Ready to rock to classic folk country veteran John Hiatt’s extensive repertoire of drinkin’, lovin’ and hurtin’ songs, audience members filled The State Theatre last Thursday.
The 58-year-old songwriting mainstay, who’s been in the music industry since the age of 18, poured his energy into the 20-song acoustic show, proving none of his talents have diminished with age.
The audience was comprised mostly of an older crowd with a few college-aged students in the mix, reflective of Hiatt’s mainstream success coming in the late ’70s and ’80s, before Generation Y members were even born.
Hiatt invited country artist Holly Williams — the daughter of Hank Williams Jr. and granddaughter of the legendary Hank Williams — to open for him for his September tour dates before he heads to Europe in October.
The audience, which seemed unfamiliar with Williams’ lineage, reacted most strongly to “Mama” and “Without Jesus Here With Me” — songs Williams introduced with anecdotes about her family.
Williams, covering John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery,” filled the theater with a warm presence reflecting her growth in vocal intensity from her 2004 debut, “The Ones We Never Knew,” to last year’s “Here With Me.”
Her only fault was not taking advantage of the keyboard sitting onstage. Though a fine guitar player, Williams, by leaving her current single, “Alone,” off the set list, missed her opportunity to showcase her talent as a pianist.
Hiatt took the stage to extensive applause and whistling, jumping right into a blues-tinged “Riding With the King.” He kept the tempo up for most of the show, keeping the audience members’ toes tapping to “Real Fine Love” and “Tennessee Plates.”
His at-first serious demeanor melted away as he commented on the humid weather and took audience requests, making his performance all the more accessible. His “Memphis in the Meantime” engaged the crowd as Hiatt roped everyone into an intense round of calling “Mem-phis-a-haw-haw-haw-haw.”
Hiatt’s raspy voice shined in the acoustic setting, balanced well by his master guitar solos. His fingers seemed at home on the guitar strings, eliciting the haunting feeling of an old train song with “The Tiki Bar is Open” and the normally pop-rock “Through Your Hands.”
Unlike Williams, Hiatt did turn to the piano during his show, offering a soothing break with “Is Anybody There?” to contrast with the pounding beats of his other songs. This added diversity to his performance and displayed his range as a musician, even though the guitar is certainly his better instrument.
He offered a more country version to his “Lipstick Sunset,” recalling the gruff style of Willie Nelson, making it less of a power ballad and more appropriate for the night’s show. Other songs like “Cry Love” became more Bob Dylan-esque, as he delightfully jammed on the guitar with a harmonica holder around his neck.
Audience members heard Hiatt’s most famous hits, including “Buffalo River Home,” “Drive South” and, with a nod to Bonnie Raitt, “Thing Called Love,” that were just as enjoyable and catchy acoustically as the studio track versions. Hiatt belted out these up-tempo songs as many in the crowd danced in their seats.
At the end of his show, Hiatt was met with a standing ovation and calls for his most famous song: “Have a Little Faith in Me.”
Not to disappoint, Hiatt took his seat at the piano and offered a charming version of the song, which showcased the tender side of his rough voice even after a full night of singing. With the song serving as a soundtrack, a few couples took to the aisles and slow-danced to end the night.