Under normal circumstances, a quiet, motionless, crowd would spell trouble for an artist. However, when the artist is John Hiatt, the rules change a bit as fans tend to sit in reverence of one of Americana’s legendary songwriters. As one of the lucky few that managed to get tickets for night two of Hiatt’s stopover at Nashville’s City Winery, I can assure you that the stillness of the room came from being locked into Hiatt’s decades-spanning setlist.
As expected from a legendary songwriter, the night focused on the lyrics. We often talk about “stripped down” sets and the intimacy they create between the audience and the songwriter. For his recent pair of City Winery shows, Hiatt took minimalism a step further. Even with the show being billed as an acoustic evening with John Hiatt, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the set consisted of simply the artist and his guitars, with a couple of songs supported by Hiatt on keys. Too often acoustic concert moments are done for the sake of doing something acoustic or out of simple necessity with smaller clubs and budgets. Here, it was used just right to put the spotlight on Hiatt the songwriter. The most indulgent music interlude of the night came as an extended guitar riff during his bolder-than-recorded-version of “Cry Love,” eliciting both a smile from the artist and mid-song applause from the crowd. Just like each well-placed word (or absence of word) can impact the feeling behind the artist’s lyrics, the limited musical accompaniment allowed him to punctuate the mood of each song. While Hiatt is clearly gifted at guitar and piano, he allowed his words to remain the star of the evening and included just enough music in a supporting role to keep the songs flowing.
From the welcoming flourish of applause as Hiatt took the stage—leading with his classic “Master of Disaster” —to the standing ovation following his iconic closer, “Have a Little Faith In Me,” the crowd was locked into each moment. His greatest talent has always been his storytelling which was on full display within the intimate structure of the night. Hiatt also opened up just enough between songs to build a bond between the crowd, the artist, and the works. From lighthearted harmonica jokes to a touching dedication to his daughter Georgia Rae–who missed the concert because she was spending the evening transporting people to homeless shelters on the extremely cold evening–Hiatt broke from his quiet, straight-faced demeanor to let us know what makes him laugh and what touches his heart.
If there was one downside to the evening, it was that it would have been impossible for Hiatt to play every song the audience wanted to hear from his extensive catalog. As the night progressed, and a few carafes of wine were consumed, the crowd showed a few breaks from its intense listening with shouted out requests coming between songs. While he knew he couldn’t play all of them, Hiatt put together—and modified on the fly—a setlist that would make any fan happy. From a fiery version of “Memphis in the Meantime,” to several tracks from his latest, solemn album The Eclipse Sessions, to the crowd favorite, “Perfectly Good Guitar,” Hiatt managed to include a “greatest hits” level of classics while making sure that the crowd got to become better acquainted with his newer works.
The evening had the feel of a writer’s round where you could hear how the songs sounded in the artist’s head when they were created. It was easy to tell the audience loved every minute of the career-spanning, nineteen song setlist that Hiatt assembled for the evening and relished the opportunity to hear the songwriter’s words in their rawest, most moving form.