By Jacob Katel
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John Hiatt, center stage, West Palm Beach's Carefree Theater or Hallandale's Button South (if you caught the West Palm show, there was a good chance you were at the Button the next night), rivulets of sweat trickling down his vein-throbbing neck and cascading off his cheekbones, his checked red-and-yellow flannel shirt soaked through by the third song, his baggy blue jeans popping spastically like the jib of a tacking sailboat during his loose-limbed soft-shoe at the microphone. The half-inch-square patch of hair under his lower lip works Hiatt's elastic face like a frenzied caterpillar as he punctuates his lyrics with the broad hand motions of a Pentecostal minister. His sensibly-shod foot stamps out the rhythm. Surely it only seems like the man is moving sixteen directions at once.
Everybody knew John Hiatt could write a song. He's been a critic's darling and a songwriter's songwriter (Hiatt's been covered by everybody from Conway Twitty to Paula Abdul) since shortly after Dylan went electric. What nobody who had not seen him before in concert, and even many of those who had, could have guessed is that John Hiatt can rock with the best of them. Touring behind his appropriately named new album, Perfectly Good Guitar, Hiatt slapped together a band of smooth-faced whippersnappers (chrome-domed guitarist Michael Ward from School of Fish, bassist Davey Faragher from Cracker, and drummer Michael Urbano from both School of Fish and Cracker) and lit out for the open road with a mind to show people that Steve DeBerg isn't the only old hoss who can still buck.
Unlike another fortysomething singer-songwriter who shall remain nameless, Hiatt's work has actually improved with the onset of domesticity and fatherhood. His three previous albums A Bring the Family, Slow Turning, and Stolen Moments A reflected the inner peace and serenity of a man who had recently found redemption in family life. While Perfectly Good Guitar has a family tie A the guitar edge was at least partially inspired by tapes Hiatt glommed from his fifteen-year-old stepson -- Hiatt's recent tour of duty with Little Village (an aging-but-still-kicking supergroup that included Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe, and Jim Keltner) supplied most of the creative juice.
From the taut and jangly album-opening guitar licks of "Something Wild" to the tumultuous crosscurrents of "Loving a Hurricane," this is a John Hiatt who can harness the coltish energy of his stepson's favorite bands to the sharp eye and wry wit of a middle-age wag. "We better get up and scream at the top of our lungs like it/Was gonna die if we didn't make it so," he sings on the LP opener. One of two tunes on the new release written before 1993 ("Old Habits" being the other), "Something Wild" performs several functions: it serves notice that this album will rock most righteously, it proves that Hiatt has the edge (and the cojones) to go toe-to-toe with Iggy (Mr. Pop's ferocious rendering of the tune on Brick by Brick was one of the stringy icon's stellar moments), and it affords Hiatt the opportunity to come unhinged in concert (he closed the song both nights by jumping onto the drum riser and howling at the moon). A demented-looking John Hiatt throwing his head back and screaming at the top of his lungs could scare the Hound of the Baskervilles into silence.
"Cross My Fingers" leads off with the line "Baby when I put my mind to it/I slip into another gear," at which point Hiatt pops the clutch and punches the throttle until the whole damn engine explodes into a euphoric chorus. It's an infectious ripper that has all the earmarks of a monster single. Not that there's anything wrong with the title cut A the lyrics are characteristically clever and Hiatt hip, and the simple minor-chord progression and sardonic delivery suggest both Neil Young and Warren Zevon. But "Cross My Fingers" sounds like it was culled from another dimension.
While Hiatt has always had a way with the catchy uptempo country-flavored pop song ("Slow Turning", "Tennessee Plates", "Child of the Wild Blue Yonder", et cetera), Perfectly Good Guitar marks his rite of passage to straight-ahead rocker. It's his Ragged Glory. At the two South Florida shows he led the faithful through two-and-a-half-hour baptisms by fire, tearing it up and dancing about the stage with the exuberant foolhardiness of a true believer.
Hiatt's self-effacing humor is a refreshing change of pace from the usual haughty rock star attitude, whether in his song introductions (he prefaced "Your Dad Did" with a description of the "extreme displeasure of waking up every morning to find this ugly mug in the mirror staring back at me," and later heralded "Angel" with the remark, "About the only redeeming feature is it's got a perky little beat to it") or in the lyrics themselves ("Now there's only two things in life/But I forget what they are," he admits in "Buffalo River Home"). From the loopy "stewardess dance" he does to open "Child of the Wild Blue Yonder" to the funky duck walk he hoofs during "When You Hold Me Tight," Hiatt is clearly having a ball on stage, and he makes it a point to invite the audience to the party.