In 1987, first-time producer John Chelew had the brilliant idea of teaming John Hiatt, a songwriter of some note with a handful of less than successful albums to his credit, with slide guru Ry Cooder, Rockpile bassist Nick Lowe, and studio drumming dean Jim Keltner. The resultant album, Bring The Family, took Hiatt from cult obscurity to worldwide acclaim.
But, since the studio band’s individual commitments precluded touring, Hiatt rounded up a versatile trio of musicians unknown outside their home state of Louisiana – drummer Kenneth Blevins, bassist David Ranson, and a slide guitar wiz named Sonny Landreth. Hiatt dubbed them The Goners, and the foursome hit the road.
After demolishing club audiences from coast to coast, the unit backed Hiatt on his impressive followup, 1988’s Slow Turning. With still more touring, the band was hitting its peak when Hiatt inexplicably cut the group loose after only one album.
Thirteen years and a half-dozen albums later, Hiatt has finally re-enlisted The Goners. Following the all-acoustic Crossing Muddy Waters, The Tiki Bar Is Open bolts out of the blocks with “Everybody Went Low,” with Landreth showing he can jump from straight guitar to slide in the blink of an eye. The album features some of Hiatt’s best songs in recent memory, such as “All The Lilacs In Ohio” and “My Old Friend,” and the band members do the job of showcasing the songs rather than themselves admirably.
But when it’s time for a little stepping out, Jay Joyce’s busy production undermines some great soloing from Landreth – and in doing so, cheats the songs, as well. It’s more low-fi noise than high-tech gloss – Sonny’s guitar signal seems to be coming through a telephone on “I Know A Place,” the type of lowdown blues he can obviously sink his teeth into; but it’s extraneous noise, all the same. While the guitarist gets some space to show his stuff on the title track, his sensitive slide work on the ballad “I’ll Never Got Over You” is awash in echo, nearly buried under obtrusive keyboard and tambourine overdubs.
A more straight-ahead production would have spotlighted Hiatt, his songs, and one of the country’s best bands much better.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Nov. ’01 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.