It would be an understatement to describe Lilly Hiatt’s introduction to London as understated. But when you are courageous enough to hang yourself out to dry, literally and metaphorically, in full view of the audience, you don’t need bells and whistles, or even a full band. Instead Hiatt sings ‘Championship Fighter,’ from her 2012 debut ‘Let Down,’ as a cowboy lament, accompanied only by her own guitar. “If it weren’t for the music, I probably wouldn’t be here now” Hiatt has said, and her songs, infused though they are, with existential musings on life, death and authenticity, are very much for the living. None more so than ‘All Kinds of People,’ a rocking opening to outstanding new album ‘Trinity Road,’ for which she is joined onstage by guitarist John Condit and Robert Hudson on bass and electric mandolin.
Her stripped down band perfectly fills the club – maintaining Nell’s growing reputation as the London venue in which to hear the best of authentic Americana – without the sound ever threatening to brim over, and the reference to Lonnie Johnson, often credited as the first man to play a fully-amplified violin, is as subtly smooth as the beautiful sound that Condit extracts from his guitar. Just as I’m thinking Hiatt should have saved this barnstormer for later, the audience wakes up to title track ‘Trinity Lane’ (Hiatt’s former address if you’re wondering). “I get bored / so I wanna get drunk. I know how that goes / so I ain’t gonna touch it.” On the evidence of tonight’s performance sobriety certainly seems to suit Hiatt, though by now her audience has well and truly lost its reserve and no wonder, when songs such as ‘Jesus Would’ve Let me Pick the Restaurant,’ which combines excruciating honesty with exhilarating wit, deliver such an emotional sucker punch.
Although it’s certainly unusual for an entire album to be delivered without a rhythm section, the lack of a drum kit barely registers until Hiatt covers Tom Petty’s ‘Time to Move On,’ originally a percussion-driven romp that at first, you couldn’t quite put your finger on. Better was ‘The Night David Bowie Died,’ a southern howl of disappointment at a failed affair, imbued with all the anguish of an unrequited love, and the death of a dream.
Hiatt, who momentarily looks like she has knocked the wind out of her own sails, recovers brilliantly to end with John Prine’s ‘Angel from Montgomery.’ Shaded with regrets and longing, it’s difficult to imagine a more apposite note on which to end such a well-judged, perfectly balanced performance.