(Note to the Reader: For this installment of City Sound Inertia, we welcome back guest reviewer Bob Meline! A finish carpenter by trade, longtime music fan, and secretly, a solid bass player, he’s also my dad—and one of the greatest guys I know.)
With props to Philly’s Billy Paul, John Hiatt and Sonoma County have a thing going on. The Mystic Theatre is a regular stop on Hiatt’s tour schedule and it’s definitely a two way street when it comes to this thing. Sonoma County loves him—his shows always sell out early, whether he’s performing solo or with his endless array of kick-ass bands—and Hiatt always returns the favor tenfold with nothing less than stellar shows taken from some 30 years of some of the best songwriting ever offered.
Touring in support of his latest release, Same Old Man, Hiatt’s performance Thursday night was counter indicative that the title might be autobiographical. After a few listens through his new offering, the album’s writing isn’t nearly as strong as some of his recent work and the vocals at times seem to be even more rough around the edges that fans are used to. But Hiatt was in prime form at the Mystic, his voice as clear and strong as ever while changing tempos, reworking lyrics, extending solos and exercising his endless array of facial gymnastics—definitely not acting like the same old man.
He opened the set to a thunderous ovation with a strong, determined, version of “Perfectly Good Guitar.” From the onset, he seemed to be a man happy in his own skin, extremely comfortable on stage and genuinely appreciative, if not somewhat surprised, at the raucous support of the Mystic audience. At the conclusion of the song, he spread his arms in his first of many acknowledgments of his band, the Ageless Beauties: “It’s great to be back in Petaluma at the Mystic Theatre“, he drawled, “where much mysticality always takes place.”
The band then went into a trifecta of tunes from the new album, “Old Days,” “On With You” and “Love You Again,” creating a feel that was much more fresh and lively than the studio versions.
The intro to “Cry Love” was the beginning of an amazing night of guitar work from guitarist Doug Lancio, providing a soaring, ethereal, heavenly feel that complimented the tunes’ references to “the tears of an angel.” Lancio, who has worked with the likes of Nanci Griffith, Patty Griffin, Steve Earle and Todd Snider, is the latest guitarist to work with Hiatt, who seems to have a certain magnet that attracts extremely accomplished but sometimes underrated musicians.
Born in Nashville and introduced by Hiatt as one of the original “thirteen hundred and fifty two guitar pickers from Nashville,” Lancio worked through the evening with an array of electric and acoustic guitars, a dobro and a mandolin, effortlessly providing the perfect feel to Hiatt’s tunes.
The band continued nonstop through a number of Hiatt’s classics, “Walk On,” a hard driving “Master of Disaster,” “Crossing Muddy Waters,” and the always hot and greasy “Drive South,” a terrific character study of two young lovers trying to make it work.
One would not expect a songwriter who recently received the Americana Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting to have the cojones to start a tune with “Well, I’m sitting on the toilet with my sunglasses on / Wondering what you are up to,” but there’s probably no more fitting intro possible to “Ethylene,” a rare gem that Hiatt pulled out of his big ol’ box of songs as a gift to the audience. Hiatt expounded on Ethylene herself after the song, letting everybody know they could find her at a diner in east Tennessee, where they have the best bologna and cheese on white bread sandwiches anywhere—because they slice the bologna fresh right in front of you. And with a can of Diet-Rite cola and a bag of peanuts for dessert (dropped into the can, of course), well, there you are. It was a nice peek into the window of Hiatt’s oft-times offbeat songwriting brain.
The Ageless Beauties expertly transformed the classic “Memphis in the Meantime” from a catchy country rock feel to a full-bore rock and roll number. The two other Beauties, bassist Patrick O’Hearn and drummer Kenny Blevins, provided a solid rhythm section, albeit at times Blevins’ drums seemed to be a bit loud for some of the softer songs. O’Hearn filled the bottom end working from standup, acoustic and electric bass.
Hiatt rounded out the evening touching all the bases—the crowd pleasing “Tennessee Plates” (introduced as “a song about grand theft auto“), “Paper Thin,” “Slow Turning” (with a modified monologue and homage paid to the younger vote: “It’s their time now”), “Feels Like Rain,” and an extended “Ridin’ With the King,” giving Lancio the front and center one more time.
The band encored with—what else?—“Thing Called Love,” wherein Hiatt again gave Bonnie Raitt her due for both her having made the song as popular as it is and, as a very nice side benefit, having helped to put a couple of his kids through college. A keyboardless “Have a Little Faith in Me” closed the show.
Throughout the night, Hiatt was as appreciative of his audience as they were of him. During his encore, he thanked the audience again for coming, noting that it was especially appreciated “during these hard economic times.” And with the trademark ear-to-ear Hiatt grin, he promised that he’d be doing this as long as he was able—even if, he joked to the crowd, it reached the point where he’d have to arrive onstage on a motorized mobility scooter.
It looks like this “thing” may be going on for a long time.
— Robert Meline
Tags: John Hiatt, Mystic Theatre, Petaluma, Review