Here's a riddle for you: Two singers share the same concert bill. One performs solo, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and piano, the other performs with a band, playing electric guitar for most of the set. Which one was the folk singer and which the rock and roller?
If you guessed that Mr. Acoustic was the rocker and Mr. Electric the folkie, it's probably because you were at Pier 6 last night to see John Hiatt (acoustic) and Richard Thompson (electric). And if, indeed, you were on hand, it surely won't be necessary to add that the music was wonderful regardless of style.
Not that the lack of an electric guitar would have made much difference with Hiatt, since he always seems pretty well amped onstage -- between his relentless mugging and hyperactive strumming, he generates enough energy for two or three bands all by himself. Still, it was well-suited to his material, whether something as simple as the boogie-based "Rock Back Billy" or as elaborate as his Who-style rendition of "Your Dad Did."
It wasn't all straight-up rockers, of course. When Hiatt sat down at his Roland digital piano for "Have a Little Faith in Me," the sound that resulted was as emotionally intense and gospel-fired as Ray Charles. By contrast, "Through Your Hands" seemed dreamy and Dylanesque.
But for the most part, Hiatt stuck to the tried-and-true, from "Drive South" to the chugging "Tennessee
Thompson's set ran on a different sort of energy. Whereas Hiatt's songs seemed to spring directly from a rock and roll backbeat, Thompson's sense of rhythm seemed darker and deeper, snaking beneath "Gypsy Love Song" or "Shoot Out the Lights" like an ancient, primal pulse.
Still, it was hard to ignore the underlying sense of fun in his music. Some of Thompson's humor runs to stunts like slipping dissonances between the lines of "Bone Through Her Nose," but when he let his voice blend with that of show-opener Shawn Colvin -- who seems to be assuming the role of the new Linda Thompson -- even a song as basically mean-spirited as "Tear-Stained Letter" seemed engagingly light-hearted.