It’s not easy to pigeonhole singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett. He’s country. He’s swing. He’s folk, gospel, jazz and blues — all of it coupled with his gift of storytelling.
Lovett’s concert at the Vilar Performing Arts Center with his 13-piece Large Band, the musicians impeccably dressed in suits, spanned almost three hours with no intermission. More than 25 songs were performed, highlighting the diversity of his influences.
The band opened the show with a swing jam that showcased its members trading solos, before Lovett took the stage and began to work his magic with “Release Me,” the title track from the album of the same name. And from there it was nonstop-Lovett-at-his-best, fusing elements of every music genre that showed the breadth and diversity of his talents — his raspy voice, once described in a 1994 New York Times story by Jon Pareles as “honey and pained, with bluesy turns and its countryish ache,” being the unifying factor.
Lovett’s casual banter between songs, while he strummed or tuned his guitar, showcased his innate sincerity and tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, which had the audience eating out of his hands.
Throughout, Lovett did not disappoint. He delivered favorites such as, “Here I Am,” “If I Had a Boat,” “She’s No Lady,” “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and “That’s Right, (You’re Not From Texas)” to name a few. At times, Lovett’s voice was a bit overpowered by his Large Band, yet the harmonies with his boys — mandolinist and guitarist Keith Sewell, fiddler Luke Bullock, special guest guitarist Robert Earl Keen and cellist John Hagen — as well as singer Francine Reed, were show-stopping.
Midway through the evening, Lovett happily showcased the talents of members of the group. Fiddle player Bullock got a standing ovation for his piece, “Temperance Reel,” which is off his soon-to-be released album and guitarist Keen, who, along with Lovett, is a member of the Texas Heritage Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, brought the house down with his solo. Reed then tore it up with her blues and scat. All the while, Lovett sat back and watched with an expression like that of a proud poppa.
Lovett was soon back on center stage with “Her First Mistake,” a jazz/blues favorite that punctuates his off-beat sense of humor. The rest of the mix included the tender “Dress of Laces,” and the bluesy “The Girl with the Holiday Smile,” also off the “Release Me” album. Then there was more showcasing of the Large Band with a terrific piano solo from Jim Cox on “North Dakota” and John Hagen’s outstanding cello solo on “I’ve Been to Memphis.”
Between extended jazz and blues jams to hoedown-like numbers like “Farmer Brown/Chicken Reel,” the concert was a journey through musical genres — the quintessential Lovett who is a master at musical styles as well as lyrics, that always has one listening to “that” twist.
The encore was a rousing version of “Church” that had the audience on its feet, clapping and dancing in the aisle.
Fortunately, the Vilar has been able to book Lovett every few years, and the theater was the perfect venue for him and his Large Band. The entire evening was eclectic, rich and rockin’. I look forward to Lovett’s return.