it's not at all shocking for agifted songwriter like John Hiatt to come rocking back from a creative dry spell with a great album like The Tiki Bar Is Open (Vanguard). The strange part is that after releasing a string of duds for Capitol -- including such career lows as Little Head, Hiatt Comes Alive At Budokan and the misguided grunge cash-in Perfectly Good Guitar -- it was his rousing reunion with Sonny Landreth, Dave Ranson and Kenny Blevins, aka the Goners, that finally got him his walking papers.
In spite of what the misleading album title might suggest, there's nothing loungey about The Tiki Bar Is Open. It's the sort of raunchy, soulful and gimmick-free getdown that hasn't been heard from Hiatt since 88's Slow Turning, which not coincidently was the last time he hooked up with these Cajun fools.
"After Slow Turning, Sonny and I made an agreement that we'd get together sometime before the next millennium," chuckles Hiatt from a stop in Atlanta, "So in 99 I called him up and said, "It's now or never.' I had a bunch of songs ready to go, but soon as I got together with the Goners, they inspired me to write four or five more right away.
"We offered the album to Capitol, and they weren't that enthusiastic about it. Fortunately, I had a play-or-pay clause in my contract that allowed me to leave and take the finished recordings.
"It was a great move. Now that I'm an independent entity, I can lease each record to the company of my choice, and Vanguard has been very enthusiastic."
They've got lots to be excited about. Hiatt's bluesy acoustic debut for the label, last year's Crossing Muddy Waters, scored massive triple-A radio play, got a Grammy nod for best contemporary folk album and won Hiatt artist/songwriter-of-the-year honours at the 2000 Nashville Music Awards.
The multi-faceted Tiki Bar Is Open, which rolls from bayou stomps to Band-like country rock and even veers off into a bit of psychedelia, should increase Hiatt's stranglehold on the boomer demographic.
"Yeah, I guess Farther Stars is kinda psychedelic. I'd just shown the Goners the changes when some ungodly noise started coming out of Sonny's guitar. I think we all started having flashbacks. Nine minutes later, the song was done. Those acid trips we took as kids finally paid off, heh, heh."
Clearly, turning free agent has been just the sort of lift Hiatt needed. Besides the new album, his second in less than a year, he's got 50 new songs posted on his www.johnhiatt.com site and plans for many more releases in coming months.
"Part of the reason I've got so much stuff built up is because it takes goddamn forever to put out a record on a major label. I mean, they want two or three years between each one.
"It's been great to be able to air my new stuff out on the Web site, but I also want to release the demos of songs people have never heard as well as all the outtakes from my previous albums.
"We always overcut, so there's three or four, sometimes five finished songs from each record, and with 18 albums -- you do the math -- there's a lot more to come."
JOHN HIATT AND THE GONERS with BUDDY GUY and SUE FOLEY opening for B.B. KING at the Molson Amphitheatre (955 Lakeshore West), Monday (September 3), 3:30 pm. $35.50-$57.50. 416-870-8000.