Surprises can be fun. But when it comes to investing the concert dollar on a hot August night, you can’t argue with Lyle Lovett giving you straight up what you came for.
When the Texas singer-songwriter brings his Large Band to town, it’s more of a welcome ritual than a question of whether there will be anything new in store for fans. It’s not like you hear his songs anywhere else (certainly not on the radio), and they stand outside of time.
The 55-year-old and his crack ensemble of 12 players (and one backing vocalist) hit the road every summer. But they had skipped Las Vegas for three years before Friday’s debut in the Smith Center for the Performing Arts. (“This is a nice joint,” Lovett noted in his deadpan style.)
Lovett introduced the Large Band in 1989, three years into his recording career, to roll up musical influences as diverse as his home state into one band that could play it all. No fish-out-of-water jokes about country boys at the Smith Center; these guys owned the place with their dark suits and big-city style.
Two of the players onstage — pianist Matt Rollings and cellist John Hagen — date back to that first Large Band recording. And if fans missed singing sidekick Francine Reed to the point of yelling up to ask what happened to her (answer: She’s working the “Teatro ZinZinzanni” show in Seattle), Arnold McCuller did double duty, covering both male and female parts with his tenor.
Lovett’s humor doesn’t stop with his lyrics, and the set list yo-yo’d from the sublime to the ridiculously sublime. The plaintive blues of “Black & Blue” led right into “Farmer Brown/Chicken Reel” with its “choke my chicken” chorus and clucks from the horn section.
“Cowboy Man,” the first song from his first album, passed as country radio fare in 1986. But that one was followed by the oddball “Penguins,” complete with a choreographed penguin-hop from band members, a reminder of how quickly Lovett sidestepped that Nashville game and created his own niche: “I don’t go for fancy cars, for diamond rings or movie stars, I go for penguins.”
Lovett is the first to admit the Large Band could almost do the show without him, so generous breaks in the two hour-plus set showcased their solo efforts. McCuller, fiddler Luke Bulla and bluegrass utility man Keith Sewell all stepped up to sing and plug their own albums, with Lovett lingering onstage to watch or harmonize.
When it came time for the star to step up and take over with his own wise and weary voice, Lovett did it with the closest thing to a surprise: The downbeat “Texas Trilogy,” three
connected songs full of vivid, hardscrabble imagery written by his friend Steven Fromholz.
But fans know him more as “the guy who sits next to you and reads the newspaper over your shoulder.” That song (“Here I Am”) and all the other fun ones, from “She’s No Lady” and “If I Had a Boat” to the gospel throwdown “Church,” will have to hold us for another year or two.