ALEXANDRIA, Va. Thank God for guitar techies. Certainly John Hiatt and the packed audience at the Birchmere should thank the man who kept the aggressive strummer's guitars in tune and strung throughout his one-man show Tuesday.
It's no small accomplishment. Unlike many singer/songwriters, Hiatt plays aggressively, approaching the acoustic guitar much as he would an electric one. And unlike many others, on Tuesday (Dec. 7) he had no trouble generating electricity with the stripped-down gear or generating laughs with his wry, off-kilter brand of humor.
"Wayne Newton is everywhere. ... He's all over the place," Hiatt said, firing off the first volley in what would become a gig-long running set of jokes and dialogue focusing on the Vegas crooner. "He was on TV the other night, playing a Ray Charles tune. ... My mind was blown."
Hiatt's appearance at the Birchmere was one in a rare string of solo performances that his label, Capitol, has declined to promote heavily, given the lack of a new record on the market. Still, two shows at $35 a ticket sold out quickly evidence of Hiatt's devoted following.
Hiatt strode onto the small stage at 8:30 p.m. Decked out in a shiny black suit, blue shirt and purple tie, he burned through a litany of hits, familiar tunes that others have made part of Americana and some strong new material.
Hiatt alternated between two custom guitars, one in standard tuning and
the other in a variety of drop-D settings tunings in which the bottom E string is dropped down a whole step to D. The drop-D, which he used for roughly half the guitar tunes, allowed Hiatt to make use of the rich bottom-end capabilities of this particular room. He used few effects with his instrumentation and only added a touch of reverb to the vocal.
Hiatt seemed at ease and appeared to be enjoying himself throughout the set. Starting out with confident readings of "Drive South," from the 1988 record Slow Turning (RealAudio excerpt of title track), and "Real Fine Love" and "Child of the Wild Blue Yonder," from 1990's Stolen Moments, Hiatt gave the crowd made up mostly of white 35- to 50-year-old couples a taste of what they'd come to hear.
He liberally seasoned the show with flavorings from the vast store of
material he's accrued throughout the 25-odd years he's been writing and
performing. In that time, his most notable work was with a rootsy unit
composed of slide guitarist Ry Cooder, bassist-vocalist Nick Lowe, and
drummer Jim Keltner on the 1987 album Bring the Family and
reincarnated in the early 1990s as Little Village, a kind of cult
Bring the Family included the track "Thing Called Love" (RealAudio excerpt), which Bonnie Raitt later covered on her 1989 album Nick of Time.
After playing some tunes he'd penned but that others had made famous, and following a new song titled "Gone," Hiatt moved over to a Roland piano for a string of numbers showcasing his soul-influenced singing.
This aspect of the show was what Lisa Albeck, who'd traveled from Baltimore, had come to hear. "I love it when he plays piano and sings," Lisa said. "I want to find a single version of him. [Hiatt is married and has two children.] He is also a guy you want to go out and have beers with."
"The version of 'Have a Little Faith in Me' (RealAudio excerpt) was worth the trip," Albeck added.
Phillippe Rosse, from Washington, appreciated the looseness Hiatt brings to a gig. "When he broke a string and forgot the words to one tune, he made it really funny, so when he got it together, the effect was great," Rosse said. "Also, it's cool that he sings differently when playing the piano than he does when playing the guitar."
By the end of the two-hour set, audience members were engaging Hiatt in banter about Wayne Newton covering his tunes and about his marriage. "You can build equity in a home, but not in a marriage," Hiatt said. "Doesn't matter about all the nice things you have done ... it's what are you doing right now!"
The show clocked in at close to two hours but went on a bit longer than was perhaps intended when a large, sweating man refused to let Hiatt leave the stage. Three encores later, Hiatt ended the show and deftly avoided the fan on his way out the door.