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Review: John Hiatt, Big Head Todd

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Big Head Todd and The Monsters, John Hiatt & The Combo
Friday, Nov. 18 at Murat Theatre at Old National Centre

Indy's native son John Hiatt and his band, The Combo, rocked the sixth-annual WTTS Rock to Read show (benefiting Indianapolis Marion County Public Library and children's reading programs) in front of a lively crowd Friday night.

Stepping onstage wearing a wide-brimmed fedora and matching oversized jacket, John Hiatt kicked off his set with "Perfectly Good Guitar," looking like he purloined Tom Waits' wardrobe. This was Hiatt's second time playing the Murat Theatre this year (which he said his dad always thought was a "big whoop-de-doo"), and after his February acoustic performance with Lyle Lovett, the engaged crowd was ready to see him kick out the jams.

Electric guitar in hand, the homegrown Hoosier treasure treated the set as somewhat of a 'best-of' show and showed love to Indianapolis and his friends. Before "Master of Disaster," Hiatt recalled how Jim Dickinson - Memphis musician, producer and father of the North Mississippi Allstars' Luther and Cody - requested one thing to be put on his tombstone: "I'm not gone, I'm just dead."

Though he didn't joke as much at this show as he did with just Lovett onstage, Hiatt genuinely enjoyed himself, even during serious tunes like his hit "Cry Love," a mandolin-lover's dream during which, in this iteration, the instrument fought Hiatt's voice and guitar and was plucked more forcefully than necessary by The Combo's lead guitarist.

The evening wasn't all classic Hiatt hits. The Combo infused funk in "All the Way Under," from Hiatt's latest album, Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns - which is amazingly, if my math is correct, his 20th studio album.

Hiatt's a veteran performer and a master songwriter, evidenced by the first song he played in his encore, "Have a Little Faith in Me." Sure, the wedding favorite (I'm guilty of including it in my reception playlist) is syrupy as all get-out. But it's simply a classic song, hard to hate once it starts playing and made that much more powerful by Hiatt's consistently passionate performance in spite of probably having played it hundreds of times.

Hiatt himself was terrific, but his crew was sometimes distracting. The aforementioned loud mandolin was tuned by a guy standing in a spotlight at far stage right throughout the show, which was rather confusing - why did the lead guitarist have an assistant onstage at all times, while Hiatt's help came on stage only when necessary, between songs? Regardless, this quibble didn't detract from Hiatt's performance.

Big Head Todd and The Monsters opened the evening by playing it safe for the at-first sparse crowd.

Todd Park Mohr's slightly gravelly, rounded vocals sounded like a young Hiatt, and though the band was super-tight, they seemed a bit uptight compared to the more laid-back Hiatt. The funk- and soul-tinged "Tower" was perhaps the band's loosest moment, but it still sounded like a too-well-rehearsed tune with little room for the random elements of performance that bring memorable moments to polished recorded tunes.

And it was somewhat regrettable that the band chose to cover King Floyd's "Groove Me," a song so sublimely perfect in its original incarnation that, done by pretty much anyone else, sounds flat and soulless.

Perhaps it was because of the coloring-within-the-lines feel of their "Groove Me" cover, but the band's massively overplayed radio staple "It's Alright" was surprisingly refreshing. Unfortunate, then, that uninspired guitar theatrics in later songs - and another unfortunate cover (this time John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom") - didn't help the band elevate beyond what it's best at: so-polished-it's-often-dull music exemplified by songs like "Bittersweet." Which, unsurprisingly, they played flawlessly, to a fault.

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