Recording of October 2001: The Tiki Bar is Open

JOHN HIATT: The Tiki Bar is Open
Vanguard 79593 (CD). 2001. Jay Joyce, prod.; Nico Bolas, eng. Greg Parker, asst. eng. ADD? TT: 44:55
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Four years ago, I was ready to write John Hiatt off. After his triumphant late-'80s comeback, which began with a label switch from Geffen to A&M, newfound sobriety, and his ne plus ultra album, Bring the Family, the singer-songwriter began a downward artistic arc. The success of 1988's Slow Turning and 1993's Perfectly Good Guitar were offset by such lesser efforts as 1990's Stolen Moments and 1995's Walk On. While his 1994 live album, John Hiatt Comes Alive at Budokan?, had a number of killer renditions of material from the Perfectly Good Guitar era, its embarrassing cover art—Hiatt, in headband and gee, karate kicking à la fat Elvis—presaged the lamest record of his career, 1997's Little Head. Pathetically dependent on the ninth-grade howler about the "little head controlling the big head," this weak collection of songs and overweening self-indulgence was enough to force up my hands and, in the immortal words of Roberto Duran, plead "¡No Mas!"

But as so often happens with the great ones—Dylan is the crowning example—Hiatt has recycled and repooled his talents, switched labels again, and come back from the Little Head disaster with two strong records in a row. In a move that echoes other artistic U-turns, like Springsteen's The Ghost of Tom Joad, Hiatt first toned things down for last year's quiet acoustic set, Crossing Muddy Waters. Now, in another reflection of Bruce, Hiatt has reunited with the best band of his past—The Goners, a trio featuring Louisiana-born slide player Sonny Landreth—and cut The Tiki Bar is Open.

One look at that unwieldy, unfunny title however and I began to have the same queasy feeling I'd had when I'd first seen the cover of Budokan? or heard the words "Little Head": Hiatt had again fallen victim to his tasteless, juvenile dark side. And after hearing the goofy title track, a forgettable, cockeyed salute to kitsch (I think), I was sure Hiatt had laid another egg.

Then again, it had been 10 years since I'd heard him with The Goners. Landreth, drummer Ken Blevins, and bassist David Ranson were an integral part of Hiatt's success on the tour supporting Bring the Family and Slow Turning. Landreth, in particular, is always a pleasure. His tasty background work here on a National Steel on "Rock of Your Love" or the layering he adds to "Come Home to You" are examples of the instrumental fire he brings to this and every other project he's worked on, including his recent solo album, Levee Town (Sugar Hill). As laid-back as they might look onstage or in person, The Goners are a rock'n'roll band, pure and simple. While they might lack the sheer crunch and volume of the young bucks who backed Hiatt from Perfectly Good Guitar to Little Head, they drive hard enough to carry the fast numbers, but are nuanced enough for the kind of moody, textual playing the slower material demands.

And material is what Hiatt's latest resurgence is all about. Like him, hate him, no strong feeling either way—it's clear that he's back in the songwriting groove, and three tunes early on Tiki Bar illustrate this with gusto. "Hangin' Round Here" is the kind of mid-tempo glad-you-love-me, know-how-good-I've-got-it song that Hiatt has always excelled at, and which carries even more weight now that he's 49. Despite its prosaic title, "Lilacs in Ohio" is a guitar-drums-tambourine rocker that revisits the rawer-edged territory of Perfectly Good Guitar.

Then there's "My Old Friend," the kind of easy-tempoed, irresistible melody that makes longtime fans (like me) smile to realize that, despite a notoriously up-and-down career, Hiatt is still as good a songwriter as is working today, and still has something vital to say. The song opens autobiographically ("I thought we were gonna make that bridge / what do I know / Me and my expectations was always high") and goes on to explore the past, but in a way that makes clear that Hiatt has come to terms with his own history: "My old friend / you make me feel young again / my old friend / you're just as pretty as you were back then." Also echoing Hiatt's best past work is "Something Broken," in which he works the same confessional ballad style as in Bring the Family's "Have a Little Faith in Me."

Thanks to Sonny Landreth's guitar overdubs, many of the 12-string variety, The Tiki Bar is Open has a rich, full sound, despite the inevitable added compression and little, if any, attempt at a realistic soundstage.

If the pattern of his history holds true, John Hiatt is now due for another artistic tailspin. But as in the career of any great songwriter, his recoveries and comebacks make his downturns worth waiting through.—Robert Baird