By Blaine Schultz   Published Jan 19, 2007 at 5:05 AM

"No set lists, no fear and no clues" was Guy Clark's deadpan wisdom at start of his return engagement at The Pabst Theater on Thursday night along with Joe Ely, John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett.

"We spend half our time tuning our guitars and the other half playing out of tune," he said. Then for over two hours the quartet traded songs and accompanied each other in a world-class open mic, sort of a sequel to The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock. Four songwriters playing acoustic guitars with nothing to hide behind.

While the sagacious Clark is best known as a songwriter coming from the Nashville post-Outlaw scene, his tunes recall the stripped-down storytelling poetry of his late running buddy Townes Van Zandt. At his best Clark manages to distill an entire evening in a roadhouse parking lot in a three-minute song or the story of the kid with the floursack cape ("no one told him he couldn't fly, so he did") with such vivid imagery you think you are in a movie theater. And if he is a mentor, his students on stage learned well.

Lovett introduced his cover of Clark's "Step Inside This House" as the first tune Clark wrote "and he could have stopped there." Removed from his Large Band, Lovett's intelligence and droll wit shone in his lyrics. He prefaced his opening tune by saying what a privilege it was to share the stage with his compadres, then sang about while that is certainly great "it could be all down hill from here."

Later, when the quartet traded songs about women Lyle chose One-Eyed Fiona, who'll "look right though you, with just one eye." His comedic back and forth with Hiatt during the evening had listeners on the edge of their seats as Lovett probed Hiatt's psyche why he turned "sensitive." As far as his musical chops go, following Hiatt's flatpicking tour de force "Crossing Muddy Waters", the stage lighting dropped to amber and Lovett answered with a tune that crossed a slow Celtic melody with a bagpipes drone. And Lovett's "My Baby Don't Tolerate" added an impressive chorus of all four voices that could have been a practiced church choir.

It would be easy to characterize Ely as the roadhouse stomper of the bunch, and while he has been known to crank it up (he toured with The Clash after all -- his back catalogue is littered with great albums, both solo and with the Flatlanders) he is also a story teller at heart. Finding nothing about Billy the Kid in a namesake New Mexico museum, Ely said he was compelled to make up a song detailing how he ended up with Billy's girl. He prefaced the song saying he just finished one about Bonnie and Clyde and was looking for a subject for the third in the trilogy, "maybe Dick Cheney," he said, "he's the only guy I know of who got away with shooting a lawyer." Throughout the night Ely and Hiatt contributed great bluesy lead guitar lines to everyone's songs.

(While the performers genial personalities invited a relaxed setting, hearing the same requests shouted at the conclusion of each tune got old real fast. But not as old as the louts calling for guitar solos in mid song -- for a brief instant it seemed Ed McMahon stumbled into the theater after lost weekend. )

John Hiatt has been long known around these parts, going back to the days when he recruited Appleton's Doug Yankus on lead guitar for his early backing band. As the odd man out with the trio of Texans, Hiatt's Nashville-by-way-of-Indy pedigree might easily have passed for anywhere funky in the deep South. Showcasing his pipes on "Have a Little Faith In Me," Hiatt could have easily slid onto the b-side of a Percy Sledge 45 circa 1966. And while the Pabst has seen many things in it's storied history Hiatt's lyric's to "Ethelyne" certainly rank high: "I'm sitting on the toilet with my sunglasses on, wondering what you are up to."

Though the Quartet would return for an encore, the evening peaked with Van Zandt's "White Freightliner Blues" -- everyone taking a verse. By now lionized as something of a patron saint of songwriters, you got the feeling he was certainly there in spirit.