[13 July 2008]
Lyle Lovett is at once pious, humble, gracious, professional, and doesn’t take himself or his songs too seriously. He exudes coolness with a slight cowboy’s limp (thanks to a bull at his uncle’s ranch a few years back) and stutters through the same introductions every night. And, like Forest Gump (grey-suit included), he is slightly knock-kneed when he shuffles around on stage. All this charm adds up for a dynamic show that straddles genres and hours, and defies expectations, even if they are loftily high.
Entering the Beacon Theatre was akin to entering a house of God. The day had something to do with it (Sunday), but also the ease with which Lovett commanded the stage, like a priest preaching from a pulpit. The accompanying 10-piece gospel choir, Junior Fountain and God’s Creation, also may have had something to do with the hymnal atmosphere. In fact, in between a night of Lovett standards (“Long Tall Texan”), bluegrass ditties (“Keep It in Your Pantry”), Nashville twang (“Cute as a Bug”), and heartfelt ballads (“Private Conversation”), gospel was the underlying theme.
From an early rendition of the thundering “I Will Rise Up” to the concluding “Ain’t No More Cane” and an ensuing encore of “I’m a Solder in the Army of the Lord”, Lovett’s voice was both dominant yet absorbed by the revelatory sound of his 23-piece ensemble. Milking the choir for every last drop of soul on “I Will Rise Up” and “Ain’t No More Cane” was an effective change to the bursting rhythm and energy of “I’m Going to Wait” and “I’m a Soldier in the Army of the Lord”, both of which seemed to turn the entire house into devout believers.
Lovett’s urbanity oozes with wry humor and earnest self-reflection both in his performance and songwriting. Introducing “South Texas Girl”—an ode to family road trips, the hey-day of no open-container laws, and protector Saint Mother Maria—Lovett compared his own Lutheran faith to Catholicism remarking that in the latter, “you have a lot more choices.” This prompted an exclamatory interloper to eagerly cry out in support of his Lutheran faith, to which Lovett coolly responded, “You must have converted to the Baptist church.” This was after opening the gospel-fueled night with “Church”, a less than liturgical narrative about getting impatient and hungry from suffering under an unrelenting preacher.
Innocuous self-deprecation and whimsical lyrics are an endearing component of Lovett’s laidback persona. He defended his irrelevance as a songwriter, explaining to the audience that a song can mean anything, no matter the writer’s intent, and that sometimes a listener’s interpretation “may be better than the writer’s.” So it was with equal nonchalance that, in bluegrass formation around a common microphone, Lovett and mandolin player Keith Sewell belted out harmonies about gastronomic infidelities on the road in “Keep It in Your Pantry”. Similarly, “Penguins” was given the same attentive treatment as “The Truck Song” even though penguins, unlike trucks, seemingly have no place in a cowboy’s heart.
Though gospel was dominant, Lovett is through and through a cowboy. There was a point—either during “Cowboy Man” or “Cute as a Bug” —when cosmopolitan New Yorkers breached a realm where violins cease to be called violins (fiddles) and distinction is measured in liquid volume (ten gallons). Pedal steel guitar player Buck Reid’s nasal slides and fiddle player Gene Elder’s emphatic solos on “Up in Indiana” and “Give Back My Heart” also highlighted Lovett’s country instincts.
Lovett, placing equal emphasis on his earlier catalogue as well as his latest release, It’s Not Big It’s Large, belted out classics like “Long Tall Texan” and “My Baby Don’t Tolerate” while “Don’t Cry a Tear” and “This Old Porch” highlighted his voice’s affable vulnerability.
Fittingly, he saved “If I Had a Boat” for the encore, which had overzealous couples awkwardly dancing amongst the seated audience. The finale, “I’m a Soldier in the Army of the Lord”, had him, and the crowd, jubilant and clapping along.
Given his ensemble’s large size, the lack of a horn section was disconcerting—considering their prominence in his arrangements. However, throughout their two and a half hours, sensitive dynamics, deft soloing, and attentive playing grounded the group’s performance in a viscerally sweet sound. As a bandleader Lovett is long, tall, and in charge. At the same time he is refined, sympathetic, and courteous. Given the current administration’s blunders and big oil’s antics, Lovett and his large band are certainly Texas’ greatest export and he its most likeable cowboy.