The mutual admiration and banter between Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt at their duo acoustic show in Waukegan’s Genesee Theatre on Friday night was almost as much fun hearing as the music itself. Both sporting stylish sportscoats and ties, Lovett and Hiatt sat down in their respective chairs and stayed there for the entire evening, trading songs back and forth and occasionally adding an accompanying guitar or backup vocal to each other’s performances, but always adding witty repartee between songs. Of the 160 minute performance, I’d guess that a full third of that time was Lovett and Hiatt chatting with each other in their slow, dry delivery, much like a James Taylor or Randy Newman.
I am more familiar with Lovett’s songs than Hiatt’s, but had always admired the latter’s soulful, swampy voice and his uncanny ability to stay under the radar yet command respect from musicians whom I admire. But if a newbie to Hiatt’s music were to base his opinion solely on Friday’s performance, he would likely be at a loss as to why or how Hiatt managed to attract attention. Opening with “Master of Disaster,” Hiatt immediately pushed his range to its limits, screeching out vocals that barely resembled notes, and while some of the rough edges smoothed out over the course of the evening, it was clear that he was either having a bad night or was no longer able to hit the notes in their original keys. There is no shame in this, but there is an expectation for musicians to adjust the keys or the melodies to adapt to their aging voices. Hiatt played most of his tunes with a capo, so lowering the songs by a half step or two would have been an incredibly easy thing to do. Unfortunately, he grinded it out for the evening, and his performance suffered as a result.
The contrast between Hiatt’s opening performance and Lovett’s “Creeps Like Me” couldn’t have been wider, as Lovett’s smooth tenor sounded strong and unstrained and remained so for the rest of the show, and the contrast wasn’t limited to each other’s vocal abilities. Hiatt talked about having to solo regularly with Ry Cooder’s band back in the early 80s when Lovett first saw his friend perform, and how terrifying that had been. Lovett responded that he always found soloing terrifying. As such, Hiatt took all the leads of the evening, but I found his guitar playing clunky and sloppy. I’ve played with some excellent guitarists in my life, and Hiatt wouldn’t rank among any of them. As is often the case with live acoustic guitar, the sound when strumming was overpowering and mid-rangy, often masking the lyrics of the songs, and Lovett’s picking went over better, allowing his vocals to shine through.
As for the songs, both performers are excellent craftsmen, particularly when it comes to funny, witty tunes, though I would have loved to have heard some of Lovett’s more heartbreaking compositions such as “Road to Ensenada” or a more up-tempo song like “It Ought To Be Easier.” Instead, he stuck largely to blues-based or funny songs, the most effective being “Her First Mistake,” a gem from 1996. Glancing at the set lists from this tour, the songs between performances vary significantly, so it looks like each show is one of a kind, much like these artists.
This was the first time I saw either of these musicians perform, but it was the second time I purchased tickets to see Lovett. Back in July of 2001, my wife and I were to see him perform at Ravinia on a sweltering weeknight. We had lawn seats, and I was kind of dreading the insane traffic, having to find a place to sit and sweating my ass off only to fight the traffic again on the way home. To add a little wrinkle to the evening, my wife was three months pregnant and not feeling all that great. As we were about to walk out the door, she mentioned something about not having to find a good seat because at Ravinia lawn seats aren’t in view of the stage. I did a double take. “What?” “If you’re in the lawn seats you just hear the music. You can’t actually see the stage.” I contended then, and I contend now, that that is the stupidest setup for a concert venue in the history of mankind.
I pulled the plug. We stayed home. Sixteen years later we sat in the twelfth row of a small theater, and in addition to hearing an honest, uncluttered performance, we actually got to see the human marionette’s smile stretching out wide and strong in response to his buddy’s goofy remarks. It was worth the wait.