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Hiatt and Mighty

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Can't Slow Down: John Hiatt proves that his career is going strong, with both an impressive eponymous album and a Saturday Fat Fry appearance.

Singer/songwriter John Hiatt proves that he's still going forward, even while looking back

By Christopher Weir

FOR A MUSICIAN who says he's "never written a song for anybody but myself," John Hiatt sure manages to lurk behind the scenes of more than a few smash hits. Indeed, while Hiatt is a legend for his own recordings and performances--including his upcoming Saturday performance at the Fall Fat Fry--he is also the mastermind of dozens of familiar tunes rendered by everyone from Bonnie Raitt to Linda Ronstadt, Suzy Bogguss to Iggy Pop.

Now, after 14 albums spanning 24 years, Hiatt finds himself at the helm of The Best of John Hiatt, a recent release that navigates his vast oeuvre and distills it into a tight, memorable and even epic 17-song compilation.

Of course, with a songwriter as widely recorded and interpreted as Hiatt, the "best-of" notion occupies a rather unique dimension. Too often, such retrospective albums are static and predictable, if not painfully obvious, with a few token "buy me" bones tossed around in the guise of new songs. To his credit, Hiatt seems to have reveled in the challenge of crafting an inspired and honest compilation, one that prefers to take a few chances rather than risk artistic paralysis.

Sure, The Best of John Hiatt includes two new songs. But Hiatt enthusiasts are just as likely to be enticed--and rewarded--by reworkings of "Have a Little Faith in Me," "Drive South" and "Angel Eyes," as well as by the album's overall texture, which is eerily seamless for an artist drawing from such a vast and eclectic output.

Things get off to a particularly satisfying start with Hiatt's soulful rendition of "Have a Little Faith in Me," a masterpiece that has been covered by, among others, Joe Cocker, Delbert McClinton and Jewel, and which was originally recorded for piano and voice on Hiatt's Bring the Family album. The new version pairs Hiatt with producer Glen Ballard, and the result is a supercharged, dynamic gospel arrangement that redefines and sublimates the tune.

Also noteworthy is Hiatt's sultry duet with Roseanne Cash on "The Way We Make a Broken Heart," a song that Cash made famous with a solo hit in 1987. The duet was originally recorded four years earlier but was left off of Hiatt's contemporaneous release, Riding With the King.

Meanwhile, the new cuts are, as expected, pure Hiatt. "Love in Flames" is a mournful ballad with a timeless atmosphere that dovetails nicely with the older recordings, while the album closer "Don't Know Much About Love" picks up where his last album, Little Head, left off: a fun, spirited rocker that packs a powerful hook.

Now that he's wielding his crowning compilation, Hiatt is showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, he even seems poised for experimentation.

"I've been writing quite a bit," Hiatt says, "folk songs and songs I may want to record just by myself, maybe while tapping my foot on something. But I've been really inspired lately, and I've also been listening to old jazz from the '50s and '60s and even getting off on opera."

Fat Fry patrons are thus forewarned: The festival ain't over till the skinny rocker sings.

John Hiatt plays the Fall Fat Fry on Sat. (Sept. 26). The festival continues Sunday and begins at 11am both days at the Aptos Village Park, Aptos. Tickets costs $29/$25. For more info, call 427-5300.

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From the September 24-30, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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