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Record Review - 2 August 22 2001

Seemingly impervious to trends, fashions, label shenanigans, radio play and a fickle public, John Hiatt has created a respected career over the past 25 years by hovering on the fringes of the mainstream. Best known as a songwriter to the semi-stars, the Midwesterner has clicked most successfully when covered by sympathetic artists from Bonnie Raitt and Rosanne Cash to Three Dog Night, Emmylou Harris and even Iggy Pop.

On a creative roll after last year's acoustic Crossing Muddy Waters, Hiatt returns rejuvenated and electric, accompanied by his old backing band The Goners for his best album in almost a decade. Unlike its tongue-in-cheesy title, Tiki Bar is a keenly crafted collection of heartfelt, bluesy tunes that rock — and often rock hard — with soul. Subtle use of drum loops enhances but doesn't update Hiatt's roots approach. Like The Band, whose "The Weight" he evokes on "Hangin' Round Here," these songs spring from a bottomless well of creativity and hooks, all energized by his raw, throaty vocals. Famed Goners guitarist Sonny Landreth sizzles throughout, especially on slide, and the group coalesces like Crazy Horse on a hot night. They follow their eclectic leader through waltzy ballads, folksy love songs, mid-tempo burners and even a 10-minute psychedelic mind-blower ("Farther Stars") that takes "Tomorrow Never Knows" to the Middle Eastern swamps.

Far from winding down in his 50s, John Hiatt is releasing the most inspired work of his life. Come in and have a taste — the tiki bar is open.

John Hiatt and the Goners play Chastain Park Amphitheatre Fri. and Sat., Aug. 24-25.??