Lyle Lovett wowed loyal crowds at Wolf Trap with a diverse program of his genre-defying hits like “Church” and “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas).” Over the years, no one’s been sure what box to fit his sound into, but I’ll say one thing, he is a consummate musician who sure knows how to put a concert together. He was enjoying the evening as much as the audience, claiming Wolf Trap is just about the nicest place to play in the world.
Not many artists can or would even want to compose for the two horns, two saxes, three guitars, drums, piano, and fiddle that make up his Large Band, let alone across genres like Big Band (where he supposedly got the idea for his large one), country, gospel, jazz, rock, and the maddeningly addictive harmonies on hits like “If I had a Boat” and powerful ballads like “North Dakota” that seem to inhabit a genre he’s created for himself alone.
That versatility made his live show so fun. He knows how to take his time on a song and let it build for the audience as he sings in his sweet, familiar Texas drawl and fingerpicks the melody before tossing the spotlight to members of his band, most of whom have been touring with him for at least a decade, if not two or three. He called them his “closest, most talented friends.”
Clever lighting guys followed the soloists with spotlights on the stage and it’s a measure of Lovett’s generosity as a performer and skill a band leader that they were busy all night. These guys are not just his back up players. On “I’ve Been to Memphis,” Lyle traded licks with each member, including singer Arnold McCuller who sang great scat during his solos.
On the more bluesy “My Baby Don’t Tolerate,” he featured Buck Reid on steel guitar, Chad Willis on trumpet, Charles Rose on trombone, Harvey Thompson on tenor sax, Brad Leali on alto sax, Matt Rollings on piano, Ray Herndon on electric guitar, and Viktor Krauss on Bass.
On the more bluegrass finale “You Can’t Resist it,” he feature fiddle player Luke Bullock, guitar, mandolin player Keith Sewell, and his long-time collaborator John Hagen on cello. Hagen did things with that instrument that I’ve never heard from a cello before. They also played a duet on the poignant “Nobody Knows Me.”
All night long, players were coming on and offstage depending on the sound Lovett was going for. It’s clear they all love to jam together. They didn’t pause for intermission and after one bow, the encore went on for five more songs. Between songs, he chatted with the audience, making self-deprecating cracks about life and driving around the country on tour, which he wrote about on songs like the hilarious “Cute as a Bug,” and the inexplicably beautiful “LA County.” His humor bleeds into his other songs too, like “Choke my Chicken,” the lyrics of which includes chicken squawking that had drummer Russ Kunkel laughing from the back row. He also played “Penguins,” and featured some awesome choreography by all the guitarists in the front row. Every song featured a great story.
Later in the night, he took a breather as he played backup for three members who have recently released solo albums. Arnold McCuller sang a smooth, jazzy “Gods and Monsters” from his new album Soon As I Get Paid. Fiddler player Luke Bullock played his composition the “Temperance Reel” by strumming his fiddle like a guitar for another unique sound. Keith Sewell played a bluegrass track from his album The Way of a Wanderer. He was also quick to promote the other band members’ own efforts including Matt Rollings and Viktor Krauss. He took the lead again to finish the night with his big hits like “She’s No Lady, She’s My Wife.”
The highlight of the evening for me was “I Will Rise Up/Ain’t No More Cain,” a slow anthem about living that only Lovett could write. It built from his solo guitar into a swell with every instrument on stage and the endless, gorgeous refrain, “I will stand tall/Until I meet my end.”
Lyle Lovett just may the quintessential American entertainer – drawing from every corner of our musical history and singing songs about everything from animals, to endless highways, to love, relationships and life itself with a cadre of superior musicians at his back. Together they put on a heck of a show.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes with no intermission.
Lyle Lovett and His Large Band played for one night only on August 29, 2013 at The Filene Center at Wolf Trap—1551 Trap Road, in Vienna, VA. For future performances and information, check their calendar of events.
Lyle Lovett’s website.