Wednesday, January 15, 2014
State Theatre, Portland, Maine
My college classmate and teacher friend, the extraordinary Ken Templeton, wrote a beautiful recap of the Lone Bellow/Aoife O’Donovan show we saw together back in November. He caught the concert writing bug, so here’s what Ken had to say about the Lyle Lovett/John Hiatt show he saw last month at the State Theatre in Portland. I didn’t make it out for the show, so consider this the first official post on whatbreedidntsee.com! Thanks, Ken!
Wow. As the steady bass line of “Walk on the Wild Side” rolled through Merrill Auditorium, the crowd in Portland left the Lyle Lovett/John Hiatt concert grinning. To a person, grinning. I don’t think it was just that the music was great or that they played literally every single song requested from shouts by audience members. Their performance was humble and sincere and, moreover, it really did feel like they wanted you there with them. Now, if that was an act, it was pretty convincing. I am choosing, in my elated state, to believe that these two giant musicians really did want me there.
They came on stage, Lyle wearing a lobster bib, winning over the crowd immediately. (This reminded me, oddly, of seeing Wyclef at Bates many years ago when he strolled onstage in a hooded sweatshirt and when he turned to the crowd, it was a Bates sweatshirt.)
It started with John playing “Real Fine Love” and Lyle joining him on the last chorus. Throughout the show, each of them talked about the other’s songs. Lyle said, “That’s a very positive song,” to which John replied that he is a “glass half empty” kind of guy, so he writes positive songs to compensate. Lyle kind of smirked and said he’d play a happy song too, and led of his selections with “She’s No Lady (She’s My Wife).” John took his first of many solos over Lyle’s chopping, rhythmic chords. It’s a funny, catchy tune, if you don’t know it. The best verse has to be: “The preacher asked her, and she said “I do.” / The preacher asked me. She said, “He does too.” / The preacher said, “I pronounce you 99 to life.” / Son, she’s no lady, she’s your wife.”
The two of them are so different, but they complement each other so well. Hiatt is often gritty, his raspy voice echoing the sentiment of his songs while Lyle’s unique, smooth vocals often belie the sentiment of his own. A good example about that sleight of hand: after Hiatt played “Tennessee Plates,” and a little banter about stealing cars, Lyle played “L.A. County,” an uptempo, really fun song about driving for miles to kill the woman you love and the man she’s marrying. The chorus for that song is that: “And the lights of L.A. County / Look like diamonds in the sky / When you’re driving through the hours / With an old friend at your side.” The old friend is a Colt 45.
One of the highlights for me was hearing Lyle and John talk about Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, two giants of blues music in the 1960s and 1970s. Lyle talked about being told to buy their album and immediately being drawn to the song “White Boy Lost in the Blues,” which he finally recorded on his last album. Lyle mentioned that Michael Franks wrote the song. (He also wrote “You Bring Out the Boogie in Me,” also on that album Sonny & Brownie, with a stride piano rhythm that you cannot help but dance to.) As an aside from the concert, that album, Sonny and Brownie, is absolutely spectacular. Their version, with John Mayall, the British blues musician who must have been in awe to play with two of his heroes. It’s a really funny song about authenticity: “You bought your six-string Gibson. / You bought a great big amp. / You try to sing like Muddy Waters / And play like Lightnin’ Sam. / But since I blowed my harp / You feelin’ mean and confused. / We got you chained to your earphones / You’re just a white boy lost in the blues.” There is so much in this song. Not the least is that white musicians–particularly in Britain–were in awe of blues kings like Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Sam Hopkins, but there is so much more than buying a fancy guitar, an amp, and then trying to mimic. And the reason that Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt can play the song and pull it off is that they are both authentic and keenly aware of their indebtedness to musicians in general, and African-American blues artists in particular, for the music they play.
At one point in the show, Lyle talked about seeing John play for the first time in 1981. Lyle didn’t record an album until 5 years later, so he saw John as “a fan.” He specifically referenced, “those of you who are musicians in the audience,” and commented on how special it is for musicians to meet and play with their heroes. I think it was that sense of identification that drew me in–the idea that these guys, who play beautifully, are both Grammy nominees (Lyle’s won a few), and who are heroes–haven’t forgotten what it feels like to be a fan. You could see it in the way they watched and listened to each other, joined in on some songs together, and talked about other musicians. There was genuine humility.
I was amazed, truly amazed, at their willingness to take requests. After six songs or so, most of the rest of the set was dictated by the audience. Someone asked Hiatt to do “My Business,” a song he agreed to do but couldn’t remember all the lyrics. Then “This Old Porch” a tune Lyle wrote with Robert Earl Keen: “This old porch is just a long time / Of waiting and forgetting / And remembering the coming back / And not crying about the leaving. / And remembering the falling down / And the laughter of the curse of luck / From all of those sons-of-bitches / Who said we’d never get back up.” It was great – as most of the requests were. A woman asked Hiatt to do “Have a Little Faith in Me,” a song I assume he would have played anyway, but it was, again, stunning to me how responsive the two of them were. In several cases, they had tuned and set the capo and were ready to play when someone shouted out a song, and they just said, “Sure,” or “Yeah, I can do that one,” and re-tuned. Crazy. “Have a Little Faith in Me” was magical. It is a classic song and the audience was quite simply rapt. “If I Had a Boat” was another request, and another highlight. Huge applause from the crowd at the ultimate line in that song: “The mystery masked was smart / And got himself a Tonto. / Cause Tonto did the dirty work for free. / But Tonto he was smarter, / Said one day “Kimosabe, / Kiss my ass, I bought a boat, / I’m going out to sea.”
It really was one after another. “Fiona,” was a blast, and led to a great story of them playing that song only to have an audience member get their attention during the song by taking out his glass eye and showing it to them. At the time, Lyle wasn’t sure if John had seen this happen, because Hiatt was just “looking straight ahead, playing the song.” But John said he had seen it but knew if he’d looked at Lyle, he would have “fallen off my chair” laughing. It was another instance of being drawn-in. We all know that feeling, and it is most common among friends – those people we communicate with through looks and body language and inside jokes and knowing looks.
Their conversation about “Fiona” was also a riot. It went something like this:
John: “That’s such a visual song.”
Lyle: [looking at Hiatt] “…”
John: “I mean, the bayou…and Fiona.”
John: “And her long hair.”
John: “And I picture her with, you know, one eye.”
Lyle: [looks at the crowd] “…”
John: “Not like [covers one of his eyes], you know. …Like one…big…eye.”
Lyle: “… You’re a good friend.”
The set capped with “Are You Ready for a Thing Called Love,” the only true duet in the set and highlighted the wonderful way that rasp and lilt of their two distinct voices intermingled and then “Step Into This House,” a song Lyle credited to Guy Clark, one of their songwriting friends who, apparently, has fallen ill. What a gorgeous end to their set: Here’s a book of poems was given me / By a girl I used to know / I guess I read it front to back / Fifty times or so / It’s all about the good life / And stayin’ at ease with the world / It’s funny how I love that book / And I never loved that girl. / Step inside my house, girl / I’ll sing for you a song. / I’ll tell you ’bout where I’ve been. / It wouldn’t take too long. / I’ll show you all the things that I own, / My treasures, you might say. / Couldn’t be more’n ten dollars worth / But they brighten up my day.”
They skipped off stage to raucous, grateful applause and came back for two more tunes. John picked up his other guitar, a worn, scuffed Gibson, and ripped “Memphis in the Meantime.” Lyle ended with “My Baby Don’t Tolerate,” which, given the extensive discussion and references to the blues, was a pretty perfect end to an amazing, amazing night. As one of the audience members called out: “Thank you, John. Thank you, Lyle.” John smiled, and said, “You bet.”