Ferocious as it is, the acoustic strumming which opens John Hiatt’s latest does not prepare for the onslaught that quickly becomes “Everybody Went Low”. The song, a poker-faced understatement from Hiatt, morphs into a full-tilt hurricane courtesy of his backing band, The Goners, with guitar master Sonny Landreth coming out of lurk mode less than half a minute into the tune. The Goners, a loose aggregation of Hiatt buds (also including David Ranson on bass and Ken Blevins on drums) recorded one of his most-beloved albums, Slow Turning, in 1988. Here they make another uncredited appearance, obviously feeling the time is right for more down and dirty rock ‘n’ roll.
Despite the return of The Goners, The Tiki Bar Is Open is no sequel to Slow Turning. There is no reprise of the adventures of “Trudy and Dave”, no teenage “Georgia Rae” and the hot subliminal sexuality of “Drive South” has been replaced by poignant tales of love won and lost. For the most part, Hiatt has stopped relating tales of society’s oddballs, instead being reflective of his own personal stories. As if an inside joke, he still references the Rolling Stones (remember “bangin’ like Charlie Watts” on “Slow Turning”) when you least expect it, and there are Beatles and Jethro Tull guideposts along the way too. Just Hiatt having fun, same as ever.
That’s not to say there isn’t adult angst aplenty because “Something Broken” with its spare piano arrangement like an unprotected heart, and “Never Get Over You” with its mournful Hawaiian feel, rank with Hiatt’s saddest pieces on the dark side of love. Just when you think The Goners are gonna pull out the stops again in the title track, it turns out to be an elegy to NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt instead of a goofy send up of bars in Daytona strip malls. Himself a racecar driver, Hiatt refers to Earnhardt as “the king” while Blevins’ simple snare keeps the beat and Ranson’s swampy bass guitar coaxes the tale along.
The centerpiece of The Tiki Bar Is Open is a powerful statement of friendship called “My Old Friend”, a song strong enough to belie its corny title. “You’ve got kids, I’ve got kids / They all wanna know, just what it was like / When we were young / I tell ‘em I’m no different now, just late for the show,” Hiatt sings, as if he’s chatting with a former flame who can still rouse feelings of nostalgia for youthful days. Ringing guitars and a soaring harmonica redeem the sentiment beautifully.
Landreth’s skills come into full play throughout but most notably on the masterful closer “Farther Stars”. The 11-minute tour de force perfectly captures the mood of a romantic Hiatt searching for answers in the night sky, as Landreth creates a galaxy of swirling fluidity on his instrument. There’s even a straight blues number, “I Know a Place”, allowing Landreth to tastefully stretch out on his guitar, while guaranteeing a slot on the current B.B. King tour. The Tiki Bar Is Open is such a departure from last year’s all-acoustic Crossing Muddy Waters that it may come as a bit of a shock to complacent Hiatt fans. It has more in common spiritually with Perfectly Good Guitar than even Slow Turning, because it rocks hard where Slow Turning casually rolled. It’s as if Hiatt is not quite ready to become a full-time blues singer, or a straight-ahead folk rocker, like many would expect him to. The tiki torch still shines.