At the State Theatre on Monday night, John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett made fans’ dreams come true—not once, not twice, but three times. Surely it was a dream come true for many audience members just to see the two performers on stage together, but more specifically, the two actually took shouted requests—promptly.
Fan, screaming: “Lipstick Sunset!”
John Hiatt, smiling: “Okay, sure!” Bam.
Besides their wry sense of humor, their generous spirit as performers, and their loving but iconoclastic approach to country music, Hiatt and Lovett also have in common that each has a woman to thank (or curse) for a good chunk of his fame. Hiatt’s breakthough from journeyman singer-songwriter to outright star climaxed with Bonnie Raitt’s 1989 hit cover of his song “Thing Called Love”; among the majority of people who don’t spend much time listening to alternative country music, Lovett is best known for his 1993-95 marriage to Julia Roberts. At this point in their multi-decade careers (Lovett is 53; Hiatt, 58), neither man has anything to prove to anyone except himself and, maybe, God.
On their current tour, the two share a stage and take turns playing their songs, each occasionally filling in with a guitar solo or backing vocals on a song played by the other. There’s plenty of banter; the way that Lovett left long, humorously awkward silences on his end of the conversation reminded me of David Byrne’s late-90s stint hosting Sessions at West 54th. (Byrne was succeeded by Hiatt.) Lovett’s strategy is to let the verbose Hiatt talk himself into a corner or a pause, then drop a dry quip. Example: Hiatt apologizes to the audience for stopping a song to tune his guitar. Pause. Lovett: “We all appreciate it.”
Both performers were visibly relaxed, and so was the audience: the few shouted requests the performers granted were, astonishingly, the only ones I heard all night. The sold-out crowd respected the silences and respected the performers, trusting that anything they played would be satisfying. Though I’m a longtime fan of both Hiatt and Lovett, I was among those who was surprised at just how satisfying the evening was: a thoughtful tour through a pair of complementary songbooks.
Over the course of his career Hiatt has been more prolific and less consistent than Lovett, and he has a frustrating taste for nauseatingly bland overproduction. My favorite among his albums is the spare, forceful Crossing Muddy Waters (2000), and the acoustic format of Monday’s performance put his strong songs and remarkably expressive voice squarely in the spotlight. When he unleashed some all-out gospel blues pleading in “Have a Little Faith in Me,” I got chills, and I don’t even really like that song. The woman next to me, who does like that song (and who may or may not have been our photographer), was moved to tears. Hiatt also dropped some tasty guitar solos into his own songs and Lovett’s; when Hiatt looked soulfully skyward during one solo, Lovett got a laugh by looking up as well, as though trying to figure out what was going on up there in the eaves.
Lovett’s songs are—like his stage banter—more spacious than Hiatt’s, and on Monday night he played two of the most spacious: “Pontiac” and “North Dakota,” songs so sparse they’re hardly even there. He also played chugging versions of several uptempo favorites, including “Private Conversation” and “Fiona” from 1996’s sublime The Road to Ensenada. Lovett’s stripped-down performance of the powerful murder ballad “L.A. County” was among the evening’s many demonstrations of the fact that both Lovett and Hiatt share with Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and a precious few others that rare gift of effectively inventive phrasing—being able to deliver a lyric in a way that’s completely unexpected, but somehow just perfect.
Characteristically, the two outwardly modest (inwardly, I suspect otherwise) performers declined to slap their joint tour with the label of “a very special evening with” John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett. In point of fact, though, it was indeed a very special evening with these two great American journeymen.
above: John Hiatt
above: Lyle Lovett