John Hiatt and The Goners with The Robert Cray Band
Hammersmith Apollo 10/11/03
Some things take time to mature. Wine, whisky, women and some (though not all) musicians) are classic examples. 'Young' Robert Cray (a bit of a misnomer, that. 'Young' Bob celebrated his half century this year) is a case in point. He has been playing in bands since 1974. He cut his first album as long ago as 1980 and very quickly gathered a following amongst blues fans, and was heavily touted as part of a new generation of blues players along with Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Cray has come a long way since then, both as a guitarist, a songwriter and perhaps most importantly as a singer, and he may just be at the height of his powers right now. Given an hour to display his wares, he puts in an admirable performance that included several old favourites (opener 'I Guess I Showed Her' is only marred by a muddy sound mix, which is thankfully soon corrected.), and new material. The outstanding performances on the night come during 'Distant Shore', when Cray and long time keyboardist Jim Pugh engage in an extended musical duel which is sparked by a sensational solo from Pugh which brings the crowd to its feet, and 'Time Makes Two', a beautiful ballad where Pugh takes the part of the studio versions string quartet to provide a show stopping moment. It is telling that both of these numbers are from Crays new album.
Cray himself is on fine form, both vocally and with his guitar. From the opening salvo of 'I Guess I Showed Her', with it's delicious overtones of Albert Collins Cool-Tone through a frenetic rendition of 'Bad Influence' Crays playing is crisp, clean and immaculately judged, perhaps most noticeably on 'Up in the Sky', where the tuning of his guitar allows him to replicate the sound of a sitar with scary accuracy. But Crays voice is where the real deal is to be found - he is possessed of an enormous range, and he is not afraid to use it. Several times the band are stilled to allow Cray free reign with a vocal line, and his use of the higher registers on songs such as 'I Was Warned' is stunning. Now more than ever, Cray seems able to apply his voice at the right time, in the right way to accentuate his increasingly skilled song writing.
On top of all this is a sense that Cray is a happy man, with a nice sense of self-deprecatory humour. Having done his obligatory band introductions, he concludes by stating 'And we are The somebody somebody Band. Try and remember that.' With a broad grin and a wave, he is gone.
John Hiatt hits the stage like a hurricane, with a pink check shirt and a broad grin, launching into the (formerly) acoustic 'Lincoln Town' with the gusto and volume of a man half his age. (Hiatt celebrated his 51st birthday this year, though it shows no signs of slowing him down.) Throughout the next couple of hours he proceeds to live up to his promise;
'I get to get up and act like a complete frickin' fool for two hours! They're paying to watch a fifty year old guy act like a complete bozo - it's a wonderful thing.'
Hiatt's voice doesn't appear to have changed one iota since he first came to prominence with the album 'Bring The Family', some twenty odd years ago, and the band has returned to that initial four piece of rhythm guitar (Hiatt), bass (Dave Ranson), Drums (Kenny Blevins) and slide guitar (Sonny Landreth) after experimentation with keyboards and extra guitars, mandolins and who knows what else. Hiatt, now given seeming free reign by a record industry that has attempted to pigeonhole him more than once (perhaps most disastrously as the American Elvis Costello around the time of 1979's Slug Line), and he seems all the happier for that.
If Hiatt is a naturally exuberant frontman, dancing like a bow-legged man with St Vitus Dance and grinning like a fool throughout the set, the backbone of the Goners is undoubtedly the man Hiatt introduces as the 'Steam Boat Captain', Sonny Landreth. Landreth is a smaller, stiller figure than Hiatt but it is his slide guitar that provides the sting in a set that features both old favourites and tracks from the newish release 'Beneath the Gruff Exterior'. This new album is the first to co-credit the Goners, and they rise to the challenge well, with both the rocking-country of 'Tennessee Plates' (during which we are treated to some particularly extravagant choreography from Hiatt as Ransom is given an extended solo) and the ballad 'Feels Like Rain' being particular memorable. For most other musicians, the concept of standing on a stage repeating the mantra 'pitter-patter' while waving your arms in the air like some demented Play School presenter would be laughable. Hiatt is sure enough of himself and his band that it is actually a show-stopping moment as the entire audience hold their breath to catch the ever diminishing sound from the stage.
Hiatt is also something of a wit on stage, and enjoys regaling his audience with tales of what each song means and how it came to be. 'Circle The Wagons', a song about the difficulty of empty nest syndrome, is proceeded with a long and dramatic story about Hiatt driving his daughter to university. He pauses for a second, grins impishly and states 'wasn't a wasted experience though. I got a song out of it.' A period of prolonged request shouting is indulged before Hiatt shakes his head and bellows 'Organize!' and launching into a crowd pleasing 'Slow Turning'.
Perhaps most indicative of Hiatt as a performer though, is his encore. The first song performed on returning to the stage is the piano only ballad 'Have a Little Faith In Me'. It's not a big or complicated song, but it is beautifully judged and it enables Hiatt to showcase a voice that is highly under-rated, normally taking second place to his song writing abilities in most people's minds. This is followed by some call and response shenanigans during 'Memphis in the Meantime', and then Hiatt is gone with a wave, and tellingly what seem like very genuine thanks to us, the audience for 'plunking your hard earned cash down and coming out. We'd do this for free but we got lucky and we can make a living at it too.'
I don't think I was alone in the audience in thinking that we, the audience, had got lucky catching two such stars on the same evening.