New West

In February of 1987, John Hiatt hunkered down in an L.A. studio for four days and cranked out the album that turned his then 14-year-and-stalling career around. Bring The Family found a newly-sober and refocused Hiatt as part of a dream team that included guitarist Ry Cooder, bassist Nick Lowe, and drummer Jim Keltner. The foursome sounded as though they’d been playing together for years and years, pumping out 10 new Hiatt tunes that still rotate through his setlists 23 years later.

Though Hiatt has shared the studio with a multitude of talented musicians over the years (including Luther and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars, guitar wizards David Immergluck and Sonny Landreth, and bass monsters like Davey Faragher and David Hood), his work since Bring The Family has often felt just exactly like that: John Hiatt with a wicked band backing him.

Until now, anyway. Hiatt’s recently-released The Open Road is chock full of the same sort of loosey-goosey-but-dead-nuts-on interplay among all hands that made Bring The Family feel so damn good. Joining Hiatt on The Open Road are drummer Kenneth Blevins (who has shared both stage and studio with Hiatt over the years as a member of The Goners), bassist Patrick O’Hearn and guitarist Doug Lancio. And although the trio may not have the mainstream name recognition of the original Bring The Family all-star lineup, their mojo with Hiatt is sheer magic.

True to its name, The Open Road is a big-time nod to Hiatt’s longtime love of things with wheels – not quite as obsessive as ol’ Neil Young’s Fork In The Road from last year, but passionate nonetheless. Right off the bat, the title track digs in and bangs through the gears with a “shrunken head and Mardi Gras beads hanging from the rearview mirror,” with the kind of chorus meant to be sung at the top of your lungs with the windows rolled down. From there the route swings from sweet backwoods gravel (“Wonder of Love”) to lonnnggg stretches of two-lane blacktop without a cop in sight (“Haulin’”) to a slow low-gear midnight crawl down a bluesy boulevard (“Like A Freight Train”, “My Baby”). Over the course of the album, guitarist Lancio lays down everything from nasty-ass slide (hard to have a Hiatt album without some slide) to 20’-curler surf guitar (witness the clear tones of “Homeland”). As for the rhythm section of O’Hearn and Blevins, all you have to do is make one pass through the head-bopping slink of “What Kind of Man” and you’ll be sold – the two of them absolutely nail that kind of goofy-but-cool white-guy beat that Hiatt loves to wind his vocals around.

Go, daddy, go!

And as for the man himself, well, it’s rewarding to hear Hiatt so comfy and fierce and soulful and just letting fly with such confidence. This is the John Hiatt you get during the second hour of a live show – one minute doing his funky middle-aged butt-shake and the next minute breaking your heart (the album-closing “Carry You Back Home” is destined to have couples holding hands on the way out of concert halls for years to come).

There have been many fine John Hiatt albums since Bring The Family, but The Open Road marks the arrival of a great Hiatt band … maybe the best ever.