‘m not thinking ahead / I’m just getting there / And if you want / You can help me steer”, states John Hiatt matter-of-factly during an early cut from his latest release, The Tiki Bar is Open.
But if anyone is doing the steering these days after a storied and sometime tragic twenty-seven year career, it is Hiatt himself. He recorded the majority of Tiki Bar just before breaking from his former label Capitol Records; the unfinished masters lay dormant for nearly a year. In the meantime, Hiatt ventured into the indie wilderness with his critically acclaimed acoustic outing Crossing Muddy Waters. After the dust finally settled at Capitol, Hiatt not only retained ownership to his unfinished work but also had the means to release it.
That The Tiki Bar is Open represents a reunion of sorts for Hiatt and his former backing band, the Goners, lends another layer of veracity to the mix and bring out the best of Hiatt’s profound songwriting gifts. His latest creations range from the brutally honest autobiography of “Something Broken” to the giddy nostalgia of “My Old Friend”, which uses fleeting references to rusted cars, old guitars, and Neil Young to paint colorful swaths of sentimentality.
There is little doubt that Hiatt’s reputation as the singer-songwriter’s singer/songwriter precedes him: Bonnie Raitt, Jewel and Bob Dylan have all covered his work. But as Hiatt sings in “Fallen Stars”, Tiki Bar‘s final track, there are “still so many things left to say”.
Hiatt’s appearance with the Goners at the Madrid Theatre in Kansas City, Missouri, was a commanding declaration of what he has already said. Tearing through 17 songs in just under two hours, he engaged the crowd and at times danced giddily in front of the mike. With the solid rhythmic backing of bassist David Ranson and drummer Kenneth Blevins along with the sublime guitar talents of Sonny Landreth, the reason for Hiatt’s confidence and comfort on stage is clear. The repertoire teetered between his 1988 release Slow Turning, his first collaboration with his current crew, and this year’s Tiki Bar.
Hiatt lead early on with “All the Lilacs in Ohio”, with his frantic harmonica opening, and the blues-drenched “I Know a Place”, before launching into Slow Turning‘s title track, complete with the obligatory mid-song “driving with my girlfriend to the show” schtick. The driving rock that characterizes Hiatt’s work with the Goners never strayed far from their Louisiana blues roots. Fueled by Sonny Landreth’s slicing slide guitar work and slowly intensifying mid-set with “Drive South” and a swaggering “Cry Love”, Hiatt hit full stride with “Memphis in the Meantime” and “Ridin’ with the King”.
Coming back to the stage for the first of three encores, Hiatt offered up a prayerful piano solo version of “Have a Little Faith in Me” and the raucous, juke-joint stomp of “Thing Called Love”. The odd finale was the psychedelically laced “Fallen Stars”, which blossomed into the same “Tomorrow Never Knows” inspired trippiness of the album cut.
The crowning moment of the evening, however, was its final one: a faithful cover of George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun”, dedicated to the creative spirit of the former Beatle who had passed away only two days prior. “God bless you George”, said Hiatt with his smiling face turned skywards. “Thanks for all the music”.
Meanwhile, the audience offered their thanks to Hiatt for the same reason.