A rock concert in a library is like a Brahms quartet in a South Side dive.
On Wednesday night, Pittsburghers filled Carnegie Library Music Hall of Homestead in Munhall for the Robert Cray Band and John Hiatt & The Combo. The playing was good, and the listeners loved it, but they couldn‘t do much besides pop out of their wooden seats at the end of certain songs to cheer. The beer was sold in spill-proof sippy cups. One man in a baseball cap swung his head like a bobble-head doll on a dashboard, but that was about the extent of it.
Yet even if the dancing was limited, it felt strangely fitting to be at the heart of a former mill town in what looked like a high school auditorium, with an American flag next to the organ in the corner. Mr. Hiatt’s growling Americana is full of lost souls and lost jobs, dreamers who end up in roadside motels. “I dreamed I did a good job and I got well paid / I blew it all at the penny arcade,” he snarled in the last song of his encore, 1983’s “Riding With the King.”
Mr. Cray started off the show with a traditional but soulful set of electric blues. When taking a solo, he mouthed syllables to go with each note, making him look like a man possessed. His voice went from plaintive to rough, as he told stories with the usual stuff of blues -- lovers leaving and walking the streets.
Most of Mr. Hiatt‘s words were lost in his tight-lipped sneer, reminiscent of late Dylan, but he is an entertainer through and through. Every so often, as mandolinist-guitarist Doug Lancio took a solo, Mr. Hiatt would throw his chiseled face back and extend his arms to do an angular dance, like a small-town circus ringmaster.
He is on tour to promote his 22nd studio album, “The Terms of My Surrender.” His new songs are stripped-down country blues, at once funny and sad. “Sometimes love can be so wrong/Like a fat man in a thong,” he sang, enunciating more than usual.
Those songs have a late-night feel, as though we were in a half-empty bar with a sticky floor and dim red neon lights in some forgotten corner of the South. Later in the set Mr. Lancio put down the mandolin, and the band transitioned to Mr. Hiatt’s blues-rock hits, which have been covered by the likes of Bonnie Raitt.
The crowd piled out of the library still grooving -- and clutching their reusable sippy cups.
Eric Boodman: email@example.com or 412-263-3772.