John Hiatt's fans get what they want, songs about crazy girls, driving south and perfectly good guitars.
John Hiatt probably deserves to be filed in the category of irresistible concert act, division of irrepressibility. The boy can't help it: Dress him up in sturdy work clothes, put him on stage, give him a mike, and he's hooting, hollering, throwing in funny, sometimes poignant asides and coaxing a little feedback out of his acoustic guitar.
Hiatt, playing a solo show Thursday night at Tampa Theatre in support of last year's acoustic Crossing Muddy Waters CD, employed all those techniques during his rollicking, entertaining set for 1,136 confirmed fans. But those performance extras, if you will, hardly detracted from the Americana artistry on display, as the veteran singer-songwriter made his way through 20 or so pieces from a career dating back to the early '70s.
He even reserved space in his 100-minute set for A Crazy Girl is Hard to Find, a silly love song written when the Indiana native was 21. And about his feelings, 27 years down the line, for the tune's sentiment: "Not!," he said at its conclusion. "Turns out I'm a crazy-girl magnet."
An imbalanced loved one did have a major impact on Hiatt's life, as he relates on his latest album's title track, a haunting reminiscence about the emotional devastation wrought by the 1985 suicide of his first wife. Live, the piece resonated with even more heartache, as the singer related his feelings of abandonment and concern for his baby girl.
Hiatt dropped an Ybor City reference into the jug-band-influenced Lincoln Town; introduced the doomy What Do We Do Now, warning that it would "depress the hell out of you." He elicited a boisterous crowd response to the call of his bad-love lyrics on Gone, later clarifying that he has been happily married for 15 years.
The singer previewed a forthcoming CD by his reunited Goners band and filled out the show with favorites from his extensive back catalog, including road-trip romance ditty Drive South, the twisted Ethylene, and an energetic version of Perfectly Good Guitar, a tongue-in-cheek attack on rock stars inclined to smash their six-strings.
He switched to electric piano for the gospel-blues feel of Have a Little Faith in Me, a song recorded by Joe Cocker and a bunch of other artists, and closed the show with a reclamation of Riding With the King, written in 1984 and chosen as the title track for last year's hit B.B. King-Eric Clapton disc. Hiatt may not sell enough records to be declared pop royalty, but his songwriting prowess is second to none.