Veteran singer-songwriter John Hiatts latest studio effort, The Open Road, had been out in stores a mere 10 days when Hiatt and his band, The Combo, took the stage at Pittsburghs Carnegie Library Music Hall on Friday evening. Part of Hiatts appeal is that he records nearly as rigorously as he tours, meaning almost every tour features new material for his loyal fan base. Anxious to hear both old favorites and brand-new songs in action, a mixed crowd of a thousand or so eagerly packed the historic music hall adjacent to Pittsburghs Waterfront.
Opening the evening with a brief but enjoyable acoustic set was Holly Williams, the granddaughter of country legend Hank Williams. While Williams strikingly good looks were, admittedly, what first caught this reviewers attention, she soon proved that she had inherited the Williams songwriting genes in full. Williams played a handful of thoughtful, autobiographical songs, the most stirring of which reflected upon her sisters recovery from a near-fatal car accident in 2006. However, the highlight of her set was Mama, a painful thank you from Williams to her mother for keeping love in the family while working through a difficult divorce with Williams’ father, Hank Williams Jr. Incidentally, Friday was Williams 29th birthday, and the crowd, let on to the fact, closed the set for her with a surprisingly on-key Happy Birthday to You.
No two John Hiatt shows are ever quite alike, so while roadies readied the stage, the curious audience could be heard discussing just what type of show was likely to take place. Last time through Pittsburgh, Hiatt shared a stage with his good friend Lyle Lovett for an old-fashioned evening of swapping stories and trading songs on acoustic guitars. On Friday night, though, Hiatt and The Combo came out in country-garage-band form, playing a two-hour set that featured some of Hiatts best work backed by some serious guitar muscle.
Hiatts set drew from all corners of his vast catalog. Master of Disaster, one of Hiatts best songs of recent years, set the tone early on for a night of unabashed rock and roll and guitar-slinging fun. Steady rockers like Drive South and Buffalo River Home sounded as bright and refreshing as ever. With visible gusto, The Combo turned up the dial on Memphis in the Meantime and Tennessee Plates, making them into even wilder romps than usual. When Hiatt sensed that the crowd and band needed a moment to breath, he turned to more subtle songs like the gorgeous, acoustic Crossing Muddy Waters and the poignant ballad Feels Like Rain. But make no mistake, the night belonged to the songs that rocked the hardest. The grunge-like Perfectly Good Guitar, which Hiatt introduced as a song about how we hurt the ones we love, called out guitar smashers in a face-melting language they could understand. Riding with the King, the first song of Hiatts encore, turned into an extended jam that brought the entire hall to its feet. It really doesnt get much better than Hiatt proclaiming, I had a guitar hangin just about waist high/And Im gonna play that thing til the day I die.
Surprisingly, only four songs from The Open Road made it into the show. The albums title track, which Hiatt had played the night before on David Letterman, was absolutely blistering and added welcome bite to the recorded version. The other new song that shined live was Like a Freight Train. Hiatt turned the slow number into an epic blues jam that highlighted the abundant talents of his three bandmates.
But the music is only part of the John Hiatt experience. If there is an artist alive who has more fun on stage and appreciates his audience more than Hiatt, I have yet to come across him or her. Performing is pure joy for Hiatt, and his classic mannerismsthe bug-eyed eyebrow raise, the cringing guitar face, and the silly dances across stageperfectly conveyed his infectious delight to the crowd. Between songs, Hiatt was happy to exchange words with the audience and entertain everyone with stories about toilet paper wars with his wife and his old habit of mixing peanuts with RC Cola. Hiatt didnt even mind playing the role of jukebox for his fans. Shout em out. If we know em, well play em, Hiatt told the crowd. He ended up playing Ethylene and Cry Love upon request, two fan favorites that rounded out the set perfectly. After the show ended, Hiatt and The Combo even hung around for a meet and greet with fans.
The lucky folks in attendance Friday night witnessed one of Americas best songwriters and performers demonstrating that he can still bring it after all these years. As always, watching Hiatt run through his arsenal of ageless songs and showcase his unique brand of country rock was a true pleasure. But Im sure if you asked Hiatt, hed probably tell you the pleasure was all his.