Better Than: Almost any other concert featuring middle-aged white guys singing the blues.
In some ways, Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt are an odd couple. Lovett sings with a wry throaty croak, whereas Hiatt favors passionate, lung-bursting howls. Hiatt writes
songs immersed in familiar Americana iconography, while Lovett tends toward stranger, more introspective narratives. Yet the two sat side-by-side last night on the stage of the Marin Center, accompanied by only their acoustic guitars and a few bottles of water.
The no-frills show began with a quick introduction of the singer-songwriters, two men with careers spanning more than three decades and which feature songs from a multitude of genres, including folk-rock, country, and blues. Lovett, dressed in a perfectly tailored, pale gray suit, and Hiatt, in a golden-colored jacket and jeans, traded a few quick quips and then got down to business.
It became quickly apparent that these two appreciate good showmanship, and can give it, even under the pressure of a bare-boned show dependent entirely upon their wit and
raw talent. After Hiatt opened with "Tennessee Plates," a down-and-out tune about a murderer who robs some banks and then ends up in jail, Lovett deadpanned that "it's a hopeful song, if I ever heard one." Lovett, much to the crowd's delight, continued in this vein by marveling how the protagonist even "learns a trade" by the end -- he makes car plates in prison.
As the show unfolded, the two took turns playing their own songs, including crowd favorites like Hiatt's "Angel Eyes" (the Jeff Healey hit) and Lovett's "If I Had a Boat." Neither ventured too deep into their respective catalogs, a disappointment, considering that their set list seemed only partially pre-planned. After a few prepared numbers, they began choosing their songs based on a lyric or feeling of a song played by the other. Twice, they accommodated song requests shouted out by audience members. The show's semi-improvisational feel added an element of anticipation, but at no time did either artist look to be trying something he hadn't played in a long time. The unplugged format allowed Hiatt to show off his quick-fingered guitar talent. Even Lovett, who admits to being more of a songwriter than a musician, impressed the audience with some fancy licks. But these acoustic performances put the songs front and center, emphasizing the wit of Lovett's lyrics. The humor in the use of the word "almost" in the line "She lies beside me almost every night/ she's no lady, she's my wife" stood out in a way that it might have otherwise not. Hiatt's lyrics also rang out with heightened effect, though in his case, this could have been equally due to his showy bellowing of them. Though a talented songwriter and musician, Hiatt too often substituted loudness for poignancy. In between songs, the men played off each other like a seasoned comic duo. Lovett, a tall Abe Lincoln-type who sat knock-kneed through most the performance, joked often but kept his personal tales to a minimum. In contrast, Hiatt told a funny yet somewhat disturbing story about a reoccurring nightmare involving a dead girl in his car trunk. It was during their inter-song banter that we got a real sense of how these guys feel about each other and toward the quality of their show. They egged each other on without going too far, and they knew how to set each other up for a good story or a funny punchline. And both men, thanks be to God, kept the pandering and corniness to a minimum. For whatever reason, it has become a pattern among some artists -- particularly those who've been around for several decades -- to put on shows that feel like little more than expensive versions of those "greatest hit"-type revues we see at theme parks. By keeping such qualities in check, Lovett and Hiatt made their show feel relevant, even vital. Clocking in at a little over two hours, the aptly titled Acoustic Evening with Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt never felt purely nostalgic. Rather, the show was a pleasant reminder that well-written songs, when played with care and respect, are timeless.
Hiatt - Tennessee Plates
Lovett - L.A. County
Hiatt - Train to Birmingham
Lovett - Her First Mistake
Hiatt - My Baby
Lovett - Nobody Knows Me
Hiatt - Crossing Muddy Waters
Lovett - Private Conversation
Hiatt - Perfectly Good Guitar
Lovett - Memphis Midnight/Memphis Morning (Eric Taylor cover)
Hiatt - Adios California (new song)
Lovett - Cover of old blues song from forthcoming album
Hiatt - Memphis in the Meantime
Lovett - North Dakota
Hiatt - Angel Eyes
Lovett - She's No Lady
Hiatt - Drive South
Lovett - Fiona
Hiatt - Like a Freight Train
Lovett - Friend of the Devil (Grateful Dead cover)
Hiatt - Thing Called Love
Lovett - If I Had a Boat
Hiatt - Have a Little Faith in Me
Lovett - My Baby Don't Tolerate