in performance: lyle lovett and his large band

lyle lovett.

lyle lovett.

One of the factoids Lyle Lovett dispensed with last night during an Opera House performance of typically vast stylistic breadth with his Large Band referenced what was essentially the introduction of his recording career – specifically, the reality that his debut album was released 30 years ago this summer.
That info seemed to buoy the 2 ½ hour, 24 song performance. For anyone seeing the Texas song stylist for first time, and there seemed to be many, the variance of themes, sounds and emotive makeup in the music had to be bizarrely refreshing. A personal highlight, in fact, was watching a patron seated directly in front of me crack up at the Zen absurdity within one of Lovett’s most beloved tunes, “Here I Am” (“If it’s not too late, make it a cheeeeeeseburger”). But those who have championed Lovett’s stylistic distinction for most of those three decades likely discovered such idiosyncrasies have lost little of their charm. “If I Had a Boat” still possessed a gentle but askew folk familiarity, “She’s No Lady” remained a bemused portrait of domestic entrapment highlighted by the Large Band’s elegant swing and “North Dakota” stripped Lovett’s lyrical sentiment to its starkest, most bittersweet core.
In short, the whole affair was pretty much a win-win.
There were a few modifications to the Large Band’s game plan, the most obvious being the program’s pacing. The evening began and ended with full blown gospel that utilized the group’s 13 member roster augmented by 10 additional vocalists from the Cincinnati community choir Rameco Lattimore and TWC. Vintage gospel has long been one of the many stylistic wellsprings Lovett dips into during his Large Band outings. But the show-opening jubilation of “I’m a Soldier in the Army of the Lord” revealed Lovett to be exactly that – a servant to a massive sound propelled by an in sync battalion of singers and instrumentalists.
From there, the show enlisted a number of dramatic musical spirits. Some were earthbound. Others, like the late Lone Star songsmith Guy Clark, who died in May, were not. Lovett reminisced at length about Clark’s influence during the program, but it was astonishing to hear how much emotive clarity and economy the two artists shared. Emphasizing such kinship was the placement of Clark’s wistful “Step Inside This House” next to Lovett’s “North Dakota.” Both were simple, quiet mood pieces with lovely poetic construction presented as the Large Band slowly pared itself down (eight members on the former song, seven on the later).
The other dominate presence, outside of Lovett himself, was singer Francine Reed – a mainstay of the Large Band for much of its history. With an expressive vibrato steeped in vintage R&B and blues, Reed’s was an animated foil for Lovett’s more askew romantic tunes (“What Do You Do,” being the most obvious). But she also rode shotgun to the ensemble swing of “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas),” beefed up the gospel reverence of the encore hymn “Pass Me Not” and renewed her role as crowd darling on the Ida Cox gem “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues,” a blast of soul and sass that has been her featured tune during Large Band shows for many years – one that has lost none of it abundant gusto.
But it was with “Closing Time” that Lovett brought the show full circle. The only offering from that debut record, the tune was performed as an after hours exhale, a neon-soaked snapshot of Lone Star country in a state a grace and exhaustion. Lovett wore the tune last night like a sheriff’s badge, a symbol of resolute authority. Thirty years on, Lovett may still be closing up the honky tonks. But as this immensely engaging performance revealed, the barroom doors to styles, sounds and stories too big for even Texas to contain, remained invitingly open.



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