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Using Youth to Narrow the Age Gap : Fortysomething John Hiatt fronts band of 'noisy youngsters' in a Coach House show to give his music, image a raucous edge.

September 09, 1993|MIKE BOEHM

Why should Neil Young get to grab all the ragged glory?

John Hiatt is another excellent singer-songwriter who hasn't let turning 40 keep him from playing it rough, raucous and revved. While Young has had many more years of practice at being gloriously ragged with his throbbing garage band, Crazy Horse, Hiatt certainly seemed at home with the concept Tuesday night at the Coach House, fronting a new band that leaked enough aural grease and spewed enough noisy feedback to frequently put a listener in mind of ol' Neil.

For several years now, Young has taken to jamming with upstarts like Pearl Jam and enlisting youthful bands like Blind Melon and Social Distortion as opening acts (a role they'll both play for Young tonight at the Pacific Amphitheatre).

Hiatt, 41, is going him one better.

On his strong new album, "Perfectly Good Guitar," and in his new stage band, he surrounds himself with players about 10 to 20 years his junior. Keeping the accent on newness, Hiatt front-loaded his two-hour set with song after song from the new album, keeping guaranteed crowd-pleasers from his catalogue mainly for the end.

If nothing else, Hiatt is sponsoring a display of intergenerational cooperation at a time when Generation Xers, or whatever unwieldy name is being applied to folks in their 20s these days, supposedly have little love for the supposedly more-privileged Baby Boomers (whose advantages include a generational code name that makes sense, alluding as it does to a historic fact).

But Hiatt hardly fits the stereotype of a mellowing, cocooning, young-not-much-longer professional. The Indiana-born, Nashville-based singer-songwriter has that lean-and-hungry look; his dark brows bat with nervous animation while he performs, and his voice rises readily to a coyote howl.

He's not a member of the gaudily wealthy pop elite, either. While he has a cult following large enough to have packed the 500-seat San Juan Capistrano club, Hiatt's commercial results never have been commensurate with the quality of a recording output that dates back to 1974; his songs have reached a mass audience only when done by such better-positioned performers as Bonnie Raitt ("Thing Called Love"), the Jeff Healey Band ("Angel Eyes") and Rosanne Cash ("The Way We Make a Broken Heart").

At the same time, the band that he jokingly introduced as "the lads" and later dubbed "the noisy youngsters," isn't exactly a crew of Seattle grunge merchants.

Bassist Davey Faragher and drummer Michael Urbano were last seen hereabouts 10 months ago anchoring a delightfully brash, roughhouse set by their former band, Cracker, an outfit that had a lot more in common with the Rolling Stones circa "Sticky Fingers" and "Exile on Main Street" than with anything a Lollapalooza band would favor.

And lead guitarist Michael Ward, the stage band's lone holdover from the "Perfectly Good Guitar" recording lineup, hails from School of Fish, a Los Angeles band steeped in Beatles influences.

They were noisy, though, and they looked sort of grungy. One way for a middle-aged guy with a slightly elevated hairline to feel a little younger is to flank himself with two young fellows with heads as bald as a Buddhist monk.

Both Ward and rhythm guitarist Corky James looked pretty hard core with their shaven scalps. Faragher shaved only the sides of his head, reserving the top for tightly wound, dreadlock-style braids. He did wear pants and a shirt, however, unlike his last Coach House appearance with Cracker, when he wore quite a lovely ensemble of ladies' sheer hose and a glittering green mini-dress.

The look may have been puzzling for a predominantly Boomer-vintage audience accustomed to Hiatt's less exotic sidemen of the past. But the sound clearly made sense.

The fans responded enthusiastically to songs that few could have heard before, since Hiatt's new album had just come out on Tuesday.

There was nothing foreign in those songs. Strains of Neil Young & Crazy Horse came through frequently, thanks to Ward's thick but consistently melodic guitar tone.

It would be asking too much to expect Hiatt's newly formed troupe to have that special quality Young has with Crazy Horse, where all four players seem to be swinging a sledgehammer as one. Hiatt's players were self-contained, and seemed reluctant to draw too close to their leader.

Ward was all tight-lipped, craggy-faced concentration as he tossed out throbbing licks and feedback punctuation. He also showed a sweeter, more controlled side in moments like his weeping slide-guitar solo during "Lipstick Sunset," a melancholy ballad that was one of the familiar songs Hiatt saved for the end.


But the band never seemed cowed or tentative, and Hiatt was pleased enough with the action to feign heart palpitations at several junctures. At the end of a pounding "Thank You Girl," he leaped to the drum riser and summoned one last crashing beat by banging the platform like a boxing referee counting off a knockout.

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