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John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett, Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London, February 15th 2010

February 16, 2010

This was always going to be a mellow evening, with two fine singer-songwriters trading acoustic songs and stories, but the evening thankfully packed a punch too – sonically and emotionally.

I first saw John playing with Little Village (the Cooder, Lowe, Keltner and Hiatt ‘supergroup’) at Crystal Palace back in ’92, and his UK connections with Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello have always made me think of him as a rocker rather than a stereotypical singer-songwriter.

It’s unfortunate that, for what I imagine are financial reasons, John tours solo in the UK, as this doesn’t do his songs full justice. In this respect, his acoustic playing and singing reminds me very much of late-era Warren Zevon. Warren also put on a great solo show, but it was even better when he had a band. No matter, John started with a punchy Real Fine Love, and Lyle (who I haven’t seen since I don’t know when) began with a beautiful I Will Rise Up.

Now Lyle suffers from lazy journalists labelling him a ‘new country’ or ‘alt-country’ star. These labels don’t do justice to his fine songwriting and his emotional playing and singing. Just because a man sometimes uses strings, a lusty twang and a big hat, that doesn’t make him the thinking man’s Garth Brooks.

The evening rattled along with a host of car-based songs – John’s Thunderbird, Lyle’s Pontiac and John’s Drive South (which John said had been mistakenly interpreted as having a sexual connotation… hehe….). Then the evening sagged slightly, with a number of overtly bluesy songs. This is partly the problem of doing a two-handed show. Trading songs is fine, but when each joins in with the other’s songs, it can take the playing down to… well, the lowest common denominator, which in my book is play-by-numbers blues. That’s just a preference rather than a strong criticism and it did allow me a toilet break.

The pair then introduced Texas troubadour Joe Ely and the three of them carried on trading songs, the highlights for me being John’s favourites Memphis In The Meantime and Icy Blue Heart, with Lyle’s If I Were The Man You Wanted and Her First Mistake.

The trio came back for an encore which concluded with a fine version of the old Texas prison work-song Ain’t No More Cane.This song has obsessed me for years. I first heard it on The Basement Tapes (in the version actually recorded in the mid-70s with just The Band and no Bob) and then went back to hear Leadbelly’s rendition and Bob’s early 60s version. Subsequently, I’ve heard versions by Lonnie Donegan, Son Volt, Ian Gillan, The Black Crowes, The Band of Heathens and a brilliant, utterly knock-your-socks-off live version by James Walbourne and his band three years ago at the Tapestry Club.

Bruce Jackson’s fine book Wake Up Dead Man: Hard Labor and Southern Blues gives a comprehensive overview of these prison work-songs, but what strikes me about many of them is how un-bluesy they are. With a simple structure, they’re certainly related to spirituals and earlier African songs, but they’re also remarkably similar to old traditional folk tunes from Europe and particularly the British Isles. Hey, as I never tire of saying: “It’s all one song.”

Here are John and Lyle performing the song in Milan earlier this month:

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