and Large Band great at Winery
"Just a folk singer from Texas" is how Lyle Lovett describes himself. But he is, oh, so much more than that. Although his songwriting and storytelling have many elements of down-home folksiness, his music ranges from folk to funk, and from country to gospel, with a little jazz thrown in for good measure. Maybe also some blues. He is from Texas, after all.
Lyle Lovett has been on the music scene since the early 1980s and has been touring with his "Large Band" since 1989. And the band is truly large, weighing in at an impressive 11 people, ranging from the usual piano, guitar, bass and drums, to pedal steel, horn section, fiddle and not to forget cello. This doesn't include the two local choirs that he co-opted for the evening Joe Douglas and the Spirit of Praise choir from the Bay Area, and Yardley Griffin Jr. and the Destiny Church choir from Sacramento.
The assembled masses started out with the rousing gospel songs, "I Am a Soldier in the Army of the Lord," and "Let's Go Eat," then moved on to the slow, chant-like, "I Will Rise Up." Here Lovett made great use of all the voices available on the stage, gradually piling on the vocals like a layer cake.
Lovett now lives in L.A. and has been playing the Mountain Winery in Saratoga since 1991, so he knows a bit about the local geography. At one point he had an almost private conversation with someone in the front row about bikes and riding along Skyline Boulevard. As the sun went down the temperature dropped to below 60 degrees, and he said they have the same kind of weather in Texas, except there, they call it winter.
Moving out of his gospel period, Lovett smoothly eased into the funky "Penguins," who are "so sensitive to my needs." Standout funky underpinning was provided by double bassist Viktor Krauss (sister of Alison), and wonderful bass soloing that really made us want to get up out of our seats and shake some tail feathers.
Lovett is a consummate storyteller, and took us back to 1983 when he met guitarist Roy Ray Herndon and pianist Matt Rollings in a little club in Phoenix. When he moved to Nashville soon after, he was able to get one of his demo cassettes to songwriter Roy Clark. The phone started ringing then, and apparently Clark had been passing the cassette around to A&R men, telling them to "listen to this guy."
Lovett's longtime friend and cello player John Hagen didn't play on every number, often leaving the stage and coming back when he was needed. Lovett asked him if he'd ever missed a cue and Hagen replied "If you didn't notice, then no, never." The cello added a certain roundness to the sound, especially on some of the ballads.
For the middle section of the evening Lovett went all folksy and played and sang quite a few numbers with a small subset of the band. In particular he gave the stage over to fiddle player Luke Bulla, who sang and played "Temperance Reel" (which he co-wrote with Guy Clark), which started off with Bulla playing the fiddle like a guitar, or maybe like a ukulele. Interesting.
Having taken us deep into his folk and country roots Lovett, whose face reminds of one of those stone statues on Easter Island, dragged us back up with an all-hands-on-deck version of "If I Had a Boat," a song memorable for the line "Tonto, he was smart and one day said kemosabe, kiss my ass, I've bought a boat and I'm going out to sea." The audience was extremely appreciative.
On "Here I Am" the Large Band's terrific horn section finally got a good workout, including Brad "The Professor" Leali on saxophone. Leali actually is a professor, of saxophone, at the University of North Texas. We were all his students this night.
The one person who was singing next to Lovett for nearly the whole evening but only got her turn to shine at the end was the amazing Francine Reed. Reed has been with Lovett since the early days, adding backups and harmonies. But her time comes with the wonderful Ida Cox song "Wild Women Don't Get The Blues." She belts this out for all she's worth, doling out dating advice to women because "Francine never tells a lie," to the hilarity of the band.
After a tour de force through so many genres it must be tough to decide what to end with, unless you're from Texas. Because then you can roll out some Western Swing in the form of "You're Not From Texas (but Texas wants you anyway)."
The Mountain Winery is a great concert venue with its various bars and eateries. But if you go make sure to bring a jacket, as the temperature goes down with the sun. However, Lyle Lovett and his Large Band warmed our hearts with his storytelling, lessons in songwriting, and musicianship. Kiss my ass, kemosabe.
Email Tony Lacy-Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org