call rockabilly, to hard-driving good-time rock and roll. The lyrics are wise and reflective or unashamedly about love and loss, about or for his family, or wry and funny. The music- the sound itself- is always exciting, always accessible, always transparently alive.
This evening at Ravinia, the first set comprised entirely of Hiatt’s solos allowed the audience to experience the sheer power of the whiskey-strained-through-honey voice. The love songs range in content from laments for lost love, such as the heart-wrenching “Crossing Muddy Waters”; to “Paper Thin”, the title derived from his wife’s term for his past excuses- here the songwriter lays bare his soul; to the almost unbearably erotic “Feels Like Rain”; and come full circle to “Have a Little Faith in Me”, in which he chides and reassures “The Mrs.” that he will be there if she falls.
Coupled the second half and encore by the exuberant musicianship of The Goners, the clever lyrics and vocals take on a fierce rhythmic sensibility, driven as they are by the powerful guitar, bass, and percussive accompaniment of his wildly talented Louisiana band members. In such tunes as “The Ballad of Trudy and Dave”, the tragicomic story of a couple who are “out of their minds”; the hilarious and tightly produced country rock “Tennessee Plates”; and the splendid rock/wailing “Memphis in the Meantime”, the quartet delivered the goods.
Hiatt appeared happy and relaxed, in great voice- shrieking, whistling and crooning- and playful form, equally skilled on guitar, keyboards, or with harmonica. Landreth, who must surely have been tutored by the angels of guitar, is a stunning performer. He seems to stand stock-still, but his fingers on what looks like a beaten silver encrusted Stratocaster just fly! “Slow Turning” itself, the intro to which cranked the crowd into a grateful roar, has one of the greatest musical lines ever penned, “I’m yellin’ at the kids in the back seat/’Cause they’re bangin’ like Charlie Watts”; in this terrific song, Blevins and Ransome seemed beat-driven by demons!
The audience was treated to a triple encore and also introduced to a thoughtful, soulful new piece from Hiatt’s new release, “The Eclipse Sessions”, coming this fall, on New West records. The 11-track set will be the artist’s first in 4 years and features his longtime drummer Kenneth Blevins, who set the beat at Ravinia and bassist Patrick O’Hearn. After the instant tour, Hiatt will begin touring “The Eclipse Sessions” starting October 20, 2018 at The House of Blues in New Orleans.
All photos courtesy of The Ravinia Festival