Lyle Lovett returned to Wolf Trap with his Large Band for a night of classic hits, crazy improvisation, and sheer fun for a perfect summer night. He repeatedly thanked the packed house for the privilege of playing here and also for being a great audience. There was something special in the air – the house was nearly silent when he played, even breaking off clapping along the better to hear him. He seemed to reward our attention with a night long on music and short on banter with one song after another.
He took the stage with the classic, “Stand By Your Man” by Tammy Wynette but then stuck mostly to his own eclectic, genre-defying compositions when he wasn’t just jamming with the band. He got his start in country music but quickly branched into rock, pop, blues, and a dash of gospel and bluegrass as well. Over the years, it’s all meshed into classics like “If I Had a Boat” and “Penguins.” Both are an awesome mix of his agile finger style guitar, addictive chords, and iconic vocals, which were a bit more gravelly than usual this night after several months on the road.
The Large Band is a 12-man ensemble of musicians plus the incomparable singer Francine Reed. Reed and Lovett have been singing together for decades, but this is the first time in a few years she’s been able to join him on tour. Every band member is a solo musician in his own right and most have stuck with him since the ‘80s. He mentioned that at least half the guys on stage were there for the very first concert with the Large Band.
Though it’s really two or three bands in one, depending on the sound he’s going for. On the rock classic “Cute as a Bug” and “The Truck Song,” the whole band rocked out together, but then the acoustic players would leave the stage to the horns and electric guitar for the bluesy “My Baby Don’t Tolerate” or the tongue-in-cheek, “Here I am.” Steve Marsh and Harvey Thompson rocked out on alto and tenor sax. Chad Willis spent one solo on his trumpet playing a single note for an impossibly long time. Charles Rose did things with a trombone I didn’t think were possible.
Then the horns would leave the stage to the strings for the bluegrass-style “Give Back My Heart” and “Fiona.” That’s when Buck Reed took over on steel guitar and Viktor Krauss on bass. Matt Rollings was featured on piano often and long-time drummer Russ Kunkel kept everybody moving.
Lovett’s versatility is astounding, but he’s also really good at putting a concert together – building up the energy with the big numbers, reeling us in with a dash of humor, then bringing it way down for his gorgeous ballads like “North Dakota” and “Nobody Knows Me.” He’d play a big hit and then jam with his band for a while before sneaking in another favorite like “L.A. County.”
Whatever the song, his sense of humor and his storyteller’s heart weaved through the music on every note – focused mainly on love and Texas, and sometimes both at once like in “San Antonio Girl.” He paid homage to his home state on “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas)” and “Long Tall Texan.” Love and marriage took center stage often like in the heartbreakingly beautiful “I Know You Know.” He said the woman in the next song could probably be same woman a few months later in “She’s No Lady.”
The only break of the evening came when Lovett sang backup for two of his band members. Fiddler Luke Bulla played his song, “The Temperance Reel,” which was both hilarious and fast. Keith Sewell sang “I’ll Find My Way Here.”
Francine Reed also took the stage for a couple of numbers including “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues.” She is a character with a one in a million voice and it’s clear they’ve been making music together for a long time.
Even when he returned to the stage and his music, Lovett was generous with his band and seemed happiest when he was trading solos around the stage. Every musician got ample time in the spotlight. In fact, the concert started without him. The first number was an instrumental jam between the Large Band members. But they ended together playing all out on “White Freightliner Blues.”
Perhaps the best part was his grin, especially when the audience recognized a song from the opening note or when he watched his band mates play. It was a moving, hilarious, foot-tapping evening with one of the best musicians and composers around.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with no intermission.
Lyle Lovett and His Large Band played on Friday, August 22, 2014 for one night only at The Filene Center at Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts — 1551 Trap Road, in Vienna, VA. For future performances and information, check their calendar of events.