Another gig at the infamous Coach House in San Juan. The Coach House is one of those love/hate venues for me. I love the fact that they attract top artists such as Hiatt, Al Stewart, Adrian Belew, Robert Fripp, JJ Cale, Bruce Cockburn, Robben Ford, David Lindley, Norah Jones and many more. But the venue has questionable acoustics, they typically mix the music too loud and the food sucks. Yet the place holds less than 300 people, has good looking hostesses and is unmatched in Orange County for the artist line up and an intimate live music experience.
John Hiatt is one of those great artists who has achieved more success having his songs recorded and performed by other artists such as Linda Ronstadt, Eric Clapton & B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt, and Emmylou Harris. A true singer-songwriter’s singer-songwriter, Hiatt has more than 23 records under his belt. I’ve seen John play a half a dozen times and always at small to mid-sized venues such as The Belly Up in Solana Beach, The Warfield in San Francisco and The Grove in Anaheim. Typically John plays with a complete band and classically John gives his compadres in recording and touring their own name — call it a brand. Most recently it was The Goners, who appear on his most recent release Beyond This Gruff Exterior. Other bands that have joined him include The Nashville Queens and The Guilty Dogs. But tonight he shed himself of excess baggage and took the stage at The Coach House naked, save a couple six-string guitars, a 12-string and an electric piano.
The primary difference between catching a gig at a small venue versus a full-blown production at a bigger theatre or heaven forbid a hockey arena is the connection the artist makes with the audience — on a personal venue. Someone in the crowd yelled out between songs “How’s Rita?” John held off from launching into one of the 25 songs we’d hear that night and asked “Who?”
John rubbed his brow with one hand muting the strings of his ax with the other. “Rita. Rita Farnsworth?” He looked puzzled but a huge smile came to his face. “I can’t believe it. Rita Farnsworth, the first girl I ever kissed.”
The nerve racking thing for many artists playing this small intimate venues is the fact that either the confident, curious or obnoxious can and will yell things at the artist. And they will be heard. Many times these are song requests. Big productions and artists on long or never ending tours typically play the same core songs every night. The set lists are typically “set” in stone with some room for flexibility. But at the beginning of the show the 51 year old came clean with the audience announcing “I’m too old for set lists.”
So when the woman in the front yelled for “Georgia Rae”, Hiatt simply changed the tuning of his guitar while telling a story how he and his 15 year old daughter watched these two local daredevil cats dart in front of cars near their home. One day they discovered that one of the cats had met its fate. Then he played this sweet melody he wrote about Georgia Rae when she was just an infant. Later commenting on how he just didn’t know what to say to his daughter about the death of the feline.
The beauty of watching Hiatt perform is feeling his raw emotion and soul as he makes the wildest facial expressions I’ve seen any artist make. These aren’t simply rehearsed “trying to look cool” poses. Rather face winces, rolled tongue filling cheek, tongue out of the mouth and fang revealing teeth and bobbing head and winced face expressions. You get them all with Hiatt. No matter how funny that might make him look it shows that the audience, the music, the words and his presence have captured his soul and he is releasing in full force and giving it right back to the audience. Hard for me to explain, but seeing Hiatt bare bones on stage, connecting with his audience and delivering solid songs acoustically with a raw and powerful sensibility made my spine tingle. And that’s no joke.
I remember reading an interview earlier this year in which Hiatt discussed his approach to recording. He prefers to record live. That is he typically doesn’t record his guitar track and then lay down his vocals. He feels that to truly capture the essence of his song is to sing and play it with the band — live.
Recording live has “sort of been our modus operandi, roughly speaking, since ‘Bring the Family’ [in 1987], but in varying degrees,” Hiatt says. “We just set it up so that I could play acoustic guitar and sing, and we could all play at the same time. If I go back and sing a vocal when I’m not playing, I don’t sing the same. I’m not down in the music. It’s different. It doesn’t work. I don’t phrase it the same. I don’t feel it the same as when I’m flailing away on the guitar.”
His 25 song set could have come out of my iTunes best of Hiatt playlist playing several songs from my favorite disc, Crossing Muddy Waters, including Take It Down, Gone Gone Away and a slow and soul drenched version of the title cut Crossing Muddy Waters. But perhaps the highlight for me and the other couple hundred fans that crammed the sold out venue was a couple new songs he’s considering for an acoustic album to be released later this fall. Wintertime Blues is a funny song about being holed up with cabin fever when the snow is falling and freezing ice make it impossible to go anywhere. Though he commented that playing in Southern California we cry when it rains for more than a couple hours.
He winded up the two and a half hour set with a raucous version of Memphis In The Meantime in which he successfully enlisted the crowd to “haw” and “haw, haw, haw” along with him. Then slowed down and laid back exchanging guitar strings for the keys of his piano belting out heartfelt versions of Lipstick Sunset and Have A Little Faith in Me.
No question John had a lot of fun on stage that night. I hope his little acoustic experiment yields another great album and a chance to see him raw again next year.