Reviews

John Hiatt + The North Mississippi Allstars

Steven Horowitz

Funk and chicken: A Tuesday night in Utecht with John Hiatt and 1,000 friends.

John Hiatt + The North Mississippi Allstars

John Hiatt + The North Mississippi Allstars

City: Utrecht, Holland
Venue: Musikcentrum Vredenburg
Date: 2005-10-17

Utrecht, a large Dutch town, has a population of about a quarter million, including about 60,000 students. Approximately 25 miles south of Amsterdam, the city is a well known cultural center. Case in point: approximately 1,000 people turned out to see Americana artist John Hiatt and the North Mississippi Allstars on a Tuesday night. Hiatt has performed in Utrecht many times in the past 30 years -- this was just one of three Netherlands dates that he played on his recent European tour. Here, Hiatt performs at larger, classier venues and seems more appreciated than in the U.S. The Dutchmen in attendance (the crowd was overwhelmingly male) witnessed a rollicking night of Southern boogie. Hiatt and the band kept the music hoppin', literally: Hiatt would jump up and down excitedly while playing his guitar or listening to the others jam. Early in the evening Hiatt told the audience that he proposed to his girlfriend (by letter) from an Amsterdam hotel. She accepted, and since then he has been happily married. Hiatt and company then broke into the soulful love song, "Have a Little Faith in Me" from his Bring the Family CD. They followed with another old song, "Riding With the King", in which the band members improvised on a steamy instrumental riff. But for the most part, Hiatt and company performed material from their latest studio disc, Master of Disaster. This record is Hiatt's first with the North Mississippi Allstars, which consists of brothers Luther (guitar, mandolin) and Cody Dickinson (drums, samples) with bassist Chris Chew. They certainly added as much live as they do to the record. Luther frequently bopped his head up and down while strumming to his brother's fervid drumming as Chew, a big man, would raise his instrument's head high and bring it down to his waist while playing chords.


The North Mississippi Allstars
"Before you can make a record in Memphis," Hiatt explained to the crowd, "you have to get a stamp on your license plate that says you're funky enough. So we went out to Dwyer's, a local eatery where they haven't changed the grease they cook the food in since 1955, ate a big meal of chicken, and recorded this song." The musicians then broke into a rousing rendition of "Find You at Last". The band must have cleaned their plate because their version of the Hiatt original was finger lickin' good (zing). Hiatt's fingering was so intense that, as on several other songs, he had to change guitars so that his ax could be retuned -- he kept plucking the notes so hard that the strings loosened and needed to be retightened. Being in a foreign country didn't stop Hiatt from referencing his homeland. He made several unflattering comments about President George Bush and the Republican administration. Hiatt began his song about a street musician down on his luck, "Back on the Corner", with a tirade: "The Republicans have been in power since even before 1984. I have friends who have been waiting for the trickle down to happen. Bill Clinton tried, but there was little he could do. The people I know are just a couple of paychecks from being homeless. This song is for them." Despite the serious pretext, Hiatt's tune had a boisterous tone and the lyrics were laced with humor. The song's narrator may be down on his luck, but at least he's got stunning music to keep his spirits up. Hiatt and the Allstars also performed a moving version of "Cold River". The song concerns a pair of drifters who either abandon or sell their baby (the lyrics are ambiguous), because they know they would be bad parents and the child would be better off without them. Hiatt mentioned that he wrote the song while staying at a hotel in Austin, Texas and that every time he lodges at that place he feels inspired to compose a new tune. He should book reservations there more often. The Allstars used the serious narrative as an occasion to showcase their talent. Luther played the guitar line in a way that mimicked the snaky flow of the title stream while Chew's bass throbbed like the sound of water gushing over rocks. Cody's insistent cadence bounded like the vagabonds on their journey. The Dutch audience applauded loudly after every song and mostly seemed to understand Hiatt's lyrics and onstage patter. Still, there was some cultural confusion. This seemed especially evident after Hiatt and the band's ode to the classic Ford automobile, "Thunderbird". A man stood up as the song ended and shouted "Yahoo" as if the tune, narrated by a Welshman in Pennsylvania, was the tale of a cowboy in the American West.

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