He Writes the Songs Print
Music - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 26 March 2002 18:00
Even though it’s been without vast amounts of fame or fortune, the career of John Hiatt has had an arc that many musicians would envy. The singer-songwriter has hopped from label to label and style to style, garnered heaps of respect and a bunch or royalties when other artists cover his songs (which happens a lot), and generally gets to do what he wants without the weight of public expectation.

The result has been a distinguished but somewhat anonymous career that has included more hits and attention for others than for Hiatt himself. Bonnie Raitt’s hit “Thing Called Love”? Hiatt wrote it, along with tracks that have been recorded by everybody from Paula Abdul to Bob Dylan, from Iggy Pop to Jewel, and from Joan Baez to Eric Clapton & B.B. King. The cliché about Hiatt is that you might not have heard of him, but you’ve heard his work.

Hiatt will show his softer side on Tuesday with a 7:30 p.m. solo acoustic show at the Adler Theatre, and if you’re interested in one of the most acclaimed American songwriters of the past 30 years, this is a perfect opportunity to see him in an intimate setting.

For a preview, you’d do well to check out his Grammy-nominated, all-acoustic 2000 album Crossing Muddy Waters. But you really can’t go wrong with anything in Hiatt’s recent catalog, because – although he’s capable of rocking out – his polished records of the past 20 years are almost always a balanced blend of pop, rock, country, and folk influences. (There was a period when Hiatt fancied himself akin to Elvis Costello, but that time has thankfully passed.)

It’s a shame that Hiatt hasn’t achieved greater fame as a performer in his career, because he has a warm and engaging presence, his voice is expressive, his phrasing and arrangements nearly always sparkle, and as a bandleader he knows how to pick his backing musicians.

But it’s also not too much of a surprise that Hiatt has remained more a hard-working journeyman than a star. His voice – weathered, with both croak and twang and without much range – takes some getting used to and lacks a certain finesse, and he falls into that vague “singer-songwriter” category reserved for those who can’t stick to a single idiom. (In a world with more justice, one would expect Hiatt to have as much success as fellow Indiana native John Mellencamp, who’s at least as vocally challenged as Hiatt.)

Hiatt’s recording career began in 1974 and has included 16 albums of original material to date. The latest is The Tiki Bar Is Open, which had the misfortune of being released last year on September 11. The record – like 1993’s Perfectly Good Guitar and the high-energy live album Hiatt Comes Alive at Budokan? from 1994 – shows that Hiatt can let loose with the best of them.

But those records are aberrations. (Perfectly Good Guitar, Hiatt has said, was made to show his son that pops could keep up with the punks of grunge.) For a better sense of Hiatt’s work, start with the second disc of the career-spanning, 40-track Anthology, released last year on the Hip-O label.

That compilation offers ample evidence of both Hiatt’s songwriting and performing gifts. He provides other artists with all they need – the lyrics and the hooks – but he also adds his own special polish.

Tickets for John Hiatt are $23 and $26 and available by calling (563)326-1111 or by visiting Ticketmaster outlets or the Adler Theatre/RiverCenter box office. Tim Easton opens.
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