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Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt have something new to say

Opera House, Boston, October 22, 2008

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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Lyle Lovett did not have his Large Band behind him. He only had John Hiatt. And while Hiatt doesn't travel with much of an entourage in comparison, he also only had Lovett. The final night of a two-week tour of rootsy, sometimes country, sometimes bluesy music was a stripped down version from the kind of concert each typically gives. And it was also a scaled back version of a tour they have done for the past few years with Joe Ely and Guy Clark.

The evening provided a chance for fans - and chances are there was overlap of fans of the two - to see Hiatt and Lovett in different lights. Each sat on a stool on stage for the entire 135 minutes with acoustic guitar at the ready with two round tables for holding a bottle of water and a harp for Hiatt. There was no backdrop. No fancy staging. Just two men, who had an obvious respect for each other and their music.

The musical part worked out just fine. The set up was that each would play a song, sometimes introducing it, sometimes plunging right into it. What proved interesting for listeners was that the music worked just fine without any backing band. These songs, in effect, stood up on their own terms. Guess that's why Hiatt and Lovett are considered such fine songwriters.

Lovett reached back into his catalogue for such gems as If I Had a Boat, L.A. County and Which Way Does That Old Pony Run. And a song like She's No Lady not only retained his usual keen sense of humor, but didn't suffer for a lack of horns, which typically color the song.

Hiatt has gained far more prominence over the years as a songwriter, yet he has released 20 albums during his career, including the well-received "Same Old Man" earlier this year. He trotted out favorites as well, including Tennessee Plates, Drive South and his signature song, Thing Called Love, which he said put two kids through college. He, of course, gave a thank you to Bonnie Raitt. He also turned in a good bluesy version of Riding With the King, which BB King and Eric Clapton recorded as the title track of their joint disc a few years back.

But for neither was this an evening to just trot through their hits and get out of Beantown. Hiatt, for example, played Same Old Man following a fan yelling the request.

While the music worked, what didn't always work was the banter between the two, which definitely got better as the night wore on. Lovett, who has a wry sense of humor and perspective of life in general, started by asking Hiatt how his day was. The question didn't pry a particularly interesting response from Hiatt, who has said previously that he is more comfortable playing than talking. He said something about sleeping until 11 a.m., checking into a hotel and looking for a Vietnamese sandwich. Ho hum. Fortunately, he soon clicked a lot better on his first song, Just Like Your Dad Did.

Lovett tended to play the inquisitor, trying (too hard?) to draw out Hiatt. It just didn't click all that well, for awhile anyway.

Probably what was most telling was that when Hiatt or Lovett had center stage, the other would listen intently with Hiatt in particular grooving to Lovett's music.

Hiatt was the ace guitarist, giving a lot of emotion to his songs through his playing. His vocals - sometimes gravelly and a bit low on occasion - are not all that special, although he tured in an ex ellent reading of his last song, Have a Little Faith In Me, during the encore. As for Lovett, he was the superior singer no matter who he's singing with. His voice has lost none of its timbre over the years. And his sense of humor and timing in phrasing remained intact.

While the two took awhile to get into a yapping groove, it also took a long time for them to play or sing on each other's songs. Hiatt, in particular, spiced Lovett's songs on his guitar. And when both sang together at the end on the very fine Dylan song, Ain't No More Cane, that was a welcome moment. More of that earlier on would have made the show even better.

The idea of doing something different, beyond the typical comfort zone, presents a challenge to the musician. This evening proved that two musical veterans have something new to say.