John Hiatt – Bring The Family (1987)

In 1987 Hiatt seemed to have a good future behind him after years of respect from his peers that didn’t translate into sales and a drinking habit that had caused him to get on the wrong side of a lot of people. But he still had his supporters, and a small independent label in the UK promised him some money if he wanted to record again. Sober but plagued with self doubt, Hiatt was convinced by eventual producer John Chelew that his new songs were strong and the small budget was spent on one of these sessions that legends are made of.

There was enough money to give Hiatt and a small band just four days in which to make a record. But Hiatt still had his admirers and the small band was mighty indeed – Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner. Lowe took no payment for the sessions and he and Hiatt had to share a motel room. Hiatt didn’t even have enough material to make a record – he had to write some in the studio. Thus there are no out takes, no left over tracks that will flesh out a de luxe reissue CD release. Maybe this is a good thing – it’s hard to see how you could add to this record without diluting the magic. Everything was rehearsed in the studio and then laid down with minimum fuss and little overdubbing.

Bring The Family was Hiatt’s biggest seller by far to that point in his career, and thereafter sales would be respectable and his reputation as a songwriter and a performer was assured. The record that he’d made when he’d thought his career was as good as over turned his career around. A&M eventually picked up the finished disc and were able to add some marketing muscle. Many of the songs on this album have been covered by other artists (from Bill Frisell to Bon Jovi), notably the Barry White influenced “Have a Little Faith In Me” and “Thing Called Love” which was included on Bonnie Raitt’s big selling Nick Of Time album that marked her own career turn around. The royalties would have done Hiatt’s finances no harm at all.

I know it’s Hiatt’s record, but it has to be said that Cooder turns in the performance of a life time. His parts are sympathetic, inventive, wonderfully executed. There’s his riff on “Thing Called Love” which Bonnie Raitt and her band could neither replicate nor match. There’s the spine chilling slide intro on “Alone In The Dark”. He rocks real hard on “Thank You Girl”. He constantly delivers what each song needs. And there’s his tone – rich with the sound of an overdriven amp. Legend has it that he spent years trying to recreate the sound he got on this album.

With everything effectively live in the studio because of time constraints Hiatt’s vocals are packed with passion. His signature vocal style sits at an intersection of soul and country. His voice is strong and clear, his delivery electric. Best of all is his hair raising performance on the stripped down soul song “Have A Little Faith In Me”. It’s a magical take – just Hiatt and the piano and a big bag of genuine emotion. It marked the end of side one. You flipped the record and there’s Cooder kicking off “Thank You Girl”.

The material is strong. Hiatt’s craftsmanship is peaking here and this may be the finest set of songs that he recorded. The lyrics are sharp, the melodies strong. Add in his own vocal performance, one star turn after another by the band (Keltner is superb – repeatedly demonstrating why he’s been an in demand drummer for decades) and an unobtrusive production by Chelew who doesn’t try to gild the lily or bow to 80s recording fashions and it’s a magical, perfect album, characterised by it’s live-in-studio spark.

This is one of my desert island discs. A record that long ago captivated me with it’s passion and it’s craftsmanship. I can shut my eyes any time and recall nearly every note and word of it. Despite it being so burned into my memory I never tire of it. It always delights, and I can’t imagine that it will ever do anything else.

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