John Hiatt's new album is
called The Open Road, but an even
better title might have been Same Old Man — if only he hadn't already used that one up for a 2007
full-length. That's because after a pair of albums that explored a more acoustic-based
sound, Hiatt is showing that he can be his old self by returning to the more
rocking sound that typified early and mid-period albums like Bring The
Family, Slow Turning and Perfectly Good Guitar.
Asked during a recent phone interview what inspired him to go for a friskier
sound on The Open Road, Hiatt
showed his quick sense of humor.
"The garages of my youth?" he asked in reply. "No, I think the main spark was I
took a year off from the road. I took 2009 off. For the first time in 25 years,
I didn't even go on tour. That changed a lot of things. And of course, being
restless, irritable and discontent by nature, after being home for a year, I
started writing all of these songs about traveling."
As anyone who has heard much of Hiatt's catalog will attest, his music doesn't
sound like Led Zeppelin. In fact, early in his career, the comparison more
often brought up about albums such as Slug Line (1979) and Riding With The King (1983) was to Elvis Costello. Like that acclaimed
songwriter, Hiatt's earliest CDs had an edgy, somewhat punky quality.
On Riding With The King there were
signs that Hiatt had begun to find his sound, and on his 1987 album, Bring
The Family, one of the finest albums
of the entire rock era, everything fell into place.
With Bring The Family, Hiatt
settled into more of a rootsy rock/pop sound, and with a stellar backing group
in the studio (guitarist Ry Cooder, bassist Nick Lowe and drummer Jim Keltner),
the album turned into a near-perfect combination of great songs (such as the
chunky rocker "Thing Called Love" – which later became a hit for Bonnie
Raitt – and the pleading ballad "Have A Little Faith In Me") and the
magical chemistry that happened between four seasoned musicians who found just
the right groove for the material.
Hiatt's next album, "Slow Turning" was another gem, and as his career moved
through the 1980s and into the '90s, Hiatt continued to solidify his reputation
as one of rock's most gifted songwriters, as he released several more excellent
albums, including Stolen Moments
(1990) and Perfectly Good Guitar (1993).
But by the time Hiatt finished touring Same Old Man, he was essentially a burned out man. It was time for
him to return to his roots.
"I had a summer like I hadn't had since I was a kid, free time, and I felt like
I was back in school or something. I had my summer break," Hiatt
said. "I just had a wonderful time, and that was when we were making the
record. In the spring, I was writing these songs, and they just kind of
harkened back to, they all had the vibe of what I came up listening to. I was
sort of thrown back to the old garage band days when I was getting on the bus
and going downtown to buy the first Led Zeppelin record."
For The Open Road, Hiatt used the same band that toured with him behind
Same Old Man — drummer
Kenneth Blevins (who first played with Hiatt as part of his backing band, the
Goners, on tour behind Bring The Family), bassist Patrick O'Hearn and guitarist Doug Lancio. Like the
preceding album, Hiatt also self-produced The Open Road.
"For me, the challenge of making well recorded records is just something I've
taken on at this late stage in life," Hiatt said of producing. "I enjoy it. And
they (his label, New West Records) let me do it, so I figure what the hell,
learn while you earn. I feel like I've made enough records and I got interested
enough in (recording) – I've had this gear I've collected stuff over the
years – and it's just a matter of hooking it up. I kind of knew how to
twiddle the knobs and just started getting some help and becoming a student a
little bit and learning how to work some stuff. And it was just fascinating to
me how to get things to work and get the sounds you kind of are going for. I
think I get better with each project. I think each project is a more well
realized record than the last one. Hopefully the next one will be even better."
As it is, The Open Road is very
good, an album that ranks in the upper tier of Hiatt's albums. It has several
first-rate rockers, including "Haulin'" — whose brisk temp fits the
song's title — andthe
punchy "My Baby." Meanwhile, Hiatt's long-standing talent for creating
heartfelt, musically-rich ballads continues with standout songs "Wonder Of
Love" and "Carry You Back Home."
Hiatt spent a good chunk of 2010 touring with his band in support of "The Open
Road." Now he's starting 2011 by reuniting with pal Lovett for a run of
acoustic dates. Hiatt said his tours with Lovett are nothing but fun, and the
two have developed a chemistry on stage.
"We just swap songs back and forth
and you know, make fun of each other," Hiatt said. "He's a funny guy. I'm
basically just his straight man. He's like David Letterman and I'm the pitiful
guest, basically. It's pretty funny. We have a lot of fun."
Hiatt said his shows with Lovett are pretty spontaneous by design.
"It's pretty loose," he said.
"I think people enjoy that, that it's more just about the songwriting and just
throwing songs back and forth. And we sing together on some things and I play
some guitar on some songs of his. We just have a great time for two and a half
hours. It is enjoyable. We have a lot of fun, and I think usually the audience
seems to as well."