The lights had only been out for a moment in the Hart Theatre when a flat, dry-as-dust voice came out of the darkness. “Hello,” it said.
“Hello!” some of the full house quickly said back.
“I’m the guy who sits next to you and reads the newspaper over your shoulder,” the voice continued, as the lights went up to reveal Lyle Lovett, singer-songwriter extraordinaire and poet-laureate of the state of Texas (and if he’s not, then damn it, he should be), reciting the first “verse” of the deadpan stalker anthem “Here I Am.”
It wasn’t quite a fake-out, but we certainly did get faked out when Lovett replaced one of the “verses” with a long, heartfelt ode to Peter Lesser and the staff at The Egg. This was the second time Lovett had appeared at The Egg this year – the first being his duet show with John Hiatt back in January – and Lovett wanted everyone to know how well The Egg treats him and his people. And as soon as he was done, he went right back into the borderline silliness of “Here I Am.” (“So, if it’s not too late… PLEASE… make it a… CHEEEESE-burger…”)
This was the Lyle Lovett I’ve loved ever since someone played me his first album over twenty years ago. Intelligent singer-songwriters have never been thin on the ground, but nobody has ever approached the genre with the same style and vision as Lovett. Only he could come up with material as heartbreaking as “This Old Porch” and “She’s Already Made Up Her Mind”, and then come back with laugh-out-loud home runs like “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas)” and “She’s No Lady, She’s My Wife.” (Fun fact: An old friend used that song for the processional at her wedding. She appreciated Lyle’s dual sense of humor and irony, too.)
Lovett’s come to the Capital Region with big bands and no bands, but this time he came with “his Acoustic Group.” Even Lyle knows that’s a bit of a stretch. “Is anything acoustic anymore?” he asked rhetorically during one of his many between-song free-association sessions. The thing is, though, as much as I’ve loved the big brassy accompaniments he’s had in the past, this unit was dead-solid perfect for him – not only because they were all crackerjack musicians, but because the acoustic-country approach was tailor-made for Lovett staples like the cowboy confessional “If I Were the Man You Wanted” and “The Graduate”-gone-bad “L.A. County.” (“Murder ballads are a great tradition in music,” Lovett told us. “I’m not for killing anybody…” Pause. “Just those that need it…”) Even “Here I Am” – the best-known song from Lovett’s bluesy third album “Lyle Lovett and His Large Band” – benefitted from the relatively spare accompaniment.
Mind you, “spare” doesn’t mean the band just sat on their hands. The smile on Lovett’s face showed he was having a hell of a time watching fiddle player Luke Bulla and guitarist-mandolinist Harry Sewell see who could fly higher and solo harder. Bulla and Sewell also offered background vocals straight out of bluegrass, and between that and the stellar contributions (both bowed and plucked) of cellist John Hagen, every tune had the kind of singular harmonic that separates Lovett’s music from the rest of the pack.
The rhythm section, you ask? Oh, nobody in particular: Just Viktor Krauss – better known as the bass player for Bill Frisell – and, as Lovett himself introduced him, “On drums, from Los Angeles, California… the one and ONLY… Russ Kunkel!” With his bald head and healthy weight level, Kunkel looks nothing like he did when he backed up James Taylor and Jackson Browne; in fact, in the black suit/white shirt/black tie uniform everyone was wearing, Kunkel was a dead-ringer for Lawrence Tierney’s character in “Reservoir Dogs.” Kunkel still kicks prodigious ass, though, and still knows when to back off and give Lovett room to move.
Despite starting fifteen minutes late, Lovett gave us nearly two-and-a-half hours of non-stop entertainment, playing music from one end of his 25-year career to the other. He mixed early tunes like “Cowboy Man” and (my favorite Lyle tune) “If I Had a Boat” with newly-recorded songs by Buddy Holly (“Well, All Right”) and Townes Van Zandt (“White Freight Liner”), and gave us what might be my new favorite Christmas song, “The Girl with the Holiday Smile.” (FYI: It beats the hell out of “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer”!) It was all fun, no filler, and everything I expected plus about 10 yards more. Lovett rarely moved during the show, but that’s quite cool: I didn’t come to see a show; I came to see a concert. And even though it took over 20 years, I finally saw Lyle Lovett in concert, and it was the best early Christmas present I’ve ever gotten.
Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Greg Haymes’ review at The Times Union
Excerpt from Michael Hochanadel’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Lyle Lovett’s claim that ‘We try to pass this off as a show, but it’s really just us getting together to play’ would have been way more credible at The Egg’s nearly sold out Hart Theater on Saturday if it hadn’t been so precise, diverse, impressive in all ways, spirited and funny. Returning to where he’d played a duet show with John Hiatt in January, Lovett fronted what he called the Acoustic Group — a sextet subset of the large band he led here last year. Only guitarist-mandolin player Keith Sewell ever unbuttoned the jacket of the black suit everybody wore onstage, but the music was far from buttoned up, making jaunty jumps from Texas swing to bluegrass to gospel to rock and back again, actualizing Lovett’s prairie hipster vision of candor and wit. The show started strong and stayed there.”
LYLE LOVETT & HIS ACOUSTIC GROUP SET LIST
??? (instrumental – band only)
Babes in the Woods
Here I Am
I’ve Been to Memphis
Well Alright (Buddy Holly)
I Will Rise Up
My Baby Don’t Tolerate
She’s Already Made Up Her Mind
If I Were the Man You Wanted
This Old Porch
Keep It in Your Pantry
I’ll Come Knocking
More Pretty Girls Than One
Up in Indiana
The Girl With the Holiday Smile
If I Had a Pony
She’s No Lady
White Freightliner Blues (Townes Van Zandt)
That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas)
You Can’t Resist It