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Lovett and Hiatt: A winning combo

By Dave McKenna
Thursday, January 20, 2011; C09

Most singer/songwriter showcases, where multiple artists gather onstage and take turns performing unplugged versions of their tunes and backslapping each other, are disappointments. By the end of the show, fans are usually left wishing they'd spent their money and time to listen to one, and only one, of the featured acts. But with Tuesday's opening show of their three-night sold-out Birchmere stand, Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt delivered a double bill that was as good as it looked on paper.

Lovett's the more intriguing of the pair by a far sight. He was introduced in the mid-1980s as the Texan with the quirky wit - nobody had written a tune about riding a pony out to sea before Lovett's "If I Had a Boat" - and a coif to match ("Eraserhead" references typically appeared in vintage Lovett reviews).

But over the years Lovett's gone from artistic outlier to Lone Star statesman: Just a couple of weeks ago he was tasked with giving a quirk-free introduction to his alma mater, Texas A&M, during the broadcast of this year's Cotton Bowl. That's a good move, because his quirky instincts aren't as sharp as they once were: "Fiona," his tribute to a one-eyed Amazonian swamp babe from 1996, reminded fans how important Lovett's wit once was to his oeuvre, but while rendering the title track to his latest release, "NaturalForces," Lovett dropped more apparently irony-free references to horses and beer than you'd find in a typical Toby Keith ditty.

If this were a competition, Hiatt would win the Most Entertaining category. Lyrics mean more in these intimate gigs, and on this night Hiatt's words were routinely funnier ("Gone" found him missing a woman who was "gone like a Nixon file") and sweeter (the brutally fantastic "All the Lilacs in Ohio" described a guy lost and lonely in the big city) and sadder (the marriage dissolution chronicle "What Do We Do Now") than those in Lovett's offerings.

The spoken words mattered a lot, too. Hiatt and Lovett couldn't have been faking all the respect and affection they showed for each other, and spent much of the evening exchanging sweet nothings in their dueling drawls; their between-song rap was more "Romeo & Juliet" than "8 Mile." When Lovett began voicing his admiration for the sentiment expressed in "All the Lilacs," Hiatt interrupted him to confess stealing the whole thematic shebang from Ray Milland's "Lost Weekend."

"All the good stuff from me is stolen," Hiatt said. When Lovett complimented "Cry Love," Hiatt cut him off again to say he'd written the song backstage at a Jackson Browne concert "in 20 minutes.""And you can kinda tell. Lotta repetition!" Hiatt howled.

For those keeping score, Lovett won the guitar-playing duel. Hiatt's eponymous Gibson dreadnought buzzed and untuned itself throughout the two-hour performance, which added a rock-and-roll edge to the unplugged affair. But every note Lovett picked on his boutiquey Collings-branded six-string during "If I Had a Boat," quirky as that song seemed when he released it in 1988, was as musically pure and beautiful as anything you'd hear at La Scala.

McKenna is a freelance writer.

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