in performance: lyle lovett and his large band

lyle lovett performing last night at the norton center for the arts in danville. copyright photo by kirk schlea.

lyle lovett performing last night at the norton center for the arts' newlin hall in danville. photo by kirk schlea.

DANVILLE – “I remember some of you folks,” uttered Lyle Lovett after one of his signature tunes, Here I Am, served as a reintroduction last night at the Norton Center for the Arts.

And well he should. The famed Texas song stylist played the Danville venue a mere eight months ago. But that was when he was alone onstage with fellow musical scribe John Hiatt. Last night, the sound was considerably saucier with the swing, country and soul preferences of the singer’s Large Band igniting tunes from nine different Lovett albums. Sure, the joyous genre-jumping Lovett and his Large Band are known for in concert prevailed. But so did a plentiful number of surprises.

To begin with, this was a slightly slimmer Large Band – a mere 14 players, including the singer. The lineup featured neither a brass section nor veteran Large Band vocalist Francine Reed. But in their place were such engaging new recruits as bluegrass/new grass fiddler Luke Bulla and session guitarist Dean Parks (now on his first tour with Lovett after recording with him for 18 years). Longtime pal John Hagen on cello. and the devastatingly soulful vocal trio of Sweet Pea Atkinson, Sir Harry Bowens and Willie Green, Jr. were among the returnees.

Watching this configuration of artists in action was a continual thrill as it dug into the ebbs and flows of Lovett’s material. The Atkinson/Bowens/Green gang, for example, clucked madly like chickens – well, more like kids imitating chickens – on the new Lovett barnyard romp Farmer Brown. A few tunes later they were hammering down the vocal foundation within the darkly resolute affirmation I Will Rise Up.

The rest of the Large Band proved to be even more adaptable. At one point, Lovett trimmed it to a mere quartet singing around a single microphone. That splinter group was assigned a bluegrass-flavored saga of culinary adultery titled Pantry, one of five tunes offered from the singer’s new Natural Forces album. A moderately larger grouping took on Loretta, the extraordinary Townes Van Zandt tale of restless and reckless love which benefited highly from subtle harmonies by mandolinist Keith Sewell.

And what of Lovett himself? Well, the Long Tall Texan still ruled this merry roost by letting his clear Lone Star tenor spark the insular country inspiration of Natural Forces‘ title tune as well as the more traditional honky tonk inclinations of If I Was the Man You Wanted, a song that dated back to his 1986 debut album.

For the title track off of 2003’s My Baby Don’t Tolerate, Lovett became the resolute bluesman, singing the song’s title like a hardened mantra against a band groove that sounded less like Texas and whole lot like late ‘50s electric blues out of Chicago.

And, yes, Lovett can still spin a good yarn onstage. When introducing It’s Rock and Roll, a 30 year old tune that made its recorded debut on Natural Forces, Lovett recalled how he and the song’s co-writer, Robert Earl Keen, were trying to design music for a theatre group while the two were students at Texas A&M.

“If you went to Texas A&M, you would realize what a strange combination of words that is – ‘Texas A&M’ and ‘theatre group.'”

There were crowd favorites too – like the murderously wonderful L.A. County and the rootsy sermonette Church, which served as the 2 ¾ hour performance’s lone encore. But they were far fewer in number this time out, which was fine. By allowing music from Natural Forces, 2007’s It’s Not Big It’s Large and My Baby Don’t Tolerate to dominate the program amd with a fetchingly realigned Large Band engineering the ride, Lovett fashioned this return trip to Danville into a suitably robust, Texas-sized treat.

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