Songwriter John Hiatt, The Goners at Lexington Opera House
On the cover of his 2008 album “Same Old Man,” John Hiatt is seen leaning against a car at dusk, staring at a skyline deliberately devoid of metropolitan detail. Thanks to the strategically positioned silhouette of a water tower for that. His wardrobe: yellow shirt, blue tie, glasses and a sharply chiseled frown. He sounds less like one of the most defended songwriters in the country and more like a hip, rural hitman.
Inside, however, as the music pours in, the real Hiatt emerges. The title tune of the album is a love song – not the kind that promotes the youthful abandonment that even then was long in his rearview mirror. It’s more of a love song for another age, that of Hiatt (56 at the time; he’ll be 70 next week). It expresses gratitude rather than desire, confession rather than intimacy, and cunning rather than innocence.
“Oh, I’m the biggest baby in the world,” Hiatt sings in a playful growl. “I know you can say a lot about this. You’re so nice, you keep it under your hat.
For nearly half a century, the sometimes dark, often whimsical and always worldly humanism of Hiatt’s songs has been taken up by legions of artists from remarkably disparate camps. A short list of those who have colored their careers with his music: Bob Dylan, BB King, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, Keith Urban, Willie Nelson, Iggy Pop, Jimmy Buffett and a few dozen others.
One of his works, a root romantic diversion called “Thing Called Love” (which taps into a much sunnier sense of expression than the more cunning “Same Old Man”) was recorded by Bonnie Raitt in 1989, sparking a mid-career business renaissance that transformed her into pop stardom. True to Hiatt’s playful form, the song rhymed “Queen of Sheeba” with “amoeba”.
But nothing beats the sound of Hiatt performing his own songs, as will be the case when he returns to Lexington for a performance on August 14 at the Opera House. Likewise, looking at his own critical and commercial breakthrough, there’s no better way to experience Hiatt in concert than with the band supporting him this weekend.
Though he’s performed at many Lexington venues over the years – from clubs to theaters to outdoor festivals – this will be his first local show with The Goners, the no-frills, roots-focused combo headed by Louisiana blues, zydeco and American guitarist Sonny Landreth. .
How important were Landreth and the Goners to Hiatt’s career? To fully understand this, you have to go back to 1987 and Hiatt’s brilliant “Bring the Family” album. It was the record that led Hiatt out of the shadows of an extremely turbulent life that included the suicides of his brother and second wife as well as a decades-long battle with alcohol and drug abuse. drugs. Embracing a faith fueled by domestic stability (he married his third and current wife Nancy in 1986), “Bring the Family” lifted the songwriter, after many major label attempts, to critical acclaim and, to a lesser extent, commercial. He also took the earthy, hard-earned romanticism of Hiatt’s music to a zenith with an all-star band that included guitarist (and former boss) Ry Cooder, bassist/veteran pop stylist Nick Lowe and drummer/ace of session announced Jim Keltner. .
While the record essentially saved Hiatt’s career from oblivion, the band were simply too high profile to stick together for a follow-up record (although the four briefly reunited in 1991 under the ensemble banner of Little Village). This is where the Goners came in.
Along with Landreth, bassist David Ranson and drummer Kenneth Blevins, Hiatt recorded a follow-up album, “Slow Turning,” in 1988. of the new record was more playful and its musical accent decidedly more southern, the latter being an attribute of Landreth’s scholarly tracks on slide guitar.
Once again, it was the artists who quickly performed the tunes of “Slow Turning” that caused the most noise. Blues giant Buddy Guy cut the reflective ‘Feels Like Rain’, dizzying outlaw ‘Tennessee Plates’ became a centerpiece of the hit film ‘Thelma & Louise’ and then-popular Nashville star Suzy Bogguss, had a No. 2 country hit with the windy getaway celebration “Drive South.” But the show-stealer would ultimately be Emmylou Harris, who years later turned Hiatt’s brilliant saga of romantic isolation “Icy Blue Heart” into a magnificent, genre-defying meditation on grief.
Hiatt would return over the next few decades to record and tour with The Goners, but neither reunion resulted in a gig in Lexington. That’s remarkable considering how many times the songwriter has performed here. For their first outing, at the long-demolished location of Breeding’s Main Street in 1990, Hiatt’s band was a more expansive-sounding rock troupe called The Fugitive Popes. Then came a 1994 headlining performance for Memorial Stakes Day at the Red Mile (which will come to life as a musical paradise next summer as the new home for Railbird) with a leaner-sounding tribe dubbed The Guilty Dogs.
Parts of this last concert have been preserved for posterity. Specifically, the lively performances of “Memphis in the Meantime” (the origin of “Bring the Family”) and “Paper Thin” (the most overtly rock entry of “Slow Turning”) from the Red Mile show are became part of Hiatt’s 1995 concert album, “Hiatt Comes to Life at Budokan.” The track was a playful nod to popular 70s live records by Peter Frampton and Cheap Trick.
Most of Hiatt’s other visits to Lexington have been as a solo acoustic artist. So how does all of this figure into this weekend’s concert, a show that serves as both a comeback and a start?
For starters, that means a setlist that will likely take a lot of inspiration from “Bring the Family” and “Slow Turning.” It’s hard to complain about this mix, other than the fact that Hiatt has since recorded dozens of remarkable albums that have been largely forgotten, even by the artist himself. A string of consistently strong recordings for the New West label culminated in wispy, bluesy climax with 2014’s “Terms of My Surrender” and again in 2021 through a spacious, drummer-less turn with dobro great (and former Lexingtonian) Jerry Douglas titled “Leftover Feelings”.
What matters most, however, is that Hiatt will be back in Lexington to deliver songs of personal rebirth, playful introspection and stark human reality with the best touring band of his long career by his side. In the best way imaginable, it will be more of the “same old” than the “Same Old Man”.
“You know, I kind of bought into the idea that writers are supposed to write about what they know,” Hiatt told me in an interview before a 2009 gig with Lyle Lovett at the Norton Center for the Danville Arts. “It’s not that I know anything about love. But I came from such desperation when I was a drug addict and an alcoholic. I was completely insane. Coming to start a family with a woman who took care of me and whom I loved…it’s a continual source of inspiration.And so that seems to be what I decided to write about.
John Hiatt and The Goners with Sonny Landreth
When: 8 p.m. August 14
Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Court.
Tickets: $45 to $65 through ticketmaster.com.