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Hiatt's latest CD continues a winning tradition


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John Hiatt and the Goners

By ALAN SCULLEY

For the Call

John Hiatt is one of the few recording artists who truly can claim to be a songwriter's songwriter.

By his own count more than 130 artists have covered his tunes, including such heavyweights as Bonnie Raitt, "Thing Called Love"; Eric Clapton and B.B. King, the title song from their CD, "Riding With the King"; and Bob Dylan, "The Usual." A new tribute CD, "It'll Come to You ... the Songs of John Hiatt," collects 13 performances of the Indiana-born artist's songs by an eclectic group of artists.

Besides "Thing Called Love" and "Riding With the King," the CD features Linda Ron-stadt performing "When We Ran," Buddy Guy performing "Feels Like Rain" and Willie Nelson performing "The Most Un-original Sin."

But try to get Hiatt to talk about the vir-tues of his songwriting, and it's clear he's not one to tout his accomplishments.

Asked what he believes his greatest strength is as a songwriter, Hiatt laughed and decided not to engage in any chest-thumping.

"Oh God, you're really asking the wrong person,'' the self-deprecating Hiatt said. I really have no idea other than, I couldn't say. All I know is pretty much every time I start to write a song I feel like I've never written one before in my life. If that's a positive or negative, I don't know. Other than that, I wouldn't know what my strengths are."

Perhaps Hiatt's reluctance to dissect his songwriting skills is just as well. After all, Hiatt's music has far more often than not spoken emphatically enough on its own.

A native of Indianapolis, Ind., Hiatt beg-an his recording career in 1974 with the album "Hanging Around the Observa-tory." During the first decade of his career, he frequently was cast as a new-wavish artist in the tradition of Elvis Costello.

And while CDs such as "Slug Line" (1979), "Riding With the King" (1983) and "Warming Up to the Ice Age" (1985) had good songs, the production sometimes was overdone and performances seemed forced.

It also didn't help that through those years, Hiatt was battling a major substance abuse problem. His life also was touched by tragedy when his second wife committed suicide. In the late 1980s, Hiatt got sober and remarried, and with his seventh CD, "Bring the Family" (1987), he hit his artistic stride. Since then, Hiatt has delivered an unbroken string of albums ranging from very good — 1990's "Stolen Mo-ments" and 2001's "The Tiki Bar Is Open"— to downright terrific — 1988's "Slow Turning," 1993's "Perfectly Good Guitar" and 1995's "Walk On."

Hiatt's new CD, "Beneath This Gruff Ex-terior," continues the winning tradition. It marks Hiatt's second straight studio collaboration with what many consider his definitive backing band, the Goners.

That unit, which includes guitarist Son-ny Landreth, drummer Kenneth Blevins and bassist Dave Ranson, first was featured on "Slow Turning," but had not reunited with Hiatt again until recording began on, "The Tiki Bar Is Open."

For "Beneath This Gruff Exterior," Hiatt wanted to capture the energy and interplay of a live performance with the Goners.

Hiatt came into the sessions armed only with solo demos of his new songs, and with virtually no rehearsals, he and the Goners then began recording.

"The demos were not well developed at all. They were simple," Hiatt said. "It was just vocal and guitar. I hate doing demos, but I went and did those so I could learn the songs, so that I would know the song when we went in to perform it. I didn't want the Goners to know the songs because we're better when we don't know what we're doing. But I wanted to know the songs be-cause I wanted to be able to get a take and not have me screw it up.''

After eight days of recording, "Under This Gruff Exterior" nearly was finished.

The CD captures the swampy, grooving playing of the Goners on a collection of typically strong Hiatt originals.

Hiatt's dry wit is apparent on "How Bad's the Coffee," a song which finds the Goners digging deep to strike a deliciously chunky tempo. On "Almost Fed Up With the Blues," the band unleashes a particularly sassy and gritty performance.

Hiatt's command of a pop melody, mean-while, is on full display on "My Baby Blue," one of several songs to feature Lan-dreth's distinctive slide guitar work.

"We pretty well captured what it is we do when we play live," Hiatt said of the new CD. "I call it the little band that could. It's a four-piece contraption, you know. We make a racket together that we don't make apart. And it's a very live album. We cut all the songs live, I'm singing the vocal live with the band ... It's a performance kind of thing."

John Hiatt and the Goners play Sept. 3 as part of a co-bill with the Robert Cray Band at the Pageant. Tickets for the 8 p.m. show cost $32.50 in advance and $34.50 the day of the show.

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