Tuesday, March 2, 2004

It shouldn’t seem novel to hear singer-songwriter John Hiatt singing his own songs. Everyone from B.B. King to Conway Twitty has had his way with Mr. Hiatt’s material through the years, and in the case of Bonnie Raitt, the cover in question became the standout track on her Grammy-winning “Nick of Time” album.

It’s just that Mr. Hiatt’s voice has more, shall we say, character than most listeners are used to.

Hearing that voice rip through a more than two-hour set Monday night in the first of four sold-out solo performances through tomorrow at the Birchmere reminds us that beauty can lurk within imperfection.

The balladeer, unlike Bruce Springsteen, doesn’t romanticize the blue-collar ethos. His focus is far more narrow in scope, say as minimal as a cup of joe or the joys of being a responsible parent.

He sings about Dale Earnhardt but isn’t a country crooner, and few voices sound better suited for the blues even though his work is best classified as rock ‘n’ roll.

His juicy growl has only grown thicker with time. What once was a fine sandpaper yelp comes out like the ultimate blues instrument, ragged and unfinished. His take on “The Tiki Bar Is Open,” from his 2001 reunion with the Goners, showcased what a perfect match that voice and the blues can be.

“How Bad’s the Coffee” sounded as if he sweetened his own cup with a handful of gravel.

Mr. Hiatt traded in his acoustic guitar for a keyboard to sing “When We Ran,” a gorgeous ballad that forced his voice into its highest register. He followed the song with the night’s longest, and least interesting, chatter. He began with a meandering story about his daughter’s college life and skipped along to cover any fleeting thought that caught his fancy, most notably homosexual “marriages.”

He couldn’t have thought of a better way to stall the evening.

When he put his game face on, the music truly mattered.

Still, the first two-thirds of Mr. Hiatt’s performance, while impeccably performed, lacked the gutsy rock edge that epitomizes much of his material. When he finally let loose with “Cry Love” and “Buffalo River Home,” the evening was nearing its end and one felt the gentle sting of a wasted opportunity.

He sneaked in a few of his biggest “hits” — “Have a Little Faith in Me” and “Thing Called Love” — before grudgingly calling it a night.

Opener Mindy Smith delivered a set of such delicacy it left emotional shards scattered across the stage. The slight singer-songwriter, nearly dwarfed by her guitar, gave a performance almost too intimate for the Birchmere, of all places.

Her between-song banter could have been drowned out by the carbonated bubbles fizzing in the nearest glass. When she was performing, though, her lithe frame gave way to an occasionally powerful voice that packs a country kick at the tail end of every note.

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