You have to start at the end — where they paid respects to Townes Van Zandt, the songwriter/compadre who captured the essence of life after being on the lam in “Pancho & Lefty” with the snippet, “The desert’s quiet and Cleveland’s cold.” Indeed it was cold, very cold, in downtown Cleveland the night Guy Clark, Joe Ely, John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett took four chairs and three hours to build a bonfire from well-loved songs. Their deep camaraderie and loose talk spoke volumes about where and how songs that matter come about, infusing the gathered midwestern faithful with a warm glow from the inside. All four are singular artists; their uniqueness is their common ground. Lovett is the hipster bebop jazz-timed crooner with the bent details and the bruised heart. Hiatt is the souled-up sweaty rock-swamp family guy whose real-life moments are mirrors for the middle class; Ely is the rogue drifter, equal parts border texture, stoic machismo and honor-steeped romance. Clark is all oak, musk and knowing, his economy of word shining through a prism to reveal the beauty of daily living. Each delivered on expectation. Together — with the laughing, story-swapping questions posed by ad hoc host Lovett — they were more. The effortlessness took on a grace from the shared respect and onstage intimacy: Clark offered the elegiac “Let Him Roll” in his deep, even tones; Hiatt dredged “Crossing Muddy Waters” with his guts turned inside out; Lovett’s steamy “My Baby Don’t Tolerate” shot through with the eroticism of how it is; Ely delivered his plaintive, threadbare “Letters To Laredo” with faded cowboy bravado. It was a master class on why great songs cling to one’s mind long after the guitar cases are packed up. To hear the men who created tender hymns of falter (Hiatt’s “Have A Little Faith In Me”), resolution (Ely’s “Settle For Love”), desperation (Lovett’s “L.A. County”) and decadent simplicity (Clark’s “Homegrown Tomatoes”) so unadorned is to understand that blood flows through these songs. They’re hollow-point bullets that’ll take your breath, hit you point blank, haunt you like the ghost of the one you lost. Listening to them telling stories as they dip into Hiatt’s rousing, feel-good “Memphis In The Meantime”, Lovett’s mirthful drifter’s declaration “If I Had A Pony”, Ely’s fanciful revenge tale “Me & Billy The Kid” — or even growing quiet for Clark’s urgent “Magdalene” — one understands, quite plainly, that this is what they do. Their performances bore witness to why these songs are such a part of the culture: They are circumstances each of us can embrace. Desperadoes’ escapes can sometimes be simply — as Clark opened the night — to “just get offa this L.A. freeway without getting killed or caught.” In that everyday revolt, the rebel in us plays out.
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