John Hiatt’s latest release The Open Road is a loose, very spontaneous affair, much like its predecessor Same Old Man. But unlike that prior album, where the focus remained on the songs, the material on this new album is the means to the end of making music, during the course of which Hiatt himself is an integral member of highly-skilled band.
By dint of the crisp sound quality and unadorned production, the title song immediately signals this new album is a more amp-ed affair than the previous album. The coarse electric rhythm guitar remains strong and steady throughout the duration of this life-(and adventure) affirming tune as Doug Lancio’s electric lead guitar here echoes Hiatt’s muscular playing while drummer Kenneth Blevins swings, pivoting around the ever-mobile bass of Patrick O’Hearn.
The latter two have been a team for a time, which accounts for the ease with which they accommodate Lancio, as he integrates his well-developed personality into the quartet. The latter’s vocabulary is exceptionally broad as he can echo, but not attempt to replicate, the ringing guitar twang of Chuck Berry on "Haulin’." It doesn’t disparage John Hiatt as a songwriter to say the sound of the band diverts attention from his material, but only to accurately recognize the skills of the bombo, both as individual instrumentalists and a unit.
Hiatt may or may not have conceived The Open Road as a so-called concept album, but a quick perusal of the song titles alone reveals an overriding theme of travel ("like A Freight Train), movement ("Movin’ On") and motion psychic as well as geographic ("Carry You Back Home"). Lancio’s tantalizing slide underlines the resignation in Hiatt’s lyrics and vocal in one more illustration of the way John and the band bring these songs to full fruition; in doing so, the quartet preserves the author’s wry sense of humor and a world view that includes a wizened acceptance of the changes life brings–often occur without much, if any, advance notice.
It’s high praise, and perhaps something of a stretch, to compare The Open Road to the previous pinnacle of John Hiatt’s career Bring the Family. Or liken the empathetic skill, of The Combo to The Goners, Hiatt’s past accompanists par-excellence. But the collective acuity and sense of shared pleasure that emanates from the music on The Open Road makes such comparisons inevitable.