TVD Live: John Hiatt at the Birchmere, 4/26

PHOTO: MICHAEL WILSON | Salutes since the death of Prince last week by way of heartfelt covers have come so far from artists as wide-ranging as Beyonce, Chris Stapleton, D’Angelo, Beyonce, Bruce Springsteen, and the casts of a couple Broadway shows. Tuesday, John Hiatt found way to tip his hat in respect as well in a manner that came more natural than expected.

Stopping for the first of two nights at the Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, Hiatt was continuing an extended solo acoustic tour—the kind of thing that allows an artist to drift to inspirations as his muse leads him without checking with the band first. It let him shift very naturally from a typically stirring “Cry Love” into Prince’s “When Doves Cry.”

It was only a chorus, but the intent was clear, as it was in the song that followed, a typically contemplative “Feels Like Rain” that changed hues gradually to allow a chorus of “Purple Rain.” It showed both the versatility of the lanky longtime songwriter and the depth of his own satchel of songs that could allow such connections.

And maybe, too, he had in mind the mortality of the traveling musician, as he began his encore with a not yet recorded song “I Can’t Go,” about a long-traveling troubadour who is about to give up the ghost at showtime. Its chorus: “Come and get me Jesus, I can’t go.”

Hiatt presents himself as a kind of grizzled troubadour, even if he isn’t intended to be the subject of that song. In his ill-fitting suit and now-trademark hat, he looks the way he would if he were busking by a Metro entrance, particularly on this solo tour, armed with only acoustic guitars and the occasional harmonica.

Hiatt’s been known to head some pretty impressive bands over the years, with guitarists ranging from Ry Cooder to Sonny Landreth, but having used acoustic guitar as the basis of his most recent album, 2014’s Terms of My Surrender, on which he also played harmonica for the first time in years, he felt at ease taking his songbook on a solo path.

Terms of My Surrender is his 22nd album since his first, issued 42 years ago, so he’s had a few decades in the biz. He said as much when he noted that his middle daughter had just turned 32; he’ll turn twice that number this year.

It was either a sign of age or too many songs that he couldn’t quite come up with the lyrics a couple of times in the show. When that happened, he just chuckled and tried again (to his credit, many rockers his age from Springsteen to Jagger have long since stopped depending on only memory, relying on lyrics spelled out in front of them).

Hiatt was still ostensibly promoting Terms of My Surrender, though it’s been out 21 months, paying a handful of tunes from it, some of them very fine, from the gutbucket “Face of God,” to the plaintive “Come Back Home,” and simple sentiments of “Marlene.”

But the highlights were from the depth of his catalog, with the timeless bluegrass sound of “Crossing Muddy Waters,” to the groove of “Real Fine Love,” and “Memphis in the Meantime,” the rockin’ sentiment of “Perfectly Good Guitar,” and the song that’s sealed a million romances, “Have a Little Faith in Me.”

Hiatt’s years have only deepened the craggy authenticity of his rough-hewn songs, even if he can’t always hit those highest notes. But adding the brief Prince tributes only showed his ability to live in the moment.

SETLIST:
Master of Disaster
Lift Up Every Stone
Adios to California
Real Fine Love
Perfectly Good Guitar
Face of God
Come Back Home
Marlene
Like a Freight Train
Crossing Muddy Waters
Detroit Made
Long Time Comin’
Through Your Hands
Cry Love / When Doves Cry
Feels Like Rain / Purple Rain
Memphis in the Meantime
I Can’t Go
Have A Little Faith in Me

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