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Concert Review by Nick Morgan


The Orpheum Theatre, Memphis Tennessee, October 15th 2008

We’re in Memphis, Tennessee, in the palatial surroundings of the Orpheum Theatre, where the largely deserted Main Street intersects with Beale Street.

It was built originally as the Grand Opera House in 1890, but totally destroyed by fire in 1923, allegedly just after a performance by the ‘legendary’ vaudevillians Blossom Seeley and Bennie Fields, whose life story was celebrated in the 1952 film, Somebody Loves Me (I think they might have cut out the bit about the fire). Rebuilt in 1928 to designs by Chicago architects Rapp and Rapp (who built theatres throughout the United States) it later became a movie theatre before being acquired by the Memphis Development Foundation in the late 1970s. And whilst the semi-derelict nature of much of Memphis (even the modern malls) might lead you to question the efficacy of much of the redevelopment of downtown, when it comes to the Orpheum, the parties responsible are beyond reproach. It’s in beautiful shape, plush and richly-decorated in creams, reds and golds. The urinals would put the Shepherds Bush Empire to shame. And yet, unlike the Empire, it is somewhat sanitised, as is the audience, who largely seem to represent the great and the good of white middle-class Memphis, sipping cocktails and doing appropriately loud and facile cocktail party chit-chat in the foyer before the gig begins.
LOvett Hiatt
Lyle Lovett (L) and John Hiatt (R)
It’s Lyle Lovett, who after so many failures to show (sometimes for very good reasons) in London, we’ve managed to track down on his home territory (well, almost). And to make it even better it’s John Hiatt too, who’s just released a new album, Same Old Man. The pair have been touring together, on and off, for almost a year, in an intimate acoustic format. It’s almost like having them in your kitchen, as they sit, chat, and take turns to swap songs, only towards the end singing and playing together. During some two-and-a-half hours in all, it’s thoroughly engrossing stuff, albeit a little top-heavy on the chat and slightly forced at the outset, with an earnest and nervous-looking Lovett cast in the unlikely role of interrogator (although subsequently, it has to be said, he throws some wonderfully surreal curved balls at his victim). My perfectly-groomed blonde neighbour huffs and sighs through these early tunes, clearly impatient with the talk, and after about fifteen minutes takes her leave; I notice a few others do too. But everyone else is glued to their seat apart from those who stand to whoop and cheer – frequently in a number of cases.
LOvett Hiatt
Lovett and Hiatt have got the formula perfect for tonight, and as they swap very genuine compliments (these are, by the way, two of the greatest living American composers and performers) and cleverly structured chat, they work through a list of songs that pander to that lowest common denominator of rock and roll audiences throughout the land: local pride and patriotism. Hiatt was born in Indiana, but now lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

As for Lovett, well, you should know where he was born, and needless to say, we had no Texas songs in the set list. And if I told you the evening started with Hiatt singing ‘Riding with the King’ (“Whoop, whoop, yeah”), followed by Lovett’s ‘I’ve been to Memphis’ (“Whoop,whoop, whoop”), then you get some idea of the gig.

Of course, the two performers couldn’t be more different in some respects. Hiatt’s a no-nonsense rhythm guitar player with a largely plectrum technique which doesn’t leave a lot of room for subtlety. His songs, though sometimes humourous, are just as likely to be in your face, heart on his sleeve, personal statements – like the deeply moving ‘Muddy water’. Lovett is a surprisingly deft guitarist; mostly thumb pick and fingers playing out gentle melodies. His songs are dry, wry, wistful and sometimes hugely funny (‘She’s no lady’, sung after Hiatt’s rousing ‘Have a little faith’ – “there’s only one song to follow that, John …”). It is almost a perfect combination, even good enough to tolerate Hiatt’s ill-advised rush into lead guitar work, leaving both Lovett and the audience thoroughly bewildered (at least we learnt that when he said “I don’t play no fancy guitar work” he wasn’t kidding). And the icing on the cake is the singing: Hiatt, raspy and full of passion, Lovett, well, when he started singing ‘I’ve been to Memphis’, I was mesmerised – I mean he just sounds like Lyle Lovett. The songs? There were some lovely tunes from Lovett like ‘If I had a boat’, ‘Her first mistake’, ‘Skinny legs’ and ‘My baby don’t tolerate’, and from Hiatt ‘Icy blue heart’, ‘Real fine love’, ‘Thing called love’, and ‘Lipstick sunset’. But the important thing for you to know is the scores from the whoopometer, which went something like this: ‘Tennessee plates’ (“whoop, whoop, yeah, whoop”), “Come on, baby, let’s drive south” (“whoop, yeah”), ‘Up in Indiana’ (“whoop”), ‘Memphis midnight/Memphis morning’ (“whoop, whoop, whoop”), ‘Memphis in the meantime’ (“whoop, whoop, whoop, whoop, whoop,” and a standing ovation), possibly making Hiatt the winner if there was a competition going on, which I somewhat doubt.


And I have to add, by way of a postscript, that just for a moment, walking out of the lovely Orpheum Theatre into a warm Memphis night, and strolling down a noisy tourist and music-filled Beale Street, you might have been forgiven, just for a moment, for thinking that there was hardly a better place to be. - Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate)

Lyle Lovett
John Hiatt

Beale street

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