Both these troubadours had heydays back when America was thawing out from Reagan/Bush and warming into Clinton; when country and alternative strangely became synonymous. Nowadays and on the stage of Campbell Hall last Tuesday, John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett seem more like senior statesman lost in a nice eddy of civilization. It wasn’t exactly an oldies show, but a graceful reminder of off-kilter musicianship with songs that don’t bother to change the world or even update country-folk-rock. Just weirding: The banter between them, studiously awkward across two chairs, a table, and four guitars reflected the wry self-consciousness of stars who never cracked the Top 40 but have always been critical darlings. They hit stride aptly with Lovett’s “White Boy Lost in the Blues.”
The show built slowly in counterpoints, some more obvious than others as they took turns at bat. Hiatt played the relatively new song “Marlene Marlene,” then Lovett made jokes about songs focused on girl’s names and played “Fiona.” (Often wrongly called “One-Eyed Fiona.”)The musical differences are best located in the playing styles. Hiatt seems to have pared down his mellifluous soul, especially in the big numbers like “Real Fine Love.” If anything, Lovett seems more melodramatic now, pushing the dynamics of his music, trailing down to near whisper and then cutting loose with sweet banshee sounds. (In general, Hiatt played back-up for Lovett, who sat stock still when Hiatt played.) The surprise of the evening was a guest appearance by Ryan Bingham, better known as the dude who wrote Crazy Heart‘s music for The Dude. Though it was a nice touch to bring a youngster to the game, the evening woulda been fine without him.
In the end it’s a strange marriage that works. Hiatt, who is a straightforward balladeer, wrenched out “Have a Little Faith in Me” then played fine riffs accompanying Lovett, who writes loving parodies of cowboy and Gospel tunes, on the more or less heartfelt number, “My Baby Don’t Tolerate.” It was witty and riveting, and it cemented any possible cracks between country music and alternative art.