Lyle Lovett and his Large Band
It’s a seasonal event as inevitable — and, in many ways, as hot — as the arrival of the dog days of August. It’s the return of Lyle Lovett and his Large Band.
The cities and venues always shift, but the annual summer trek by the long tall Texan and his genre-busting, orchestra-size troupe has become, very much to our benefit, a nearly annual tradition. This year, his visit is local and his arrival time is Friday night.
Not a big deal, you say, because Lovett’s musical strategies and set lists don’t shift much? Not news because he hasn’t released an album in four years? Certainly, those are true, but such protests don’t diminish the song stylist’s distinction as an artist and entertainer. Nearly three decades after his first performance in Lexington — a 1988 show at the long-gone Rhinestones on Athens-Boonesboro Road — Lovett remains a stylistic anomaly. Simply put, there is no artist of lasting, prominent mainstream appeal like him.
Attempts to promote him squarely as a country artist hit a roadblock not long after his self-titled debut album was released 30 years ago this summer. Sure, there were songs like “Cowboy Man” that boasted a sense of honky-tonk tradition that nicely introduced and reflected Lovett’s Texas roots. But by the time of the Rhinestones gig, the followup album, “Pontiac,” painted a broader musical profile. There were strong traces of such masterful Lone Star songwriting influences as Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt along with comparative contemporaries like the then-unknown (in Kentucky, anyway) Robert Earl Keen. But there also was a wildly expansive emotional cast to his songs. It was abundant in the wistful “If I Had a Boat,” the romantically murderous “L.A. County” and the black-as-midnight title tune from “Pontiac.” Then there was the music. A breeze of country and swing one minute would often lead to full-tilt jazz and brassy blues turns the next. How could you define such diversity? The Rhinestones audience sure couldn’t. The only two black people visible in the club that night were onstage with Lovett: singer Francine Reed and Muscle Shoals sax man Harvey Thompson, both of whom still play with the Large Band.
A certain level of celebrity status has come Lovett’s way since then, much of it through acting cameos in assorted projects for television (he had a recurring role on “Castle”) and film (he appeared in four movies directed by Robert Altman during the 1990s). There also have been recording projects that were more genre-specific. Among them were “Step Inside this House,” an outstanding 1998 double-album tribute to Lovett’s Texas songwriting inspirations, and the 2000 soundtrack for another Altman movie, “Dr. T. and the Women.”
But the Lovett we know best, the stylistic wild card with the wry smile and the satchel full of mood-piece tunes, is represented by his three finest albums — “Pontiac,” 1992’s “Joshua Judges Ruth” and 1996’s “The Road to Ensenada” — records that fascinated because they so naturally shifted musical and emotive settings from one song to the next.
The grim title tune to “Pontiac,” for instance, led into the album-closing swing and sass of “She’s Hot to Go.” The gospel jubilation of “Since the Last Time” on “Joshua Judges Ruth” prefaced the stark and harrowing “Baltimore.” Best of all were the double-barrel tales in the home stretch of “The Road to Ensenada”: “Christmas Morning,” a fragile tale of fading hope, and the unrelenting saga of the “sick and broken” that unraveled with queasy grace during the album’s title tune (arguably, Lovett’s most masterfully crafted although dispiriting work).
Such songs are the tools of Lovett’s trade. On Friday night, though, the narrative breath and stylistic reach of those tunes will be in the hands of his Large Band, the dozen-plus-member troupe versed in the music’s country, jazz, blues, soul and even chamber-like accents, not to mention all the gloriously indefinable spaces that emerge when those sounds bleed into one another. It makes for a performance sound as distinctive as it is stylistically daring.
“What makes me fearless and confident going into a tour, what makes me look forward to just having a good time, are the people I get to stand on the stage with,” Lovett told me before a 2014 concert at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond. “I look forward to every show, no matter if it’s hot outside and if there are mosquitos swarming around. The band makes me enjoy each show absolutely.”
Read Walter Tunis’ blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.