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John Hiatt excels in solo setting

March 11, 2004|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

With pop music deep into an era of production-laden hits, it's reassuring to be reminded that the creation of great music really doesn't require anything more than a pen, a guitar and somebody who knows what to do with both.

John Hiatt is one such somebody, and the veteran singer-songwriter gave potent testimony to that point with a 2 1/4-hour, sold-out show Tuesday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano rich in the one thing all the money and overdubbing in the world can't replace: creative artistry.

His 25-song solo set included several new tunes under consideration for a solo acoustic album he's planning to put out in October, and the new material extends the remarkable quality streak he's been on in the last couple of decades.

"Wintertime Blues" is at once familiar and a departure for him, marrying the folk and blues elements that have been integral to his songwriting with a bouncy melody that sounded straight out of Tin Pan Alley, testifying to the craftsmanship that's been a hallmark of his music.

The lyric offers a humorous take on the dreariness of winter that can hit anyone living in the northern latitudes ("Four hours of daylight/ All of them gray"). His inventive wordplay cloaks the underlying message, but it's still there: We always have a choice -- to give in to despair or find a way to rise above it.

Hiatt always chooses the latter, and as he sang near the end in "Drive South": "I didn't say we wouldn't hurt anymore/ That's how you learn/ You just get burned."

The Indiana-reared, now Nashville-based musician seems most at ease in the solo setting, which allows him to move wherever his muse leads him ("I'm too old to make set lists," Hiatt, 51, told the crowd).

Chatting comfortably between songs, he also shared a long anecdote about his first exposure to black gospel music. His affinity for gospel, as well as blues, soul and R&B, came to the fore in a mini-set where he moved to piano for "Is Anybody There?," "Native Son" and his heart-wrenching ballad "When We Ran."

With feelings this close to the heart, Hiatt's performance suggested, less truly is more.

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