John Hiatt Gets Stripped-Down and Bluesy on “The Eclipse Sessions” (ALBUM REVIEW)

This is John Hiatt’s first album in four years and 23rd overall, enlisting producer and stellar keyboardist Kevin McKendree who has done excellent work for Delbert McClinton and Tinsley Ellis to name just a couple. This marks a departure from Hiatt’s association with Doug Lancio as guitarist and/or producer for his previous three albums. For The Eclipse Sessions Hiatt fronts either a trio or a quarter depending on whether McKendree ‘s 17-year-old son, guitar virtuoso Yates McKendree, is present with Hiatt’s long-time drummer Kenneth Blevins as well as bassist Patrick O’Hearn. When Yates does play, he impresses with his sharp soloing and knack for just the right fill whether electric or acoustic slide. Check the latter on the “The Odds of Loving You.” On top of that, Yates engineered the album.

Now 66, Hiatt took time off to contemplate his next step and spend more time with his family (which includes emerging artist Lilly Hiatt). It’s not clear what inspired him to get back into the studio for this raw, stripped-down, blues at the core session but it doesn’t matter. He feels that this is one of three best albums he’s made. He cites 1987’s Bring the Family, done with an all-star combo led by Ry Cooder, and 2000’s largely solo acoustic Crossing Muddy Waters that earned a Grammy nomination as the other two in this trilogy. He says, “The three albums are very connected in my mind. They all have a vibe to them that was unexpected. I didn’t know where I was going when I started out on any of them. And each one wound up being a pleasant surprise.”

The title takes its name from the solar eclipse of August 21, 2017, when three of the songs were recorded. He characterizes the momentary darkness in Nashville that day as rather magical and symbolic of a kind of harmonic convergence. That togetherness comes through in these loosely structured, raw, unadorned songs where the weathered quality of Hiatt’s voice seems to carry even more emotion than we’ve heard from him. And yes, there are the obvious nods to aging and mortality as gleaned in titles like “Over the Hill” and “Outrunning My Soul” or, for example this passage from “Hide Your Tears”- “I don’t spend too many days/Thinking about the reckless ways/A man tries to outrun his death/Or a broken heart runs out of breath.”

In fact, during his hiatus, Hiatt composed the last track “Robber’s Highway” that in its own inexplicable way may have served as the inspiration to record again. He was thinking that even though it was once easy to write songs, maybe the spark was gone (“I had words, chords, and strings/now I don’t have any of these things”) only to find his muse again with this set of gems.

The album begins with the relatively carefree “Cry to Me,’ followed by the classic melodic Hiatt sound in “All the Way to the River” before becoming very stark by the fifth track, “Nothing in My Heart.”  Preceding that tune is the lost love lamentation “Aces Up Your Sleeve” and the rugged, rocking “Poor Imitation of God.” We are in a different time now than when Hiatt had those classic songs like “Looks Like Rain,” Memphis in the Meantime” and “Slow Turning” among several others. As good as some of these songs are, they may never reach that kind of lofty status. Just the same, Hiatt still has that knack of killer lines. “Over the Hill’ has “I’m long in the tooth/What can I say/I take huge bites out of life” “Robber’s Highway’ has “Can’t feel the fingers of one hand/last night felt like a three-night stand.”

Listen to Hiatt’s road-weary voice, his sturdy guitar, and the stripped-down accompaniment; it seems he’s got plenty left. This is as expressive as he’s ever sounded.

Photo by David McClister

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