This is what I have always found so astonishing about Lyle Lovett: He writes these dry, witty, oddly literate songs like "Good Intentions" and "Creeps Like Me," and then turns around and destroys you with the most aching, devastating portraits of doomed love, like "L.A. County" and "She's Already Made Up Her Mind."
And as a writer, few have John Hiatt's talent for putting frustration, pain, love and liberation into a single song (see "Drive South," "Icy Blue Heart," "Have a Little Faith in Me"). Hiatt's 20/20 eye for detailing the visceral is virtually unmatched among American musical scribes.
What a pleasure, then, to have both of these national treasures in town - together on one stage - as part of the 2012 Savannah Music Festival.
Lovett and Hiatt spent a little over two hours on the Trustees Theater stage Saturday night. It was what Nashville types like to call a "guitar pull" - a couple of pickers, acoustic guitars in hand, swapping songs one at a time. There was no band, no other musicians on the stage.
They were equally matched, on comfortable-looking chairs, and they politely took turns: Hiatt would watch, silently, as Lovett played a tune, and then it was the other way around.
Hiatt's voice is raw, soulful, and marbled with New Orleans and R&B; Lovett's wry Texas tenor is more mannered. Hiatt, on occasion, looked as if he were going to explode with emotion; Lovett never broke a sweat.
Lovett, who has been erroneously (and hilariously) branded a "country" artist ever since his first album appeared in 1986, sang his legendary Big Band cocktail jazz ("Her First Mistake," "She's No Lady") and those hard-to-categorize songs of his that are both funny and fraught with pathos ("One-Eyed Fiona," "If I Had a Boat")."
From Hiatt, it was one great, blues-rocking tune after another: "Walk On," "Thing Called Love," "Tennessee Plates."
Every once in a while, one of the musicians would add a guitar line or a vocal harmony to the other's song. But not often.
The down side to all of this was the between-song patter - or, rather, the lack of it. Laconic, musician-like humor was the order of the day, and Lovett and Hiatt seemed more focused on amusing each other than keeping the momentum going. They talked about the weather. They told weird little jokes about their lyrics, and about tuning their guitars.
At one point, Hiatt was discussing - of all people - Iggy Pop. "He ate with his hands, like a raccoon," the songwriter said.
Lovett: "Did you ever see him eat grits?"
Hiatt: "No. I would like to have seen that."
So it wasn't exactly a Vegas-styled dog and pony show. Nobody expected that, anyway. It was all about great artists, sharing what they create in an intimate setting.
Oh, about that. The music was, of course, outstanding. Hearing Lovett and Hiatt's strained witticisms fall flat inside a (reasonably large) theater, however, I started thinking that a "guitar pull," in the classic sense, should be in somebody's living room - or onstage at some tight, hip little club. This was a rather forced intimacy.
But for all the talk about "bringing the songs to the audience up close," the only reason anybody does these acoustic tours is that they're a lot cheaper than paying a band. And once or twice during this show, I would've loved to hear the horns and rhythm section horns of Lovett's Large Band putting the swing in his step.
Hiatt, for his part, is a rocker. You can only do so much with one acoustic guitar.
But those things will happen again, soon enough. This was a unique musical experience, wonderful and rewarding on its own terms.
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