Nell’s Jazz and Blues Club has an intimate ring to it and proved the ideal venue for Lilly Hiatt to create a close bond with her audience for the London stop on her UK tour. Much of the set came from her third album Trinity Lane, released last year. The album has a big sound, lots of guitars that reflect her growing up with 90’s grunge. I cannot have been the only one there wondering how this would come across in an acoustic performance. We needn’t have worried. Many of songs from Trinity Lane are a very personal statement of where Hiatt was at, back in Nashville after a break-up getting to grips with living on her own. There’s a lot of introspection but above all, what comes across most clearly is Hiatt’s blunt honesty. This was ideal material for an acoustic show. And of course there is her equally straight-up voice.
As daughter of John Hiatt her childhood was as chaotic as it was imbued with music. Having reached her early thirties now, her own undoubted musical talents are in full flow. A famous dad can be a mixed blessing although in this case John has given his daughter a lot of support and the set hadn’t progressed far before that became obvious, not to mention the appearance of a few Hiatt snr. mannerisms.
Lilly Hiatt certainly doesn’t go in for a grand entrance. She ambled onto the smallish, low stage with a very understated hello, looking almost like a member of the audience who had been caught taking a shortcut back from the bar. Strapping on her Gibson acoustic she went straight into ‘Young Black Rose’. As a fan of her dad’s since long before she had been born I couldn’t help but look for similarities; the face at times twisted with concentration, the way her voice raised half a tone, the infectious smile and above all the candour in her lyrics. And that was just the first song! After that it was Lilly all the way, as a highly accomplished artist in her own right.
In ‘All Kinds of People’ Hiatt spoke straight from the heart about her break-up. “Spent a lot of time lovin’ all kinds of people/ But all kinds of people won’t care for your heart/ I love you like you love the ocean, and that’s where you’re goin’/ And it’s ripped me apart”. Stripped of the flowing guitar lines of the album, the lyric relied even more on her voice. There was no lack of emotion, the opposite really, she spoke straight from the heart to her audience.
Also from Trinity Lane came, ‘I Wanna Go Home’, then the record’s title track. In a short intro Hiatt explained that this the name of the street in East Nashville where she now lives . That chat seemed to loosen her up.‘Jesus Would’ve Let Me Pick The Restaurant’ is amusing enough but her preamble was hilarious. This is about an old flame, a man of strong religious beliefs who would always pick up the tab, nice guy, but would never let Lilly choose the eaterie. He was called Gordo and is not remembered with reverence, “Honey, I don’t want that holy man who led you here”.
By then Hiatt seemed to have eased into the set more, whether it was getting used to us Brits, “you’re so quiet. The sound of an audience listening?” That prompted various observations about UK delicacies such as mushy peas, fish and chips, tea and her confusion over an intricacy of our plumbing. Anyway, she’d got the measure of her crowd worked as the performance stepped up a gear.
Hiatt’s music crosses many genre boundaries; there’s country, blues, some indie, grunge, that mixed into her song gives a very contemporary take on Americana. ‘Three Days’ went back to her first road trip as a band; three days that seemed to merge into one when she and two mates went to Austin to do their first gig and all for $60. ‘The Night David Bowie Died’ returned to the regret and hurt of failed love. She introduced ‘Machine’ as her most “Nashville” song, that went back to her childhood living on a farm, although rural life wasn’t for her, “I wasn’t the one baling hay”. Family returned with ‘Imposter’, a heartbreaking tribute to her late mother, “I say, “You are no imposter/ You’re the real thing/ It’s a guiding light when I hear you sing”/She’s never comin’ back/I think we both know that”.
Towards the end, including encore, Hiatt seemed to be improvising although there didn’t seem much sign of a setlist to start with.That included two covers. A sign of Hiatt’s humility came in one, ‘Time To Move On’ by Tom Petty who she recalled seeing a year ago. Sure everyone’s doing a Petty song she admitted, but also wanting to show her love of the man she did him proud. The other was the night’s closing song, a superb version of “Angel From Montgomery’. Also, credit must go to Hiatt’s two band members accompanying her; guitarist John Condit, who sang one of his own compositors (worth further investigation) and Robert Hudson on bass and mandolin.
But it was back to Trinity Lane and ‘Records’ to perfectly define Hiatt. Music will see her through everything; love, loneliness, booze, drugs, “that record waited up for me”. Lilly Hiatt is a deeply accomplished writer and performer who we hope returns to the UK soon.