Big Head Todd and The Monsters, John Hiatt & The Combo

Friday, Nov. 18 at Murat

Theatre at Old National Centre

Indy's native son John

Hiatt

and his band, The Combo, rocked the sixth-annual WTTS Rock to

Read show (benefiting Indianapolis

Marion County Public Library

and children's reading programs) in

front of a lively crowd Friday night.

Stepping onstage wearing a wide-brimmed fedora and matching

oversized jacket, John Hiatt kicked off his set with "Perfectly Good

Guitar,"

looking like he purloined Tom Waits' wardrobe.

This was

Hiatt's second time playing the Murat Theatre this year (which he said

his dad always thought was a "big whoop-de-doo"), and after his February acoustic performance with Lyle Lovett, the engaged crowd was ready to see him kick out the jams.

Electric guitar in hand, the homegrown Hoosier

treasure treated the set as somewhat of a 'best-of' show and showed love to Indianapolis and his friends. Before "Master of Disaster,"

Hiatt recalled how Jim Dickinson - Memphis musician, producer and father of the North

Mississippi Allstars' Luther and Cody - requested one thing to be put on

his tombstone: "I'm not gone, I'm just dead."

Though he didn't joke as much at this show as he did with just

Lovett onstage, Hiatt genuinely enjoyed himself, even during serious

tunes like his hit "Cry Love," a mandolin-lover's dream during which, in this iteration, the instrument fought Hiatt's voice and guitar and was plucked more forcefully than necessary by The Combo's lead guitarist.

The evening wasn't all classic Hiatt hits. The Combo infused funk in "All the Way Under," from Hiatt's latest album, Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns - which is amazingly, if my math is correct, his 20th studio album.

Hiatt's a veteran performer and a master songwriter, evidenced by the first song he played in his encore, "Have a Little Faith in Me." Sure, the wedding favorite (I'm guilty of including it in my reception playlist) is syrupy as all get-out.

But it's simply a classic song, hard to hate once it starts playing

and made that much more powerful by Hiatt's consistently passionate performance in spite of probably having played it hundreds of times.

Hiatt himself was terrific, but his crew was sometimes distracting. The aforementioned loud mandolin was

tuned by a guy standing in a spotlight at far stage right throughout

the show, which was rather confusing - why did the lead

guitarist have an assistant onstage at all times, while Hiatt's help

came on stage only when necessary, between songs? Regardless, this quibble didn't detract from Hiatt's performance.

Big Head Todd and The Monsters opened the evening by playing it safe for the at-first sparse crowd.

Todd Park Mohr's slightly gravelly, rounded vocals sounded like a

young Hiatt, and though the band was super-tight, they seemed a bit

uptight compared to the more laid-back Hiatt. The funk- and soul-tinged

"Tower" was perhaps the band's loosest moment, but it still sounded

like a too-well-rehearsed tune with little room for the random elements

of performance that bring memorable moments to polished recorded tunes.

And it was somewhat regrettable that the band chose to cover King Floyd's "Groove Me," a song so sublimely perfect in its original incarnation that, done by pretty much anyone else, sounds flat and soulless.

Perhaps it was because of the coloring-within-the-lines feel of

their "Groove Me" cover, but the band's massively overplayed radio

staple "It's Alright"

was surprisingly refreshing. Unfortunate, then, that uninspired guitar

theatrics in later songs - and another unfortunate cover (this time John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom") - didn't help the band elevate beyond what it's best at: so-polished-it's-often-dull music exemplified by songs like "Bittersweet." Which, unsurprisingly, they played flawlessly, to a fault.

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