Lyle Lovett & John Hiatt The Grand 1894 Opera House, Galveston June 27, 2011
Coming soon to an Improv near you: The comedic stylings of Lyle & Hiatt!
Almost sounds like one of those old-time yukster duos, doesn't it? It certainly played out like that Monday night in The Island's Romanesque ex-movie house - Laurel & Hardy or Abbott & Costello substituting songwriting for slapstick.
The two made a natural team, Lovett taking on the role of shy and stammering yet sly and incisive inquisitor, with Hiatt as the gruff but vulnerable curmudgeon. After Hiatt opened with "Tennessee Plates," which culminates with its joyriding hero stamping out aluminum tags in Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, Lovett observed that the prison song is actually about the American Dream: "He drives off with the woman he loves... and winds up learning a trade."
"Let's see... a car song that involves criminal activity..." mused Lovett before answering with "L.A. County," his Tinseltown murder ballad co-starring a "cold steel .45."
Sandwiched around the banter and the duo's constant attempts to out-deadpan one another, then, was a good two-plus hours of some of the sharpest, most soulful songwriting of the past 25 years. The added comedic context gave the two men countless chances to illuminate their or the other's work, as when Hiatt recounted mentor and ex-bandmate Ry Cooder exclaiming "I'm playing 'Danny Boy'!" while recording the gorgeous "Lipstick Sunset," or playfully asking Lovett if "Private Conversation" was about "talking to yourself."
Lovett, for his part, was pleased as punch to be back home; Aftermath could have sworn we saw his ears redden when Hiatt hailed him as Texas' 2011 State Musician, but we can't be sure. He did pay tribute to everyone from his mother and "In My Own Mind" inspiration Uncle Calvin (who were both there) to former Channel 11 weatherman Sid Lasher, the Grand operators and citizens of Galveston for restoring the theater after Hurricane Ike, and just about everyone he ever saw at Anderson Fair; old friend and Galveston resident Denice Franke came out to help the duo cap off the evening on Lovett's "Closing Time."
A good many of Lovett's reflections came pouring out before "South Texas Girl," his melancholy waltz-time memories of riding around with his parents and handy pronunciation guide to Refugio and Palacios (featuring a cameo by Lasher). Lovett's mandolin-like strumming, about as high up on the neck of his guitar as he could go, brought the room to a church-like standstill - the recurring presence of "Mother Maria" in the song also helped - and prompted a response from Hiatt that was one of the few times neither of the two men had anything sarcastic to say.
"Just beautiful," Hiatt said, and that was all he said before shifting gears into the jaunty "Memphis In the Meantime," further endearing himself by mocking Kenny Chesney and giving a "haw-haw-haw-haw" like Billy Gibbons in "La Grange."
Lovett and Hiatt's guitar styles were as instructive and complementary as their personalities. The Texan favored finger-picking, his digits lightly dancing over the strings during "If I Had a Boat" (to name one) perhaps the way he once saw Townes Van Zandt, Eric Taylor and Mance Lipscomb do. His other hand treated the neck almost like a chessboard, setting up two or three chords in advance before that final checkmate change.
Hiatt, by contrast, worked up and down his fingerboard, digging into the marrow of his strings - possibly a product of his tutelage with Cooder - on growling Dylan/Neil Young strummers like "Perfectly Good Guitar," "Feels Like Rain" and new song "Adios to California," throwing in hard-breathing harmonica flourishes and even a little whistling. The two also battled to a virtual ragtime-blues draw, Lovett's ringing cover of William Moore's "One Way Gal" after his Anderson Fair salute offsetting Hiatt's earlier "Lincoln Town."
Despite the pair's obvious warmth and comfort with each other, though, they kept any actual musical collaboration to a minimum. Each opted for the most part to lay back and admire the other. Hiatt threw in some guitar on "Private Conversation," with Lovett reciprocating by adding vocals to "The Open Road." That was it until the very end, when Hiatt's persistent attempts to persuade Lovett to reveal just why Bonnie Raitt omitted a section of "Thing Called Love" in her hit version ("I'm just curious... It doesn't matter") were foiled at every turn and had the crowd in stitches.
Had things gone more like that, or like the extended guitar pull the subsequent "My Baby Don't Tolerate" turned into, it might have been a much different - though no doubt still enjoyable - show. As it was, Aftermath was more than satisfied with the one we got.
These days, remarked Lovett after "Private Conversation," "You can think a song and somebody can download it." Probably not songs like these.
Personal Bias: I could take this opportunity to say something catty about how no one in Houston could be bothered to book Lovett and Hiatt in the city or, conversely, couldn't afford the guarantee. But the truth is I thoroughly enjoyed the trip - not just the concert, but the company of friends and the sight of a giant pelican skimming the I-45 causeway during a stunning Gulf Coast lipstick sunset.
Overheard In the Crowd: Right after Lovett and Hiatt walked out, a man in the balcony yelled "San Marcos!" "One of us is confused," Lovett answered, drawing his first big laugh of the evening.
The Crowd: Sold out. Mature. And Aftermath isn't sure what was up with the guy hanging his sock feet over the balcony rail of one of the private boxes, but it's an image we aren't going to forget anytime soon.
Random Notebook Dump: Raitt omitted that part of "Thing Called Love" that had Hiatt so sore because it contains the words "I take you for my wife." Still, "she could have changed the gender," he groused.
Tennessee Plates (Hiatt) L.A. County (Lovett) Lincoln Town (Hiatt) In My Own Mind (Lovett) Lipstick Sunset (Hiatt) Private Conversation (Lovett) The Open Road (Hiatt) South Texas Girl (Lovett) Memphis In the Meantime (Hiatt) Her First Mistake (Lovett) Drive South (Hiatt) North Dakota (Lovett) Adios to California (Hiatt) One Way Gal (William Moore; Lovett) Perfectly Good Guitar (Hiatt) Don't Touch My Hat (Lovett) Feels Like Rain (Hiatt) If I Had a Boat (Lovett) Thing Called Love (both) My Baby Don't Tolerate (both)
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Have a Little Faith In Me (Hiatt) Closing Time (both w/Denice Franke)