As any John Hiatt fan will tell you -- there are legions of rabid fans who will tell you at the drop of a guitar pick -- there's no better way to experience the music of the man than seeing him in concert.
The eyes bulge out and dart from side to side ... the veins in his forehead throb and pulse ... a stream of sweat starts to head down the side of his face. And that's just half-way through the first song.
Yet for all the emotion, wit, energy -- and, oh yeah, really good songs -- that are part of the Hiatt live experience, it took the acclaimed singer-songwriter twenty years as a much-loved recording and concert artist to release a live album (unless you count a mid-Eighties promotional release that now commands major collector's bucks).
That void has finally been filled with the cheekily titled Hiatt Comes Alive at Budokan?
Why'd it take so long? ``You know, that's a good question,'' says Hiatt with a laugh. ``I can only say the feeling was right to do a live record. I guess it's time when it's time.''
Documenting a 1994 tour across the U.S. (you didn't really think it was recorded in Budokan, did you?), the live album picks up where last year's Perfectly Good Guitar left off, culminating a spectacular run of A&M albums that also included 1987's Bring the Family, 1988's Slow Turning and 1990's Stolen Moments. After finishing that record. Hiatt set out to put together a band that could capture its rock energy. First on board was ex-School of Fish guitarist Michael Ward, whose extensive vocabulary of crunching chords and squealing leads marked the Guitar studio sessions. Hiatt then enlisted the former rhythm section from the band Cracker, hard-hitting drummer Michael Urbano and rock-solid bassist Davey Faragher. Together, under the moniker the Guilty Dogs, they form a powerful, versatile unit that helped Hiatt virtually reinvent his impressive catalogue.
``We got the band going and it really started getting a head of steam, developing character, and as I started feeding the band older material, that's when I started getting excited about maybe doing a live record,'' Hiatt says. ``The way they interpreted the older stuff was really fresh and exciting to me.''
With Matt Wallace, the young producer who did Perfectly Good Guitar, again at the helm, Hiatt Comes Alive captures that excitement in Technicolor glory.
Take ``Memphis in the Meantime,'' for example, the original version from Bring the Family being no slouch, propelled by Ry Cooder's roiling slide guitar. The Guilty Dogs though, brought a different vibe: ``I remember working that out with them at a gig in Seattle last fall,'' says Hiatt. ``I remember it going together with that cheap little Seventies sort of funk beat that Urbano is so great at and that took it to another place entirely. And then Mike Ward adds his ZZ Top wacky guitar stuff, which takes it somewhere else. And Davey is funky in his own way. It's a white trash version of the song, and I dig that. Songs like that, I'd really forgotten how much fun they are.''
Throughout the album, there's a sense of Hiatt and band constantly looking for ways to take the songs places they've never been before. ``Like Your Dad Did'' rocks much harder than my original [also from Bring the Family],'' Hiatt says, noting that the new version reflects the fact that Dad-ness may no longer hold the same novelty factor it did for him when he first wrote it. ``I may not be so precious about it as I was. And on ``Paper Thin'' [originally on Slow Turning], where originally we had a little brush fire going, this version seems more of a full conflagration. Even ``Thing Called Love'' ,known to many via Bonnie Raitt's hit version] gets really nasty in a way.''
Of course, Hiatt hired these guys 'cause they rocked. The extra bonus was how they handled the softer stuff, adding a richness to Hiatt's emotional imagery. ``These guys are amazingly deep -- they're like the Miami Dolphins, they got a deep bench,'' Hiatt says. ``We did sort of an unplugged night at a club in Chicago, a benefit where the tickets had been auctioned off for the homeless. I'd never even heard Mike Ward play an acoustic guitar, and there we were with Urbano on a tiny little drum set with brushes and Faragher with an acoustic bass. That's where this arrangement of ``Icy Blue Hear'' came from and they captured that really well.''
Another tender highlight on Hiatt Comes Alive is the solo piano moment of ``Have a Little Faith in Me,'' a centerpiece of his concerts in recent years. ``I never get tired of that. It's a good place for me to emotionally settle in, state my case, center myself.''
With some of these songs, these recordings represent Hiatt ``reclaiming'' them after they'd been recorded by others, notably ``Thing Called Love'' and ``Angel Eyes'', the latter a Top 10 hit for Jeff Healey, recorded here by Hiatt for the first time.
``That's the excitement of this, for me to do the songs again, with the benefit of time and distance and having them played and interpreted not only by other singers, but by the other great bands I've played with in the last six years,'' he says.
As for this band, an inspired Hiatt plans to see where the experiment chronicled on Hiatt Comes Alive at Budokan? can lead next. He's written more than 35 new songs. ``It's a rare commodity, bands that really have something,'' he says. ``We'll just explore this sound we're making and see what happens.''
Thanks to Craig Frischkorn <email@example.com> for sending this in.
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