TVD Live: John Hiatt
& The Goners featuring Sonny Landreth at the Birchmere, 8/20

John Hiatt became eligible for Medicaid Monday, marking his 65th birthday at the first of two sold out shows at The Birchmere music hall in Alexandria, VA. But there was nothing suggesting anything close to retirement in his show with The Goners, the ace Louisiana trio led by guitarist Sonny Landreth.

Indeed, on a night largely dedicated to the 30th anniversary of his 1988 album Slow Turning, Hiatt began the evening showing how much life there still was in him during a succinct seven-song solo set dominated by songs from his impending album The Eclipse Sessions due out October 12.

It’s something like his 24th studio collection and the examples he shared — “Cry to Me,” “All the Way to the River,” and “Aces Up Your Sleeve” (coincidentally also the first three songs on the LP) — are as well structured, simple, and memorable as any from his catalogue, the best of which he also sampled in the solo acoustic spotlight.

He began with “Perfectly Good Guitar,” on a night when Joe Perry was smashing another instrument as part of an Aerosmith collaboration with Post Malone on the MTV Video Music Awards, a world away. Its indelible melody was enhanced not just by a harmonica solo, but also whistling.

He sang “Angel Eyes” by request of a couple marking their 40th anniversary. And he closed with the classic “Crossing Muddy Waters,” which recently had a terrific cover by the female bluegrass trio I’m With Her, and the indelible wail of “Cry of Love.” He acted in this set as if he were the hopeful rising opening act, thanking the headliners for having him on the tour, and adding, “They even let me ride in the main bus.”

After a break, he and The Goners took the stage. He first hired Sonny Landreth, who brought along his longtime Louisiana rhythm section, to play the tour for Bring the Family. The superstar band of that 1987 album — Ry Cooder on guitar, Nick Lowe on bass, and Jim Keltner on drums — were not available.

By its end, they knew each other well enough to be an integrated unit for the Slow Turning album, and the song-by-song reading of the album, complete with Hiatt doing an imitation of the scratch of the run out groove to indicate side one’s end, demonstrated how well the sequencing worked in the original release, with freewheeling songs like “Drive South” and “Tennessee Plates” making way for the contemplative waltz “Ice Blue Heart” and “Is Anybody There?” By the end, Hiatt internalizes the surroundings of his swamp-raised compadres for the heavy weather of “Feels Like Rain.”

Considering how much tuning Hiatt did in his shorter solo set, an almost as important addition to the band segment were two guitar techs, seemingly switching instruments for each guitarist smoothly between each song.

Time had occurred since all of this had been recorded, which one had to remind oneself since none of it sounded old. And yet, Hiatt’s then-newborn daughter commemorated in “Georgia Rae” hits the big 3-0 herself this year. While some of the higher ends of Hiatt’s vocal range seemed endangered at first, when the band kicked in he got more confident with the falsetto, wailing as ever in the closing song of the three-song encore, “Memphis in the Meantime.”

A highlight of the show, of course, was watching Landreth in action. Serious and professorial at 67, he slings his guitar high on his chest, not just picking with his left hand but also hitting the strings as his nearly always-present slide creates a sizzle and burn on the guitar. Nearly every song had an impressive string showcase, none more than his own “Congo Square” that started out the encores. Behind him, longtime Goners Kenneth Blevins on drums (who has been part of many other Hiatt road bands) and bassist Dave Ranson were spot on.

The commotion of the Goners paused in the encores so Hiatt could perform his heartfelt “Have a Little Faith In Me” on piano — one of his concerts could hardly go by without that plaintive ballad. But the rest of the night reverberated in rock that seemed removed from nostalgia and the past because it all sounded so vibrant and immediate.

When the Slow Turning anniversary shows conclude September 1 in Minneapolis, the Goners will join Haitt on the fall tour for the new album, starting October 20 in New Orleans and returning to the DC area October 26 in Annapolis, MD.

Perfectly Good Guitar
Angel Eyes
Cry to Me
All the Way to the River
Aces Up Your Sleeve
Crossing Muddy Waters
Cry Love

Drive South
Trudy and Dave
Tennessee Plates
Icy Blue Heart
Sometime Other Than Now
Georgia Rae
Ride Along
Slow Turning
It’ll Come to You
Is Anybody There?
Paper Thin
Feels Like Rain

Congo Square
Have a Little Faith in Me
Memphis in the Meantime

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