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Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2009

A Means to an End

Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt enlighten through songwriting

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Lyle Lovett knows that great songwriting can be a means to an end, one that reaches out and touches audiences. The long, tall Texan, who's won several Grammy Awards for his heartfelt, wryly humorous lyrics, also knows a great song when he hears one. Based on his own musical experiences, the Houston-based singer/songwriter appreciates the art of songwriting more than most of us.

"A great song is a rare thing," Lovett says. "Great songs never seem contrived; they just seem true."

Lovett will explore many of his own songs during an all-acoustic evening Feb. 17 at the Pabst Theater, when he shares the stage with fellow songwriter and Grammy nominee John Hiatt. For Lovett and his audience, the evening will be a living lesson in the art of the song, a chance for the leader of the Large Band to play with one of his musical heroes, he says.

"To be on stage with John and to observe his artistry is really inspiring," Lovett says.

The playlist for the evening, the 10th of the duet's 14 February dates, generally isn't planned in advance, Lovett says, but is based on the pair's interactions. The nature of one song largely determines the song choice for the next performer, which lends spontaneity to the evening.

"If John plays something sort of up and rocking, I'm not foolish enough to try and compete with it," Lovett says. "I'll just go the other way."

Hiatt, an Indianapolis native who started his career as a $25-per-week Nashville songwriter, brings his own hard-life insight to songwriting. The crossover blues-rock-country performer experienced critical, but not commercial, success early in his career, in 1974 penning "Sure As I'm Sittin' Here" for pop-rock band Three Dog Night.

Hiatt's performance career started gaining traction in the late-1980s, thanks in part to singer Bonnie Raitt, whose version of "Thing Called Love" brought Hiatt's songwriting talent both airplay and notoriety. In addition to the emergence of his own stage persona, Hiatt's songs have been covered by everyone from Willie Nelson to Iggy Pop, from Emmylou Harris to Bob Dylan.

On Feb. 17, the strength of both artists' individual musical insights will help craft what could be a disparate evening into a single cohesive set. The simple approach showcases the quality and sentiment behind the music more so than large-scale productions, bringing profound moments to each performance.
Lovett says he is happiest with songs that speak to his own experiences and views on humanity. "If I Had a Boat," which he plays at almost every show, was based on a real experience he had attempting to cross a pond on horseback as a youth.

"It's written from a child's point of view," Lovett says. "It's also a song that I wrote when I was trying to figure out what to do with my life."

Lovett's droll sense of humor, familiar to fans of his work, is based on personal experiences during his Texas upbringing. Family members routinely put each other to the test, he says, to make sure everyone learned how to take a joke.

"Very seldom did somebody's humor come at you straight-on," he says. "It was always some sort of sideways, clever thing. You had to think about what they were saying to catch the joke they were making."

The ability of a musician to communicate something in a thoughtful, meaningful way ultimately drives the success of any song, Lovett says. It also will be the basis of the success of the upcoming shows for Lovett and Hiatt, both of whom rely on their music, rather than its related production values, to reach out to the audience.

"Ultimately, you can't help but be yourself," Lovett says. "And if that's the way you look at the world, that viewpoint can't help but show itself in your music.

"A great song is a means to an end," he adds. "And the end, we hope, is more enlightened humanity."

Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt play the Pabst Theater at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 17.