Master of Disaster, John Hiatt's latest, is an eclectic mix of traditional blues and folk with a healthy bit of rock and roll thrown in for good measure. Hiatt, who once famously, eschewed the Nashville establishment in favor of "Memphis in the Meantime," takes a trip a bit further south in Master of Disaster, enlisting producer Jim Dickinson and his sons Luther and Cody, who make up two thirds of North Mississippi Allstars. Bassist David Hood, of the famed Muscle Shoals rhythm section, along with various horns, supplements the Dickinson foundation upon which Hiatt craftily builds. The result, though not as edgy as one might expect, may be Hiatt’s best work in a decade.
Although Hiatt penned all the songs, Jim Dickinson’s handiwork is tangible throughout. Dickinson, who cut his teeth in the house band at Muscle Shoals and played piano on the Rolling Stones classic "Wild Horses," is a roots rock veteran who deftly works to Hiatt’s strengths - highly personal and well crafted songwriting with a trademark growl. The title song is a mid-tempo rocker that will surprise long time Hiatt enthusiasts with a prominent saxophone solo that adds a bit of soul into the mix. When “The master of disaster / Gets tangled in his Telecaster / He can’t play it any faster / When he plays the blues.” Given Hiatt’s career-long penchant for self-examination, these lyrics seem like a metaphor for middle age, yet with a playful and self-deprecating tone.
This is not Hiatt’s first foray into the blues. His 2000 acoustic effort Crossing Muddy Waters was a traditional, country blues album, recorded entirely without drums. The new record has a very different feel, although at times it does recall its predecessor, particularly in “Wintertime Blues” and “Old School,” both breezy blues compositions. These stand in marked contrast to the prominent “Ain’t Ever Goin’ Back,” in which Luther Dickinson’s slide guitar affirms the narrator’s alienation.
Finding a comfort zone in the collaboration with the Dickinsons, Hiatt is able to explore new dimensions in his songwriting. While Hiatt has always had alternating streaks of bitterness and whimsy, some darker themes run through Master of Disaster. For example, “Cold River” is a cross-country tale of a couple who attempt to justify abandoning a child in the futile chase of easy riches found potentially in the next round of pool. There is a feeling of emptiness and angst that undermines the jaunty beat. Brought to mind is the 1988 Hiatt song “Trudy and Dave,” in which a couple with a baby shot up an ATM and then “drove away clean.” “Cold River,” on the other hand, has an air of despair and futility, leaving the listener with a sense that a much darker fate awaits this couple.
While Master of Disaster is not the blues-rock juggernaut that one might have expected given the Dickinsons’ participation, the album is still a very solid John Hiatt effort. On stage, Hiatt has always been less restrained than on recordings, which should make his current tour, featuring all the NMAS including bassist Chris Chew, a memorable alliance.
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