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"Knucklehead From The Midwest" 

John Hiatt rocks the mountains

"Thank God the Tiki Bar is open/Thank God the tiki torch still shines..."

And thank God John Hiatt is still rocking. Thursday night, the wry, talented singer-songwriter plays the Neighborhood Theatre for a sold-out show and, judging from last Friday's performance at Asheville's Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, the Charlotte crowd is in for a powerful good time.

What? You don't know Hiatt? For shame. You probably know his rockabilly, blues- and soul-infused songs; hundreds have been covered by artists ranging from Three Dog Night ("Sure As I'm Sitting Here") to Bob Dylan ("The Usual") to Joe Cocker ("Have a Little Faith") to Don Dixon ("Love Gets Strange"). Paula Abdul covered "Alright Tonight," but we can overlook that for the moment.

Jeff Healey's "Angel Eyes"? His (with Fred Keller).

Bonnie Raitt's "Thing Called Love"? His.

Iggy Pop's "Something Wild"? Ditto.

His voice ain't always pretty -- you really can't compare it with Suzy Boguss' in her cover of "Drive South" -- but it's always gutsy and honest. Add in Hiatt's dramatic appreciation for irony, and you've got the ultimate musical storyteller.

Hiatt's life is definite "Behind the Music" fodder. Born in Indianapolis in 1952, he played in garage bands until he moved to Nashville at the age of 18. His first and second albums, 1974's Hangin' Around the Observatory and 1975's Overcoats , were lauded by critics and ignored by listeners. Dropped by his label, he moved to Los Angeles and struggled for years to find commercial success, while contending with his alcoholism and second wife's suicide. (He has since remarried and lives outside of Nashville with his wife and kids.)

Released from rehab in 1986, Hiatt recorded the album Bring the Family, which became his breakout success. Other hits came from successive releases: 1988's Slow Turning, 1990's Stolen Moments, and 1995's Walk On. In 2000, Eric Clapton and B.B. King rode his "Riding with the King" into Grammy gold.

Hiatt's music has stayed in my life forever, it seems, popping up when I least expect it. His voice once came to me through a speaker in a bar in Key West, reminding me why I didn't pack a pair of nylon pantyhose. Another time, as I was trying to understand why a man I adored didn't feel the same way about me, Hiatt explained through my car stereo that some people are "born to wander... or to wonder." Most recently, as I was flying halfway around the world, suffering through a film that trashed a perfectly good video game, he dialed-in through my headsets to make me smirk about rock stars who'd smash a perfectly good guitar.

For Christmas, I had an internal CD burner installed on my husband's computer, and proceeded to create a personal Hiatt greatest hits collection, aptly titled "Karen Says: John Hiatt Kicks Ass." It features 17 Hiatt gems, including "Don't Think About Her When You're Trying to Drive," with Ry Cooder and Nick Lowe, "The Weight," with Levon Helm, a brilliant rendition of "Little Sister" that puts Dwight Yoakam and Robert Plant to shame -- and a special treat: a live cover of the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated."

Hiatt's now touring after his most recent release, The Tiki Bar is Open, the title track of which memorializes Hiatt's racing hero, the late Dale Earnhardt. His one-man show generously samples, however, from his extensive repertoire.

Friday night, Hiatt took the stage in black pants and a black jacket, against a black curtained backdrop; the simplicity focused the audience's attention on the solitary figure and his guitar. An electronic keyboard, stenciled with his website -- www.johnhiatt.com -- waited patiently to the side.

A self-proclaimed "knucklehead from the Midwest," Hiatt confessed it was nerve-wracking to come to Asheville, a cradle of so much good music. Embracing his new Southern roots, he then broke into "Drive South," followed by "Ethylene." He strummed the hell out of his guitar on "Your Dad Did," entertaining the crowd with tales of his childhood, such as the time he tried to wrest the remote control from his father so he could watch The Beatles on Ed Sullivan's show.

Hiatt's self-effacing personal sidebars extended a feeling of intimacy that most performers never grasp. He explained how proud he and his band were of working on the Grammy-nominated album Crossing Muddy Waters, with its overwhelming tales of sadness and despair ("that's 'cause we're some sick fucks -- ha HA!"). He spoke openly about his wife and kids, and the deaths of friends, and shared a new song that he wrote to his dog Hunter, whom he had to give away when she turned vicious to strangers. In anyone else's hands, this might have seemed cheesy, but Hiatt's voice made it just right. And don't even ask about the hair growing on his butt.

Hiatt brought the mostly ponytailed and occasionally tie-dyed audience members to their feet, jamming on "Gone," "Memphis in the Meantime" and "Perfectly Good Guitar" -- whistling the appropriate lines in the latter. He gently returned everyone to their seats as he headed to the keyboard for "Friend of Mine."

Following "Before I Go," Hiatt waved goodbye and left the stage, an hour and a half after he walked on. Less than a minute later, he reappeared to "Have a Little Faith In Me" and "Tennessee Plates." The audience kept clapping in rhythm even after he disappeared again, bringing Hiatt back for "Come Home to You" and "Riding with the King."

His final song of the night was a poignant newcomer, "New York Had Her Heart Broke," which left us with a swelling sense of hope and inevitable triumph. Thursday's Charlotte audience will no doubt be clamoring for more, just as we were -- but sadly, Hiatt's here for only one night this trip.

Then he'll be "...Gone, like my last paycheck/Gone, like the car I wrecked... Gone, gone away."

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