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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
JOHN HIATT AND THE NORTH MISSISSIPPI ALLSTARS, Shepherds Bush Empire, London, Sunday 23rd October, 2005.
North Mississippi Allstars
What a bizarre audience for the Bush. Well heeled middle aged West Londoners, out of their comfort zone out-of-towners, marketing consultant types, IT specialists and legal eagles, groping 50 plus couples (ugh!), the big ex rugby playing bastard (a financial director I suspect) and his moll who stood unmoving in front of me all night, and loads of late teens and early twenties with their Mums and Dads. Why there was even one sad 40 year old with his mum too (he was drinking Coke, she was on the vodka). Why were they here? At one point from their frequent upward glances I thought it was to admire Frank Matcham’s sumptuous Edwardian decoration, gilded scallop shells, voluptuous cherubs and all. Then I realised they were just casting wistful glances at the congested 5/9s in the upper balconies. Could they be refugees from the late afternoon bicentennial celebrations of Our Greatest Victory in Trafalgar Square? Well no. Roughly speaking the young folks were there to see the brilliant North Mississippi Allstars, and the old ones to see the sublime (yes Serge – you can see where this one is going) John Hiatt. Luckily we were there to see them both.
John Hiatt is possibly best described as one of the great should have beens of American rock music.
North Mississippi Allstars He’s just released his sixteenth (roughly calculated) album, Master of Disaster, recorded in Memphis at the Ardent Studios, produced by veteran Jim Dickinson, and featuring two thirds of the NMA, brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson, and bass player and Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section regular David Hood. Not that, from their reaction, many of the oldsters have heard it – they’re here for the old stuff. A great shame really, as Master of Disaster builds on Hiatt’s 2003 release this Gruff Exterior (recorded with his then band the Goners, with Sonny Landreth on slide guitar).
A collection of wonderfully self-assured, mature and grumpy songs (“Well I do my best thinking sitting on my ass, sittin’ here waiting for things to pass”) with a few moments of intense reflection Gruff Exterior, thanks to a strong recommendation from Mike, was my first real introduction to Hiatt. Master of Disaster builds on that, and with the added energy of the NMA (for which see below) it should (but probably won’t) put Hiatt firmly on the same stage as many of today’s younger and much feted song writers. For if you don’t know anything about this man then you should remember one thing, he is a song smith of remarkable talent, and as such makes one mindful of his one time collaborator, producer and Whiskyfun favourite Nick Lowe, or even Ry Cooder (currently leading candidate for Whiskyfun’s Album of the Year) with whom he played in the early 80s, and then along with Lowe and drummer extraordinaire Jim Keltner formed the doomed ‘supergroup’ Little Village.

North Mississippi Allstars
Cody Dickinson on drums
Can you spot the Sunnyland washboard?

But the night kicks off with half an hour for the young folks, a blistering romp by the NMA, of ‘Mean ol’ wind’, ‘Po’ black Maddie’, ‘Shake ‘em down’, ‘Moonshine’, and ‘Mississippi Boll Weevil’, picking the outstanding tracks from their first album Shake Hands with Shorty, and their most recent, Electric Blue Watermelon, mixing their own creative talents with those of their Mississippi muses Fred McDowell, Charley Patton and R L Burnside. Oh yes, and they finished with their great crowd-pleaser ‘Psychedelic sex machine’ during which Cody Dickinson does roughly for the Sunnyland washboard what Jimi Hendrix did for the Fender Stratocaster. It’s almost worth the admission.





Chris Chew and John Hiatt

North Mississippi Allstars
Precisely on schedule John Hiatt takes the stage at 9.00pm, supported by all three of the NMA (so that includes that giant among bass guitarists Chris Chew). Kicking off with his new album’s title track ‘Master of Disaster’ he proceeds to give us two hours of greatest hits (“phew” say the old folks, “songs we can shake our arthritis bands to”) mixed with almost all of the new CD. He’s a strange looking guy – somewhere between a slightly diminutive Nick Cave and actor Hugo Weaving (you know the one, the self-replicating agent in The Matrix and one of the chaps with funny ears in Lord of the Rings). But he has that rare thing amongst rock performers, charisma, presence? Well I’m not sure what you’d call it, but he just fills the stage, and then the whole of the Bush.
In fact by the time he’s blown the audience away with a simply sensational and soulful version of ‘Ain’t never going back’ (from Master), song number three, both the Photographer and I (at this point she’s in heaven, perched atop the mixing desk kit with the best view in the place) agree this could be Whiskyfun’s Gig of the Year. Hiatt plays his way through a sequence of sumptuous acoustic guitars and a little bit of keyboard before finally taking up his electric (“you know”, he drawls, “this Telecaster is a fountain of youth”). His singing is remarkable for a 53 year old – at one point he explains that he used to sing soprano in the church choir, and he demonstrates that his falsetto is still up to scratch.
Energised by the NMA boys he bounces around the stage like a 25 year old (and when, without any disrespect intended, Chris Chew starts to bounce I start to fear for the stage of this venerable rock institution) – he’s relaxed, happy, and clearly relishing the grooves of his band, in particular Luther Cody who excels on slide guitar.Songs?
The Photographer made a partial list. ‘Ready for this thing called love’, ‘I’ll find you again’, ‘Cry love’, ‘Thunderbird’ (another new song, inspired by a 1960’s TV performance of Death of a Salesman) ‘Real fine love’, ‘Is anybody there’, ‘Back on the corner’, Tennessee plates’, ‘Love’s not where we thought we left it’, ‘Memphis in the meantime’, ‘Have a little faith in me’, ‘Slow turning’ and ‘Lipstick sunset’. Requited love, unrequited love, cars, domestic dysfunctionality, bars, booze, children, god, triumph and failure – roughly speaking the whole of the human tapestry captured in witty and pithy lyrics, and musically brought up to date by a band par excellence.
North Mississippi AllstarsNorth Mississippi Allstars
North Mississippi Allstars Something strange happened. “Ok folks, let’s go to Memphis’ said Hiatt. At a stroke a third of the audience left – could his hold over them be so strong? Then I looked at my watch – 10.30 and the out-of-towners were heading for the last bus. We stayed to the death, the big bastard departed with his moll for a late night of back wrenching love-making (well, in his case about five minutes I expect), and as Hiatt left the stage at the curfew of 11.00pm with “hope to see you in the summer of 06” we vowed to the nice folks to our left that we’d see them then.
Just a fantastic night. If you get the chance go and see him, if not, then as Serge would say, please buy his records. Oh yes, and please don’t forget those wonderful young boys, the North Mississippi Allstars. - Nick Morgan (concert photos by Kate)

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