John Hiatt and The Combo at Ravinia Festival

Ravinia Festival Oak Park Illinois The ComboJohn Hiatt and the Combo

At Ravinia Festival, Highland Park

Have a Little Faith in Me

John Hiatt is a well-known and accomplished songwriter.  He’s written songs for just about everyone under the sun, and a number of them have been hits – at least on the country charts (which, frankly, is where you want to hit: the country numbers bring in more cash than anything that charts on the pop top for sure).  And it’s well-deserved: he’s good.  As I rediscovered at Ravinia, he’s corny, but he’s good.

And, man, he is corny.  But that’s part of what makes his schtick enjoyable.  Most of the time it’s down-home, sappy, makes-you-grin corny – both in the songs and with the on-stage banter.  Only occasionally does the corn deliver a real clunker; like in his song about the flooding that hit Nashville and much of the southeast last year when he mentions kids bitching about no cable.  It’s a trope that got a few laughs, but in an otherwise dour-faced and really damn good song, it falls frail and seems such an easy and tired target.

But mostly the cornball stuff is comforting, somehow.  It’s like Mom’s home cooking: even when it’s not the best, it makes you feel like the world is all right.  Which is really what Hiatt is going for, mostly.  One of his biggest hits, Bonnie Raitt’s cover of his “Thing Called Love,” is apt: “Are you ready for the thing called love? Don’t come from you and me, it come from up above.”  Like, trashy cornball.  But then there are lyrics like “Now we can live in fear or act out of hope,” a genuine, insightful line – and clever, too.  And cleverness prevails in Hiatt’s oeuvre.  Even when it’s corny, it’s clever.  “You ain’t some icon carved out of soap / Sent down to clean up my reputation / Baby I ain’t your Prince Charming.”  And the corniness carries over into his live show – but, again, it’s more of a feel-good, comfort food sort of corny.  Like the chicken fried steak your grandma used to make: it’s so bad for you, but it tastes so good.

But that doesn’t mean every song is like that.  “Damn This Town,” a dark screed written from the perspective of Hiatt’s curmudgeonly childhood neighbor.  “They killed my brother over a poker game… Daddy stayed drunk and died insane / Damn this town I’m leaving.”  The song displays Hiatt’s knack for interesting and beguiling lyrics, with a few twists that really show off his talent.  And the solid blues / roots backdrop really brought it home.

Indeed, The Combo are all phenomenal musicians; Kenneth Blevins and Frank Swart fill out the rhythm section on drums and bass, respectively, giving each song a strong backbone.  Brandon Young, guitar tech-slash-harmonist, can follow Hiatt to the tee.  And Doug Lancio on lead guitar and mandolin was also solid, lending each song exactly what it needed, changing guitars almost every song to get the tone just right.

It being the ten year anniversary of 9/11, there was a tribute, of sorts, during the encore: the screens showed pictures of the day over which the band played a mournful song.  And when so many of these memorials ring utterly hollow – anyone see the Budweiser commercial with the horses bowing to the twin beacons? – it was a tasteful and really rather mild homage.

John Hiatt’s a lasting talent, and his live act is really something.  He’s a regular at Ravinia, so look out for him in the years to come.

Highly Recommended

Will Fink

Reviewed on 9.11.11

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