“You all are so lucky to live here,” Lyle Lovett said at the onset of a typically versed and versatile performance Tuesday night at the Opera House. “Of course, this is an assumption on my part.”
Assumptions have always been tricky things with Lovett. Raised on the champion folk and country songwriting inspirations of his native Texas, he long ago made his tunes – which shift dramatically from the wry and acerbic to the dark and reflective – dance to Lone Star honky-tonk, jazz, vintage soul and stark Americana. When he performs with his Large Band, as he did last night, all of those elements leap to life.
The performance was a familiar career retrospective. You knew the gospel strut of Church was coming. You knew the classic murder reverie L.A. County was going to hit. And Lovett wasn’t about to leave out Here I Am (“if it’s not too late, make it… a cheeeeeseburger”). As Lovett shows go, it was practically a scripted affair. But why argue when you’re presented with a 2 ¾-hour set (which did not break for intermission) full of Lovett favorites and a 13-member band that was half honky-tonk orchestra and half swing symphony?
Taking the stage with Black and Blue (after the Large Band’s instrumental prelude of The Blues Walk), Lovett adopted the persona of the offhandedly stylish troubadour that remains a comfortable fit for seedy gems like She’s No Lady, I Know You Know and What Do You Do. All three tunes had Lovett exhibiting a crooked level of crooning that fell somewhere between cool and creepy. The whole mix was nicely fortified by the hushed, brassy finesse of the Large Band’s four-man horn team.
But that was just one avenue the performance traveled down. The title track to 2003’s My Baby Don’t Tolerate luxuriated in a massive, almost orchestral blues groove, and I Will Rise Up (from 2007’s It’s Not Big, It’s Large album) became a slow, simmering incantation. Best of all was If I Were the Man You Wanted (from Lovett’s 1986’s self-titled debut), which de-emphasized the R&B overtones and remained a stately portrait of Lone Star country introspection.
The Large Band’s full stylistic reach was on display as the concert concluded. A two-song encore segment began with the lean, ambient chill of North Dakota (distinguished by longtime Lovett bandmate Matt Rollings’ plaintive turns on piano) and ended with the full brass sass of She’s Hot to Go. The latter seemed to exemplify how much Lovett enjoyed playing with the thematic and stylistic conventions of country, pop, soul and style. But then, that is an assumption on my part.