Friday, April 3, 2020


John Hiatt is just terrific, one of the best, if not in sales, certainly in terms of influence and output, up there, in my book, with Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. When he's good, he's very, very good and when he's bad, well, I haven't encountered that yet. And Bring the Family, the album from which this song comes, is possibly one of his best, positively enhanced by the backing band on hand. Backing band? O, just Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner. And yet it was born out of near desperation, a banknote or so away from ruin. Alone in the Dark, the feature song of this piece, epitomises the tight but loose feel of the disc, and is often overlooked amongst some of the other goodies on board. The lyrics may reflect a differing loneliness and a differing dark from these dangerous days, but the mood sure fits.

Ahead of this time, Hiatt had been a slogging workaday singer-songwriter, starting his career as a pen for hire. When Three Dog Night hit the top 40 with one of his, a recording contract beckoned, although, over the ensuing seven discs, scattered across various labels, more money came from royalties recouped, as the likes of Roseanne Cash and Willie Nelson recorded his songs, than he made from his own originals. Even the mighty Geffen label tried and failed to break him. This was arguably not helped by Hiatt being a drunken cuss who hadn't endeared himself to label bosses. So, newly sober, with a bunch of songs he had lost faith in, straits were indeed dire. Luckily the maverick UK label Demon still believed in him, and could offer a threadbare budget to record them. (The story of Demon makes for interesting reading, established by the earlier team behind Stiff records, Radar and F-Beat.)

Bring the Family, released in 1987, is a joy, from start to finish, the four musicians laying down a lean muscle honed from their collective road and studio experiences, Hiatt's holler a celebrant to his limited range: who needs more notes when you can do this much with these? Plus the songs, ten gems that can crack open a smile just from memory. Even if you don't know them, you know them, and even if you do, even over know them from the myriad cover versions of many, the freshness and vitality of the originals stand head and shoulder over most of those. It is hard to believe the whole project took only four days, Lowe sharing a motel room with Hiatt to keep costs down, Cooder delaying his departure a few hours as the final song was hastily written.

Neither the schedules of the four musicians, nor, then, the budget could allow this line-up any time on  the road. True, Hiatt rounded up some likely culprits, including perhaps the only man who could reasonably ever deputise for Cooder, bayou slide master, Sonny Landreth, and they hit the trail.  Following in the slipstream of Bring the Family, this crew, the Goners, produced a second deal breaking LP for Hiatt, Slow Turning, only a whisker away from being as good as its predecessor, being merely excellent. Hiatt was on a roll, with these and his next seven records all making substantive waves in the Billboard chart.

But the dream team were not done. In 1992 the diaries of Hiatt, Lowe, Cooder and Keltner finally realigned, and they went back into the studio. This time a band, Little Village, also the name of the sole studio offering, having ditched the earlier, and better, working title of Hiatus, and this time a pooling of resources, rather than just a backing band for Hiatt. The songs were all co-writes between the four, and whilst Hiatt sings the majority, Lowe took lead on two, Cooder on one. Perhaps there was too much hope, but the lightning failed to strike twice, and it was a deeply disappointing set. Nick Lowe later said they were given too much time. The subsequent tour was a little better, live sets testifying to that, allowing a presentation of some Bring the Family favourites, as well as scattering of Cooder's solo repertoire. One could sense a simmer of "sibling" rivalry, maybe some resentment that Hiatt was drawing more focus over Cooder's own sense of entitlement. It all ended, apparently, in tears.

Hiatt remains on the road, as do his former compadres, occasionally sharing a bill with one or another, all now senior statesmen and rightly so. Hiatt's recent work is, in my opinion, still of top quality and can stand close to the height of this period. Give him a go.

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