John Hiatt generally favors having company when he performs. He has hit the road and played in the studio backed by such combos as the Goners, the Guilty Dogs, Little Village and the Nashville Queens. But Hiatt was all by himself on the Birchmere stage Monday, save for a pair of Gibson guitars and the colorful cast of characters he's written about. He never seemed lonely.

His songs didn't suffer for lack of a supporting cast. In a voice newly refurbished by throat surgery, Hiatt sang about folks who are unlucky at love or life or both. Some of his protagonists are plainly comical, like the thrill-seeking jailbirds in "Tennessee Plates," the serial philanderer in "Little Head" and the aging rocker in "Perfectly Good Guitar." Women have had better luck recording Hiatt's funny love songs than he has--Suzy Bogguss hit the charts with "Drive South," and royalties from Bonnie Raitt's take on "Thing Called Love" will keep Hiatt in perfectly good guitars for as long as he desires. As he threw himself into those songs at the Birchmere, one couldn't help but wonder why the distaff versions got all the airplay.

Hiatt can also write a whale of a sob story. "Friend of Mine," a dirge from 1995's "Walk On," and the brand-new "Lilacs of Ohio," a binge drinker's lament, fell into that category. Hiatt complained, with some pride, that friends and family used to make him get up and sing his weeper for all occasions, "Have a Little Faith in Me," at weddings, and now have started asking him to do the song at funerals. It also makes for a nice show closer.