You get the feeling Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt have done this a few times. Watching them on stage, you can almost imagine it's just two good friends who have got together to pick a little, rib each other, and share a few stories -- but instead of hanging out in their living room, they happen to be doing it in front of several hundred fans on a darkly lit stage at the Brown Theatre. While the set list and the banter might be well-rehearsed, true entertainers that they are, Lovett and Hiatt make it all sound extemporaneous -- each picking up on a thread or a word in the other's song and answering it with one of his own -- or in some cases, someone else's song that he's made his own.
Hiatt kicked off the evening with the soulful "Train to Birmingham," which he wrote at the tender age of 19, and Lovett came back with "Give Me Back My Heart," a song from his own youth based, as he said with his trademark wry humor, on a terrible social incident with a girl at a VFW dance. Be the facts as they may, it makes for a good story, and this is how the night went -- with one reminiscence weaving into the next, song choices sparking off one another sometimes with humorous or ironic effect. Hiatt's quietly lovely "Lipstick Sunset" led into Lovett's familiar opening line to "She Makes Me Feel Good" ("She's got big red lips, she's got big brown eyes...)." Perhaps the best segue was when Hiatt's banter about how a chance encounter resulted in his meeting his wife of 25 years was followed by the first line of Lovett's "The Girl with the Holiday Smile" -- "I met a hooker at the grocery store...." That drew a big laugh from the entire audience.
As droll as the between-song chats were, I was often eager for them to end to see which song from their mighty archives would come next. Some of Lovett's choices paid homage to songwriters he's admired and covered over the years: Eric Taylor's beatifully rendered "Understand You", William Moore's "One Way Gal," and The Grateful Dead's "Friend of the Devil." And of course, there were his own classics like "Road to Ensenada" and "If I Had a Pony." These are songs that are quintessentially Lovett -- conjuring lonely western landscapes and brimming with romantic, quirky, dream-like images. One reason this duo works so well together is because their strengths complement each other. Lovett's surreal shifts and liquid voice are countered by Hiatt's slightly harder edge and strong country-blues crooning on songs like "Drive South" and "Memphis in the Meantime."
The audience paid their respect with rapt attention, only occasionally shouting out songs or barks of encouragement to the stage. I'll offer only one aside on concert hall etiquette – one brought to my attention by my husband, who was sitting in the balcony. Now, I've sat in the Brown balcony, and while it's a great view, it's pretty tight quarters in the steeply stacked seats. Therefore, if you remove your shoes (!) gentlemen, and cross your ankle over your knee, be advised that your bare foot (!!) is approximately in the ear of the unlucky person sitting in front of you. Consider that you are not ACTUALLY in your living room and should keep the feet covered and planted in front of you at all times.
The night ended with Lovett and Hiatt joining forces on a rousing encore of "Church," and it's certainly a fitting way to wrap things up, as I expect that for many fans, it was indeed a worshipful evening. Listening to two bona fide masters of American songwriting trading songs and guitar licks is an experience that any music fan should cherish.
Photo Credit: Ryan Armbrust, SniperPhotography.com