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Fat's in the Fire

John Hiatt
Big Pig: Gravel-voiced songwriter John Hiatt makes a return to town for Sunday's Fat Fry at Aptos Village Park.

Photo by Neal Preston

Rock & roll prankster John Hiatt's so high on the hog, he's going to headline this weekend's KPIG musical bash

By Christopher Weir

'THIS IS GOING TO BE A DUO show," says fabled rock & roller John Hiatt, contemplating his upcoming appearance at the Fat Fry Summer Music Festival. "Me and [co-producer] Davey Faragher, we're going to be yodeling and harmonizing. He's going to be playing bass, and I'm going to be flailing away on the acoustic. Your ears will deceive your eyes--you'll look and go, 'Where's the rock band?' Because that's what it's going to sound like."

In the unlikely event that Hiatt hasn't already convinced you to find your way to Aptos Village Park this weekend, then consider some of the other acts comprising this year's stellar festival lineup: Robert Earl Keen, David Lindley, the Blasters, Elvin Bishop and local fave Lacy J. Dalton.

The Fat Fry concept may only be five years old, but it already seems legendary, a status that can only be enhanced by the inaugural presence of Hiatt.

"I've not actually played the Fat Fry," he says, speaking from a hotel room in New York, his distinctively smoky voice occasionally riddled with touring-induced hacking. "I've been around Fat Fry people, I've been around the station [festival sponsor KPIG] before, but never in association with the Fat Fry. I've played in Santa Cruz, in the open air, somewhere, it seems to me. Maybe it was just on the street corner. I don't know."

With a little prodding, though, Hiatt recalls "playing at the Catalyst many times in my long and sordid career ... . Santa Cruz is very beautiful. The people sure like their music in that neck of the woods, and you can get a good plate of grilled tofu. I know that for a fact. I've had it there."

As for that long and sordid career, Hiatt first picked up the guitar at age 11. His inspiration? "Girls." Did it work? "Later, but not initially," he laughs.

Fourteen albums later, Hiatt finds himself at the helm of a vast songwriting legacy that includes more than 130 covers by such artists as Willie Nelson, Iggy Pop, Paula Abdul and Bob Dylan. So how did he become the ultimate songwriter's songwriter?

"It just sort of happened," he says with a verbal shrug of the shoulders. "I've never written a song for anybody but myself."

As with previous albums such as Perfectly Good Guitar and Walk On, Hiatt's latest release--the phallocentrically titled Little Head--showcases his virtuosity with not only songwriting but musical execution. On the ballad "My Sweet Girl," Hiatt's voice reaches the upper stratosphere of soulfulness, while the rollicking "Sure Pinocchio" finds Hiatt, his Nashville Queens and Tower of Power conspiring to distill the very essence of rock & roll.

"I like all kinds of different music and styles," Hiatt says. "For me, making a new record is not about trying to re-create the last one, it's about trying to do something new."

But by transcending trends and remaining true to the blues-fueled roots of rock, Hiatt has earned the right to chuckle at Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and "all those guys who sing like their chins have been sewn to their necks." He mimics the style with a meandering bellow, then says, "It's a sound. It's happening. Well, it was."

So many years after picking up the guitar to impress girls, Hiatt says he's no longer interested in the "sideshows" that tend to distract touring musicians.

"I leave those to the young guys," he says. "By the time you're my age, you're either focused or you're dead. I'm focused."

Peachy Keen

THE FAT FRY'S SATURDAY headliner, Texas troubadour Robert Earl Keen, will be showcasing a "new" sound that can be traced to his latest release, Picnic. After more than a decade's worth of memorable independent-label releases, Keen was signed last year to Arista Austin. Introduced to producer John Keane (REM, Indigo Girls, Widespread Panic) by Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies, Keen enjoyed a studio chemistry that inspired him to seek new sonic territory while creating "a stripped-down rock & roll record."

Keen promises to deliver the stripped-down goods to new and old fans alike.

Multi-instrumentalist David Lindley is perhaps the festival's most eclectic persona. His "electro-acoustic" performances synthesize folk, blues and bluegrass while drawing musical inspiration from African, Arabic, Celtic and other cultural sources. And his instrumentation incorporates everything from Irish bouzoukis to Turkish chumbus.

Lacy J. Dalton is no stranger to the stage, or to locals. Still known to old-timers by her original hometown handle--Jill Croston--the performer with the blues-soaked voice kicked off her career in about every haunt of this area.

Early in her career, she would spend 300 days on the road per year, touring at times with Merle Haggard, Charlie Daniels and a host of others. Now commanding her own songwriting legacy, Dalton has pared down her schedule to a "mere" 120 shows per year. Her biggest hit, "16th Avenue," belongs to Billboard's "top 100 country hits of all time." Other familiar favorites include "Crazy Blue Eyes," "Black Coffee" and "Hillbilly Girl With the Blues."

The Fat Fry's sleeper band just might be String Cheese Incident, which festival co-director Karen Watt describes as "very talented musicians who sure can play fast." Fast enough to inspire a mosh pit? "There won't be any mosh pits, but you might find some people dancing with reckless abandon."

Ultimately, the Fat Fry is a celebration of Santa Cruz County's grand musical traditions.

"What's always amazing to me as a promoter is that we have so many clubs in the area, that there's so much good music to enjoy in such a relatively small community," Watt says. "People here are open to all kinds of music, and they attract a lot of major acts."

Which brings us to "Pirate Radio," a Hiatt song that hearkens to the days when good radio and pure rock & roll were not endangered species. "Music has been misappropriated and bastardized, turned every which way in the name of marketing and money," he explains. "You've got John Lennon songs selling Nike shoes. So it's getting harder to find music with meaning. Still, it's out there. You just have to look for it."

And a talent-packed festival brought to you by the area's own pirate radio station would be a good place to start.

The Fat Fry takes place Sat. (Robert Earl Keen, the Blasters, Dan Hicks, Lacy J. Dalton, Big Blue Hearts) and Sun. (John Hiatt, Elvin Bishop, David Lindley, String Cheese Incident, Maria Muldaur) at Aptos Village Park. Tickets cost $23 advance/$27 gate each day, and a two-day pass costs $33 advance. Call 338-2090 to charge tickets by phone, or buy them at 21st Century CD, Logos, Sylvan Music, Henfling's and Streetlight Records.

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From the July 23-30, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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