As much as I am disinclined to choose only one kind of music in actual life, I do enjoy playing the game of “if you could have only one, which would it be?” I was thinking about that Sunday night, Oct. 27, while snuggled into the happy crowd at UNC’s Memorial Auditorium for an acoustic evening with singer-songwriters Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt and their gleaming guitars, presented by Carolina Performing Arts as part of this season’s refreshing Americana series. I heard a little voice in the back of my mind saying, OK, I can give up all those pretty Schubert lieder, and maybe Verdi, too, but I got to have a singing man with a blues guitar when I’m stuck on that desert island.
Between them, Lovett and Hiatt have written a large number of the more intelligent, wry and sensitive rocking country blues songs of the past 35 years, and they took turns playing a choice selection of their own songs, with a few by other writers to leaven the mix. About a quarter of the way into the nearly 3 hour unbroken concert, Lyle Lovett began to tell about learning a certain Michael Franks song from the great Piedmont bluesmen, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, in 1978. Lovett and Hiatt then launched together into that classic, “White Boy Lost in the Blues,” Hiatt modulating off Lovett’s killer blues riff, and I was transported. Not in place, but in time, back to the spring of 1974 when I heard Sonny and Brownie playing that song on that very stage. It is a little different when the white boys are playing it, but I think the old black bluesmen would have been satisfied with Hiatt’s growl and Lovett’s pick-and-frail style. Being white, they don’t have to gentle down the mockery; they blistered that thing.
“You bought you a six string Gibson
You bought you a great big house
You try to sing like Muddy Waters
And play like Lightnin’ sounds
But since I blowed my harp
You feelin’ mean and confused.
It got you chained to your earphones
You just a white boy lost in the blues.”
Lovett recorded this song on his latest album, Release Me.
Not only was this a concert of great songs by two fantastic guitarists, it was an evening of conversation between them. I’m sure they had it pretty well mapped out, but both men have more-than-sufficient stage skills, so the between-song chat came across as fresh and intimate, and was informative as often as it was amusing. And I can’t think when I’ve ever been to an auditorium show that felt as comfortable as a house party. Certainly I’ve never heard a high-dollar musician talk onstage–not in song–about dropping out of school or stealing cars. The pair talked about their own music, each other’s music and technique, and swapped stories about other musicians and bands. Lovett told about the first time he saw Hiatt–he was playing guitar behind Ry Cooder. Said Lovett: “I thought he was…brave.” Yup, and just damn fine.
Talk is great, but there was a gracious plenty of musical action,too, with both men singing several of their best-known songs: “When I was a Very Young Man,” “Life’s Been Good to Me,” “Don’t Touch My Hat,” by Lovett; “This Thing Called Love” (“I ain’t no porcupine/take off your kid gloves”), “Crossing Muddy Water,” “Drive South,” by Hiatt, and many more. Lyle’s been to Chapel Hill more than once, and he dedicated one song to the current Julians running Julian’s clothing store, and another to “anyone who might have been there at The Cave in 1986.” In a particularly graceful gesture, the pair chose as their set-closer a beautiful old tune by the under-appreciated Jesse Winchester, “Brand-New Tennessee Waltz.” How could it get better? Well, they came back for an encore. Hiatt crooned “When the Road Gets Dark/Have a Little Faith in Me,” soaring up into a sustained falsetto that drew out the tears, before Lyle kicked us on out of there with a rousing rendition of “My Baby Don’t Tolerate.”