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Pop : John Hiatt, Dogs Deliver a No-Frills Rock Concert

April 04, 1994|CHRIS WILLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If all John Hiatt did was toil over a hot note pad as a full-time tunesmith, you might have to rank him one of the more considerable talents in American rock.

But he's got the chops to deliver his own emotive material better than any of his many interpreters. And now, finally, in the form of the Guilty Dogs, he can claim a steamy little backup band that makes his deceptively simple, effortless-sounding songwriting sound like hard work all over again.

Hiatt and company began touring behind his "Perfectly Good Guitar" album seven months ago at the Roxy and ended a major leg of the extended road stint on Friday at the Wiltern.

The flesh was occasionally weak--more than half a year later, Hiatt couldn't quite hit all the notes he strived for--but the spirit was more than willing enough in a generous two-hour show that emphasized the traditional values of no-frills quartet rock 'n' roll.

Other values were also at work, given the number of songs in his catalogue that mention the wife and kids.

Part of Hiatt's appeal is that he's as close a cross as rock is likely to come between Mick Jagger, Ray Charles and Robert Young, combining a time-tested, slurred-vowel cockiness with the warmth, assurance and manageable anxiety of home.

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If anything, Hiatt's been in danger of getting too cozy in recent years, with his agreeable, jes'-folks persona perhaps undercutting more serious inclinations. But "Perfectly Good" provided a good, restless pinch of the middle-aged crazy, and the Wiltern show had the proverbial fire in the belly, with homespun anecdotes playing second fiddle to Mike Ward's heavy, anchoring guitar leads.

Solo turns with "Icy Blue Heart" and "Have a Little Faith in Me" justified the "an evening with" billing, but this was basically a band show, pushed and bruised by Hiatt's best cadre of players (not counting Little Village) since his quasi-new-wave days a decade and a half ago.

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