Through the years with John Hiatt | AspenTimes.com
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Through the years with John Hiatt

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

John Hiatt is the do-it-all rocker.

Hiatt-penned songs have been made into hits by bluesman Buddy Guy (“Feels Like Rain”), country singer Suzy Bogguss (“Drive South”), rocker Jeff Healy (“Angel Eyes”) and Bonnie Raitt (“Thing Called Love”).

And on his own, Hiatt has made albums that ranged from the acoustic “Crossing Muddy Waters” to the electrified “Perfectly Good Guitar,” on which he was backed by some of his teenage son’s favorite hard rockers. When he found himself nearly disgusted by how serious and earnest his music was becoming, Hiatt deliberately loosened things up by releasing an album called “Little Head,” whose cover image was Hiatt’s head emerging from a zipper. After achieving some fame with his band the Goners, Hiatt went 15 years before regrouping that outfit ” and they picked up right where they had left off. Almost.

Impressively, Hiatt has navigated most every twist and turn with ease. Regardless of the backing musicians, the instrumentation, the underlying idea, Hiatt’s albums are marked by the consistency of the songwriting and the heartland passion of his voice. It adds up to one of the finer catalogues of albums in American pop music.

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Following, a look at Hiatt’s discography. (Hiatt performs a solo show at the Wheeler Opera House tonight, March 12, a benefit for Aspen Grassroots Aspen Experience.)

“Bring the Family”

1987

After struggling mightily, largely in vain, to make his name, Hiatt broke through in a big way with “Bring the Family.” The album finds Hiatt trusting his songwriting skills, and it pays off. Backed by the superstar trio of Ry Cooder, Jim Keltner and Nick Lowe, Hiatt crafted a cohesive album about home and family. Songs like “Have a Little Faith in Me” and “Thanks You Girl” celebrated domestic bliss, while “Memphis in the Meantime” celebrated another kind of love ” Hiatt’s passion for rock ‘n’ roll, a theme he would return to over and over.

“Slow Turning”

1988

Emphatically proving that “Bring the Family” was no fluke, Hiatt ditches the Cooder/Keltner/Lowe trio in favor of the Goners and doesn’t miss a beat. This is Hiatt with a Southern twist, as songs like “Drive South,” “Tennessee Plates” and “Feels Like Rain” rise to the top.

“Stolen Moments”

1990

Hiatt navigates another successful turn, bringing in a whole new set of musicians. Doesn’t matter; he’s on a roll. The tone is more meditative, with songs like “Thirty Years of Tears” and “The Rest of the Dream,” but Hiatt hasn’t grown old, as he shows with the potent “Child of the Wild Blue Yonder.”

“Perfectly Good Guitar”

1993

Intrigued by the grungy music his teenage son was listening to, Hiatt enlisted some of those players ” School of Fish guitarist Michael Ward, Wire Train drummer Brian McLeod and Faith No More’s Matt Wallace producing ” for “Perfectly Good Guitar.” Neat idea, with results to match, as Hiatt and company come off like Neil Young with Crazy Horse. It shows how adaptable Hiatt’s meat-and-potatoes songs are.

There are some great songs here, including the title track, on which Hiatt manages to sound angry and defiant, even as he decries the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll act of smashing a guitar. But topping them all is the exquisite “Buffalo River Home.” Hiatt’s made a lot of great songs, but that one’s the best.

“Hiatt Comes Alive at Budokan”

1994

It’s a joke; “Alive at Budokan” was actually recorded at various gigs across the U.S. Apart from the lack of surprises ” the song list reads like Hiatt’s greatest hits ” there’s little to quibble with as Hiatt and the Guilty Dogs burn.

“Walk On”

1995

Hiatt busts an acoustic move. David Immerglück and his array of string instruments are brought into the fold, starting with the mandolin strums that kick off the wonderful “Cry Love.” It is a great sound for Hiatt, and the songs here ” “You Must Go,” the slow and stately “The River Knows Your Name” ” are a perfect match.

“Little Head”

1997

In a 2001 Aspen Times interview, Hiatt revealed that, especially after “Walk On,” he thought his music had all become “so serious. It was, come on, lighten up a little bit.”

Hiatt lightened up by naming the album “Little Head,” and putting his own head, with a sly smile, surrounded by a massive zipper. The looseness continues with the opening title song, punctuated by a funk-guitar riff and the chorus, “I’m just so easily led/When my little head does the thinking.”

Apart from that, however, the album finds Hiatt in typical form. Among the highlights are “Pirate Radio,” another song about the glories of rock; “My Sweet Girl,” a throwback about innocent love; and the acidic “Sure Pinocchio,” about someone who has only passing acquaintance with the truth. O.J. Simpson, perhaps? It’s not his best album.

“The Best of John Hiatt”

1998

Exactly what you would expect.

“Crossing Muddy Waters”

2000

A masterpiece. About the only complaints are that it’s too short (under 40 minutes) and the marketing is misleading. (It’s not, in fact, an all-acoustic album; Hiatt added some drums and electronics in the final mixing.)

Small matters. Stripped to the strings, “Crossing Muddy Waters” allows the focus to fall completely on the songs, and they may never have been better. The title track, about a family torn apart, is somber and heart-felt. “Lift Up Every Stone” shows Hiatt treading successfully into gospel territory; “Gone” is Hiatt’s dark humor at its best.

Not that he’s asked, but I’d suggest it’s time for John to return to the acoustic format.

“The Tiki Bar Is Open”

2001

Hiatt’s reunion with his ’80s band the Goners is oddly flat, with few standout songs. The exuberance is intact on the rocker “Everybody Went Low,” and Hiatt reaches deep on “My Old Friend,” but … It’s nothing I can quite put my finger on ” are the songs becoming methodical? ” but “The Tiki Bar Is Open” just doesn’t pop. The association with producer Jay Joyce seems to be a one-time fling.

“Beneath This Gruff Exterior”

2003

Now that’s better. Recording again with the Goners ” guitarist Sonny Landreth, bassist Dave Ranson and drummer Kenneth Blevins ” “Beneath This Gruff Exterior” is a return to top form. From the first line of the opening “Uncommon Connection” ” “I do my best thinking sitting on my ass” ” Hiatt and the band chug along with purpose, one rocker after another. “My Baby Blue,” “Almost Fed Up with the Blues” and “Fly Back Home” stand out, but this is solid front to end.

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“Little Village,” 1992 ” It seems like a can’t-miss idea: reunite Hiatt with Cooder, Keltner and Lowe, and watch it fly.

Not quite. Apart from a few “Solar Sex Panel” and “She Runs Hot,” “Little Village” doesn’t take off the way it’s supposed to.

“It’ll Come to You: The Songs of John Hiatt,” 2003 ” Other artists have continually had great success covering Hiatt’s songs, and this collection hits most of the notable ones. One could hope for more surprises, like Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise handling “It’ll Come to You.”

[Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com]


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