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MUSIC REVIEW

Lovett, Hiatt keep it low-key

Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt (pictured in Memphis in 2008) have performed together in an almost yearly tradition since 1989. Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt (pictured in Memphis in 2008) have performed together in an almost yearly tradition since 1989. (Rollin Riggs for The New York Times/File)
By Marc Hirsh
Globe Correspondent / January 15, 2011

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Lyle Lovett was identified early in his career as a country artist, while John Hiatt was shoved under the rock umbrella, subgenre “roots.’’ But at the Wilbur Theatre on Thursday, they were just two singers, each with an acoustic guitar and a quarter century of material behind him. Free of the performers’ large-scale touring bands, the two-hour show was a combination songwriters’ showcase and living-room palaver. (They return to the Wilbur tomorrow.)

The old friends have made it an almost yearly tradition since 1989, and they took to it with the ease of a holiday. The singers alternated with each other, and collaboration was kept to a minimum, with Hiatt plucking along with just a small handful of Lovett’s songs. Mostly, they sat and fondly watched one another. After Hiatt finished a spirited “Drive South,’’ Lovett quietly announced “I quit.’’

That was typical of the banter the two shared. As per his usual, Lovett’s comments were so dry that even his compliments sounded borderline sarcastic. Hiatt was more straightforwardly sincere, though he was certainly capable of cracking wise on his own. After Lovett’s “Fiona,’’ Hiatt mentioned that while most people pictured the one-eyed title character with an eye patch, he saw her as a cyclops.

Hiatt’s material could be sardonic, too, as evidenced by bluesy “My Baby’’ and the bitter punch line of “Tennessee Plates,’’ which he strummed with a bassy rockabilly attack. And while Lovett’s smirk was clear enough in “My Baby Don’t Tolerate’’ and “If I Had a Boat,’’ he could turn gentle (with a sweet and unforced lullaby written for a recent LA production of “Much Ado About Nothing’’) and dark (with the excellent “Promises,’’ played in a free time that let him toy with the silence and space between the notes).

If the overall casualness limited the number of high points like that one, it provided a charm that never faltered. At one point, Lovett asked why Hiatt kept writing songs after so many years. Hiatt’s answer was simple and humble: “Trying to do a better job.’’

Marc Hirsh can be reached at officialmarc@gmail.com.

JOHN HIATT & LYLE LOVETT

At: Wilbur Theatre, Thursday