Review: John Hiatt & The Goners
A fun evening of familiar songs and should have been hits at The Birchmere
Throughout a career now in its fifth decade, John Hiatt has always collaborated with other artists, sometimes more successfully than others. But he’s always found a smooth groove with the Goners.
The group’s chemistry was on display Monday in the second of two nights at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., a frequent tour stop for Hiatt and his many incarnations. Performing only one cut from his most recent album — “Mississippi Phone Booth” from the 2020’s Leftover Feelings collaboration with Jerry Douglas — Hiatt and the Goners stuck to tried-and-true material and managed to keep it fresh.
The group’s three members — virtuoso slide guitarist Sonny Landreth, bass player Dave Ranson, and drummer Kenny Blevins — have worked with Hiatt periodically since the 1987-88 “Bring the Family” tour. That tour was the first of almost 30 Hiatt shows I’ve seen and fond memories of that night are a large reason I became a lifelong fan.
When Hiatt scrapped the first round of sessions — band members included David Lindley and John Doe — for the “Bring the Family” follow up, he brought in the road-tested Goners and finished “Slow Turning” in 12 days. Even though numerous artists have success with covers of Hiatt’s songs, the title track remains his only top 10 hit as a solo artist.
Hiatt moved on from the Goners and did not record with them again for more than a decade. Having bounced from A&M to Capitol in the 1990s, he signed with New West Records at the start of the 21st century and brought the Goners in to back him on “The Tiki Bar is Open” and “Beneath This Gruff Exterior.” Both albums helped launch the third act of Hiatt’s career, one that has seen him remain with New West.
The Goners have not recorded together since but have reunited periodically on stage, most notably for a 30th anniversary “Slow Turning” tour that I saw and photographed at The Birchmere, one of my favorite concert halls in the Greater Washington, D.C. area. And much like that show, this one was just as much fun.
The last time I caught Hiatt was with Douglas at the Ryman Auditorium while en route to ShoalsFest last fall. As much fun as it was seeing Hiatt at the historic Nashville venue — and photographing a show at the Ryman was something on my bucket list — I think I enjoyed watching him play more with the Goners on this night. Tearing through 15 songs in 90 minutes, he seemed happy and healthy playing tracks I’ve heard countless times live.
Following a short solo set by opener Grayson Capps, the Goners hit the stage with three straight songs from the “Bring the Family”/”Slow Turning” era — a can’t miss trio of “Tennessee Plates,” “Your Dad Did” and “Feels Like Rain.” They then played the title track from “The Tiki Bar is Open” and “Mississippi Phone Booth” before two more “Slow Turning” cuts — “Drive South” and “Paper Thin” — wrapped around Landreth’s lead vocal on his composition “Congo Square.”
The rest of the show featured no surprises, just strong renditions of “Perfectly Good Guitar,” “I’ll Never Get Over You,” “Slow Turning,” “Thing Called Love,” and “Memphis in the Meantime” before a two-song encore of “Have a Little Faith” and “Riding with the King.”
While I would have enjoyed some more recent material — “Leftover Feelings” is a universally strong album — I understand why Hiatt and his group stayed with a greatest “should have been” hits set. They could play these songs, most written before my adult children were born, in their sleep, but there is great joy to be found in the comfort of the familiar.
And on this evening in the middle of the summer, those songs felt like a cozy, warm blanket on a cold winter night.
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This review was written for Americana Highways.