[5 March 2012]
“Is there any artist,” asked Keith Sewell, mandolin and guitar player to Lyle Lovett, “more gracious with the spotlight?” At this point in the evening, two-plus hours into the show, the answer was tacit. Sewell was lent the spotlight for one song, just as Lovett had done with each of his other guests (Kat Evanston, Sean and Sara Watkins, formerly of Nickel Creek, Luke Bulla, and Arnold McCuller). The Tuesday evening performance at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, backed by his acoustic group (John Hagen, Russ Kunkel, Viktor Krauss, Bulla, and Sewell) was in support of his latest record, Release Me. This was a natural reflection of the amalgamated album; it pairs reworked standards (“Baby, It’s Cold Outside”) with reclaimed ones (“White Freightliner Blues”) as well as some new compositions (“Release Me”). Jesse Winchester’s “Isn’t That So” was especially powerful with Arnold McCuller singing next to Lovett—a regular in his Large Band. The natural harmonies of Sara and Sean Watkins also attached themselves like Velcro to Lovett and Sewell’s trained lines. Lovett’s pared-down, slower version of “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” brought the song’s internal tensions to the forefront, while still sounding light. And always ramblingly appreciative of an enthusiastic crowd, Lovett reciprocated his thanks with “If I had a Boat” and “North Dakota”, before somberly ending with “Closing Time”. If nothing else, a Lovett show reveals the songwriter’s humility, and charm. At the same time, it reminds listeners of his remarkable consistency, craft, and scope.