It was an idyllic southern California night complete with a burning orange and red sunset, gentle breeze swaying postcard palm trees and John Hiatt with North Mississippi Allstars (NMAS) tearing up the stage at Humphrey’s By The Bay in San Diego. Toward the end of his 90-minute set Hiatt said “the weathermen said it was going to rain…I guess they were wrong like they always are,” before ripping into his rocking set closing number The Tiki Bar Is Open where the synergy of Hiatt’s 30+ years performing experience combined with the youthful energy of NMAS driving rhythm section brought the crowd to their feet. It’s summertime in SoCal.
The rain actually came the night before clearing the air and washing away any doubt of bad weather reinforcing once more that Humphrey’s By The Sea is perhaps the quintessential intimate California outdoor live music venue. And judging by Hiatt’s perpetual smile and ubiquitous dose of facial expressions and grimaces, he was there not only to entertain the almost sold-out show but to have serious fun.
To be sure, this is not the first Hiatt show I’ve attended. A couple years ago he did an interesting mini-tour with peer singer-songwriter guitarists Joe Ely, Guy Clark and Lyle Lovett. And just before recording his latest release, Master of Disaster, he performed a solo acoustic show where he tested some songs off the new album at the venerable Coach House in San Juan Capistrano – you can read my review of that show here.
Humphrey’s By The Bay on San Diego’s Shelter Island is a waterfront hotel, gourmet restaurant and outdoor theatre. In the early 80’s it started what was then a summer smooth jazz concert series. Besides Hiatt, the 1300-seat outdoor theater, now in its 25th year and thanks to California’s endless summer sees more than 80 nights of music and comedy this year including Boz Scaggs, Lyle Lovett, India Arie, Blues Traveler, Queensryche and Emmy Lou Harris — a wonderfully diverse and more interesting lineup than the smooth jazz Humprey’s started with years ago.
Tonight’s show opened up with a short electric set by the North Mississippi Allstars, Hiatt’s supporting band featuring Luther and Cody Dickinson on guitar and drums and Chris Chew on bass. The Dickinson brothers are sons of legendary Memphis record producer Jim Dickinson=. Ironic enough, the elder Dickinson produced Hiatt’s 21st album Master of Disaster which this tour is featuring and promoting.
I was unfamiliar with the three-time nominated North Mississippi Allstars prior to attending this concert and based on reports from other dates on Hiatt’s tour I expected an acoustic bluesy rock set from the up and coming NMAS. Instead, the youthful band delivered a mix of rhythm and blues and rock providing the perfect soundtrack to the setting sun. The set featured drummer Cody Dickinson playing his funky washboard to the driving beat of Chew’s bass and brother Luther and helper on drums — the most unique washboard solo I’ve ever heard. Luther Dickinson’s slide guitar work was also a surprise but his vocals were lost in the mix and lacked punch and soul — perhaps he’s shy and not comfortable fronting the larger venue. And his lack of audience eye contact wasn’t helped by the flap of hair hanging in his face. But judging from the sound and audience reaction this band is one to watch as they grow together — and I’m sure several months on the road with legend and performing mentor John Hiatt will will help blend confidence and experience making for a tasty future for the Hernando, Mississippi trio.
Commanding the stage after a short 15-minute intermission Hiatt delivered the goods throughout a 16 song set that blended songs from his latest release with a handful of amped-up versions of Hiatt classics proving that the 54-year old performer not only still has the song-writing chops but has the guts and energy to inject new life into his timeless songs. And keeping them timely is something Hiatt does best. During a rock n’ roll driving version of his Memphis In The Meantime from his 1987 release Bring on the Family Hiatt brought the lyrics current by replacing Ronnie Milsap with Brad Paisley:
Not ‘till hell freezes over, maybe you can wait that long, But I don’t think Brad Paisley’s ever gonna record this song
Still, sitting in the restaurant prior to the show I shared a taste of wine with the folks at the table next to me and the conversation quickly turned to John Hiatt. “When I told people I was going to see John Hiatt tonight, they all said ‘Who?'”, the gentleman in his early 40’s said to me. And perhaps that’s the good thing about John Hiatt. Though many may not know him by name, more people know his songs for Bonnie Raitt, Iggy Pop, Conway Twitty, Three Dog Night, B.B. King, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt and Eric Clapton have all covered his songs. Looking around at the handful of empty seats on the grass at Humphrey’s I’m amazed that tickets for Hiatt were still available as he began his set yet Queensryche is sold out for a show two months from now.
Hiatt rock n’ roll opener, the title track from his early 90’s release Perfectly Good Guitar and driven by Luther Dickinson’s masterful slide guitar work, set the tone for the rest of the concert: this wasn’t going to be acoustic folk show playing homage to roots music. Instead, the band launched into driving versions of Buffalo River Home and Your Dad Did and then metamorphosing the normally folkie Howlin’ Down The Cumberland into a rocking blues anthem. And taking the lyrics up a notch Hiatt jumped into his own take on Da Vinci code controversy lamenting the destiny and whereabouts of love and affection in Love’s Not Where We Thought We Left It:
“The apostles were jealous Of Mary Magdalene and Jesus Said why do you love her more than us Jesus turned back in disgust Said why do I love her more than you The answer is a question Just ask yourself what can I do To gain my lord’s affection
Love’s not where you thought you left it
Who took the last of love and kept it
Caged love in tried to protect it
Love’s not where we thought we left it”
After the crowd raising Tiki Bar Hiatt returned to the stage sans NMAS to sing the soulful Have A Little Faith solo on the piano then brought the crowd back to their feet and singing along to Slow Turning, perhaps his only top 10 hit in his more than 30 year musical career. So while Hiatt may not sit in the mainstream, his music, songwriting, performance combined with the amazing talent he surrounds himself with means he’ll always have an audience in me and the other several hundred friends that joined me last night for a California night of rock n’ roll and good wine.