Why should Neil Young get to grab all the ragged glory?
John Hiatt is another excellent singer-songwriter who hasn’t let turning 40 keep him from playing it rough, raucous and revved. While Young has had many more years of practice at being gloriously ragged with his throbbing garage band, Crazy Horse, Hiatt certainly seemed at home with the concept Tuesday night at the Coach House, fronting a new band that leaked enough aural grease and spewed enough noisy feedback to frequently put a listener in mind of ol’ Neil.
For several years now, Young has taken to jamming with upstarts like Pearl Jam and enlisting youthful bands like Blind Melon and Social Distortion as opening acts (a role they’ll both play for Young tonight at the Pacific Amphitheatre).
Hiatt, 41, is going him one better.
On his strong new album, “Perfectly Good Guitar,” and in his new stage band, he surrounds himself with players about 10 to 20 years his junior. Keeping the accent on newness, Hiatt front-loaded his two-hour set with song after song from the new album, keeping guaranteed crowd-pleasers from his catalogue mainly for the end.
If nothing else, Hiatt is sponsoring a display of intergenerational cooperation at a time when Generation Xers, or whatever unwieldy name is being applied to folks in their 20s these days, supposedly have little love for the supposedly more-privileged Baby Boomers (whose advantages include a generational code name that makes sense, alluding as it does to a historic fact).
But Hiatt hardly fits the stereotype of a mellowing, cocooning, young-not-much-longer professional. The Indiana-born, Nashville-based singer-songwriter has that lean-and-hungry look; his dark brows bat with nervous animation while he performs, and his voice rises readily to a coyote howl.
He’s not a member of the gaudily wealthy pop elite, either. While he has a cult following large enough to have packed the 500-seat San Juan Capistrano club, Hiatt’s commercial results never have been commensurate with the quality of a recording output that dates back to 1974; his songs have reached a mass audience only when done by such better-positioned performers as Bonnie Raitt (“Thing Called Love”), the Jeff Healey Band (“Angel Eyes”) and Rosanne Cash (“The Way We Make a Broken Heart”).
At the same time, the band that he jokingly introduced as “the lads” and later dubbed “the noisy youngsters,” isn’t exactly a crew of Seattle grunge merchants.
Bassist Davey Faragher and drummer Michael Urbano were last seen hereabouts 10 months ago anchoring a delightfully brash, roughhouse set by their former band, Cracker, an outfit that had a lot more in common with the Rolling Stones circa “Sticky Fingers” and “Exile on Main Street” than with anything a Lollapalooza band would favor.
And lead guitarist Michael Ward, the stage band’s lone holdover from the “Perfectly Good Guitar” recording lineup, hails from School of Fish, a Los Angeles band steeped in Beatles influences.
They were noisy, though, and they looked sort of grungy. One way for a middle-aged guy with a slightly elevated hairline to feel a little younger is to flank himself with two young fellows with heads as bald as a Buddhist monk.
Both Ward and rhythm guitarist Corky James looked pretty hard core with their shaven scalps. Faragher shaved only the sides of his head, reserving the top for tightly wound, dreadlock-style braids. He did wear pants and a shirt, however, unlike his last Coach House appearance with Cracker, when he wore quite a lovely ensemble of ladies’ sheer hose and a glittering green mini-dress.
The look may have been puzzling for a predominantly Boomer-vintage audience accustomed to Hiatt’s less exotic sidemen of the past. But the sound clearly made sense.
The fans responded enthusiastically to songs that few could have heard before, since Hiatt’s new album had just come out on Tuesday.
There was nothing foreign in those songs. Strains of Neil Young & Crazy Horse came through frequently, thanks to Ward’s thick but consistently melodic guitar tone.
It would be asking too much to expect Hiatt’s newly formed troupe to have that special quality Young has with Crazy Horse, where all four players seem to be swinging a sledgehammer as one. Hiatt’s players were self-contained, and seemed reluctant to draw too close to their leader.
Ward was all tight-lipped, craggy-faced concentration as he tossed out throbbing licks and feedback punctuation. He also showed a sweeter, more controlled side in moments like his weeping slide-guitar solo during “Lipstick Sunset,” a melancholy ballad that was one of the familiar songs Hiatt saved for the end.
But the band never seemed cowed or tentative, and Hiatt was pleased enough with the action to feign heart palpitations at several junctures. At the end of a pounding “Thank You Girl,” he leaped to the drum riser and summoned one last crashing beat by banging the platform like a boxing referee counting off a knockout.
High points drawn from the new album included a couple of stately but electrically juiced anthems, “Buffalo River Home” and “Permanent Hurt,” the stormy “Something Wild” and “Cross My Fingers,” in which the band showed it could rock hard at a somewhat more tempered dynamic.
They misfired on only one of the show’s 21 songs: a chaotic version of “Thing Called Love” that lumbered when it should have skipped.
Hiatt opened the show splendidly with a solo-acoustic performance of “Through Your Hands,” a Dylan-influenced valediction affirming the value of creative work carried out with passion and commitment. “Whatever your hands find to do, don’t do it without your heart,” he sang--and he had no problem living up to his words.
The middle of the set was marked by a prayerful romantic plea, “Have a Little Faith in Me,” also done solo, with Hiatt’s fervent singing almost compensating for annoying technical problems--a microphone that repeatedly went dead during the song. By fitting one or two more songs into each of those solo slots, Hiatt could have better established a contrasting mood apart from the show’s prevailing rock thrust.
Having proclaimed artistic ideals at the start, and prayed for love in the middle, Hiatt celebrated at the end with a joyful stomp through “Real Fine Love,” which he dedicated to his wife.
Between songs, Hiatt didn’t devote a great deal of effort to telling stories or elaborating on his themes, but he addressed the house warmly and got across his share of quips, noting at one point that his songs about women in rotten relationships could be viewed as the “continuing saga” of one luckless soul.
His own favorite role was that of a dad struck by the wonder of family life--a role Hiatt carved for himself in “Bring the Family,” “Slow Turning” and “Stolen Moments,” the 1987-1990 album trilogy from which all 10 of the show’s older songs were culled.
Instead of obliging requests for “Georgia Rae,” written a few years back as a glowing song for an infant daughter, he provided wryly doting updates on how she is faring now that she is 5.
Hiatt said that Georgia Rae hasn’t taken enthusiastically to school, having figured out that it’s work and she’d rather play.
“I suggested she put off growing up as long as she possibly can. I think it’s a good route to follow,” said the father, who is setting a good example by refusing to go quietly into middle age.
Opener Sheryl Crow, an A&M; Records label-mate of Hiatt’s, showed off a big, rangy voice that moved from Bonnie Raitt-like huskiness to Rickie Lee Jones drawling breathiness to a piercing high range.
Backed by a solid band that played at slow to middling tempos, the St. Louis-based singer sprinkled several attractive melodies through a 45-minute set that encompassed funk beats (“Solidify”), an acidly ironic monologue (“What I Can Do for You,” which she dedicated to “all the sexual harassers in the audience”), heartland rock (“Can’t Cry Anymore”) and echoes of the Beatles (“Run Baby Run”).
Overall, the troubled declarations of independence and anguished pleas for lasting romantic ties on Crow’s debut album, “Tuesday Night Music Club,” recalled the sensibility of Lisa Germano, another well-qualified new solo artist from the Midwest. But Germano, who has the more limited voice, also offers the more distinctive songs.