You might say that last night’s concert featuring Robert Cray and John Hiatt was too much and too little of a good thing — too much of the excellent Robert Cray but too little of the brilliant and dynamic John Hiatt.
The tour’s promotion suggests equality as if the show is a double billing, and indeed stage time for both performers and their bands is equally divided into two one-hour-and-fifteen-minute sets separated by an intermission when roadies strip down Cray’s slicker set-up with its elevated drum kit and replace it with Hiatt’s down home array of amps and instruments.
Nevertheless, someone has to go first, and that someone is Robert Cray. I’ve always admired Cray as a musician and ambassador for the Blues. Certainly, his eloquent guitar solos come to life with an anguish that articulates the despair inherent in the genre — the lost love, poverty, betrayal, and hopelessness that the Blues uniquely expresses. Cray’s guitar screams, moans, flashes anger — almost as if it’s on the verge of human articulation, like Benjy Compson attempting to utter the unutterable. Certainly, Cray’s performance of “Don’t You Even Care” was killer urban blues, passionate music coupled with effective imagistic lyrics that brought to life rain-slicked city sidewalks and shitty motels.
And yet, because he performed so many of the tunes in the same rather up-beat tempo and because virtually every song was about some woman who done him wrong, a sameness seeped into the set, a repetitiveness not helped by his starting each number by saying, “This next one is called [so-and-so].” Also, I found odd that he didn’t cover any blues standards but relied on his own songs, which, although certainly competent in every aspect, are by no means classics. How I would have loved to hear him cover some Willie Dixon tune like “The Same Thing” or “Spoonful.”I know this might sound demeaning — and I don’t mean it to — but Robert Cray is sort of like “The Peyton Manning of the Blues” — richly talented, technically perfect, but somehow mechanical.
Certainly, “mechanical” doesn’t describe John Hiatt, whom I’ve been following since his third album, 1979’s Slug Line, a punkish romp featuring songs like “Take Off Your Uniform” and “The Night That Kenny Died,” which features these lyrics:
It seemed so spooky that the nerd we all detested
Would die so gloriously and unexpected
A wonderful guy God knows
They kept the casket closed.
As Hiatt matured, so did his music, bolstered by recording with some of the finest studio musicians in the world including the incomparable Ry Cooder on guitars, Jim Keltner on drums, and Nick Lowe on bass.
Last night’s performance featured several of his best. He kicked off the show with “Your Dad Did,” from Bring the Family, a witty song about the frustrations of the working life, in which the hapless narrator’s “seen the old man’s ghost/Come back as creamed chipped beef on toast/Now if you don’t get your slice of the roast/ You gonna flip your lid/ Just like your dad did.” He followed that with “Detroit Made,” a paean to that classic automobile beloved of African American males, the Electra 225, better known as “a deuce and a quarter.”
In addition to a series of his most famous songs — “Perfectly Good Guitar,” “A Thing Called Love,” and “Memphis in the Mean Time,” e.g. — Hiatt included three excellent new ones from his current album, to wit, the title track “The Terms of My Surrender,” plus “Long Time Comin’,” and the haunting, country-bluesy “The Wind Don’t Have to Hurry.”
Not only was the music engaging — the Combo rocked — but Hiatt is a consummate showman with an incredibly expressive mug. As he struts loose-limbed across the stage like a modern minstrel, he grimaces, smiles, expresses disbelief, sticks out his tongue. I’d call him a kind of musical comic genius.
Then, boom. It was over.
They came out for one encore, “Have a Little Faith in Me,” and that was it.
My son Ned commented as we were leaving that he now had a better appreciation for Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Hiatt’s hour-and-a-quarter had been much shorter than Robert Cray’s.